Carol Carson: A Moral Reflection

Ethics are the basic building blocks of civil society. – Alexander McCall Smith

Although I think I behave reasonably well in social situations, my appreciation for my behavior declined when I moved to France.

The process of reassessment began with a bus trip downtown with the magician. When we got on the bus, he said “Good morning” to the driver. I offered the same salutation, even though my version was almost unoriginal.

When we got off the bus, the therapist thanked the driver and said goodbye. I followed, even though my “Merci” and “Au revoir” sounded like they were faked to my ear.

Say hello, thank you, and goodbye to a public bus driver who hit me like a stranger. In my uninformed view, the bus driver was simply doing his job and should have remained invisible unless he erred and ran off the road or crashed into another vehicle.

When I asked the magician about the strange habit, I could tell that he was disappointed by my insensitivity. As if speaking to a child, he patiently explained that the bus driver should be recognized as an individual – hence the salutation. Plus he has delivered us safely. No doubt, this calls for a few words of appreciation and farewell.

The magician admitted that he once got off the bus without thanking the driver or saying goodbye to the bus. The bus driver did not move. He opened the door and said in French, for everyone to hear, “What? No thanks and no goodbye?” The magician never forgot his manners again.

The bus routine is but one example. If I ride a bus and there is no vacant seat, I can choose a seat and say to the passenger “s’il vous plait” or “please” in English. Because I am older, a person is obligated to give up his seat to me.

As an elder, I also get preferential seats and treatments at the dining table. Before anyone else takes something–whether it’s water from a jug or the last bit of food–it’s offering to share it with others, starting with the largest person present.

And if anyone is still eating, no one leaves the table. The height of rudeness is to finish the meal and leave.

On one occasion when I chose to dine alone in my apartment, Hugbug came to join me. He said, “It is not right for a man to eat alone.” Eating is a social occasion – the joy of the company of others is as nutritious as the food itself.

I still have to walk more than 50 yards from my apartment without meeting someone. The salutation – “Good morning” during the day or “Bonsoir” in the evening – is required. Rushing and ignoring the person would be blatantly rude.

France is three times more densely populated than the United States. Perhaps that’s why ethics seem to matter here. Living in harmony has become much easier with the glue of good manners – I hope to become more viscous.

Carol Carson lives in Montpellier, France

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