What Is the Value of Courtesy and Dignity in the Workplace?

Nice words—obviously—don’t pay the bills.

Complimenting underpaid Americans doesn’t raise their wages, and common courtesy doesn’t give people the tools they need to self-actualize.

But that doesn’t make civility worthless. Far from it.

Regardless of its economic value, courtesy is important if you care about the people scrubbing your floors, bussing your tables, and ringing you up at the cash register. Though comprehensive efforts to promote workplace fairness and collective bargaining rights are certainly important, individual and episodic affirmations of people’s dignity in the workplace are meaningful too—perhaps more than you know.

I was a cashier at a grocery store for five weeks this summer. My co-workers were friendly and the surrounding landscape was gorgeous, but the monotony of clicking buttons on a register for seven hours a day, only interrupted for a thirty-minute lunch break, proved dull. Even so, I hardly endured the worst of it; for many of my fellow employees, this sort of work remains yearlong and inescapable.

I tried spicing things up. Before the lines got too long, I played magic card tricks on customers. Later, when nobody was checking out, I glanced down at The New York Times, only to have my superior snatch it out from under me.

Confined to my thoughts, my paid tasks, and my transient interactions with buyers, I found kind passers-by refreshing. People approaching me with a salutation, a genuine compliment, a personal and appropriate question, or even an innocent comment about shopping (“I finally found the grapes!” or “This will only last us until lunchtime tomorrow!”) were more gratifying than I had initially anticipated. The longer and more intricate the discussions, the more fun I had.

Not all of the customers were friendly though. I didn’t mind being the one to initiate conversation, but I was often frustrated to receive dismissive one-word answers to, “How’s your day going?” I never minded relaying a complaint to management, but was agitated by customers who endlessly berated cashiers for others’ mistakes, like “making the marketplace ugly by not watering the plants” and “not putting up a price sheet near the cherries.”  While unfriendly guests would leave without giving it a second thought, I’d remain a pinch irritated until a politer patron came by.

Some people evidently didn’t see the need for cordiality in our interaction; granted, when your encounter with a worker lasts a single minute of your 14 waking hours, it’s hard to consider it significant. Remember though that the sequence of these brief exchanges makes up an employee’s entire day of work and can indeed be demoralizing when comprised of continuous abrupt words with callous guests.

When I toured Amherst College last fall, I slept in a suite sometimes visited by a cleaning crew. I awoke to a vacuum running one morning, and, a bit disgruntled, I stepped out into the common area.

A worker, roughly 60-years-old, started apologizing, even though I’m not sure he was the one vacuuming. Was he just covering his back? Maybe the whole crew gets in trouble for waking up students, I thought.

But then, well beyond the call of duty, he continued the conversation. He asked me if I was an Amherst student, to which I said no, and then asked whether I planned on attending and which classes I had enjoyed checking out so far. He wasn’t a paid representative of the school, an alumnus, or Amherst’s primary beneficiary. He expressed a genuine interest in me simply because he was a true gentleman.

It demonstrated that there are people in every profession who act with kindness and concern, that there is no financial litmus test for politeness, that tedious jobs need not undercut civility among employees in the service sector if customers are open to a human exchange. I then vowed that, in all of my future jobs, I would try to let my courtesy uplift me and that I would expect decency from others. We should show the cashier, garbage collector, or bus girl (that was my sister’s summer job) as much respect as the CEO, and we should consider all of their capacities for gentility equivalent, while not forgetting the disproportionate economic strain and physical stress placed on hourly employees.

Although respect must be shown systematically, as is the case when we give people paid vacations and guaranteed lunch breaks, it should be a personal expression as well. When, for no cost at all, we act in the best of faith towards the workers we encounter, when we display a smile and good manners, we do them a service for which they’re usually grateful. In benefitting from the work of others, as we all do fairly regularly, let’s remember the democratic ethos that bonds us together, not as “servants” and “recipients,” but as cohabitants capable of empathy in every interaction we have.