The Value Of Courtesy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Every progressive business man will agree with the successful Western manufacturer who says that "courtesy can pay larger dividends in proportion to the effort expended than any other of the many human characteristics which might be classed as Instruments of Accomplishment." But this was not always true. In the beginning "big business" assumed an arrogant, high-handed attitude toward the public and rode rough-shod over its feelings and rights whenever possible. This was especially the case among the big monopolies and public service corporations, and much of the antagonism against the railroads to-day is the result of the methods they used when they first began to lay tracks and carry passengers. Nor was this sort of thing limited to the large concerns. Small business consisted many times of trickery executed ac-cording to David Harum's motto of "Do unto the other feller as he would like to do unto you, but do him fust." The public is a long suffering body and the business man is a hard. headed one, but after a while the public began to realize that it was not necessary to put up with gross rudeness and the business man began to realize that a policy of pleasantness was much better than the "treat 'em rough" idea upon which he had been acting. He deserves no special credit for it. It was as simple and as obvious a thing as putting up an umbrella when it is raining.
People knew, long before this enlightened era of ours, that politeness had value. In one of the oldest books of good manners in the English language a man with "an eye to the main chance" advised his pupils to cultivate honesty, gentleness, propriety, and deportment because they paid. But it has not been until recently that business men as a whole have realized that courtesy is a practical asset to them. Business can-not be separated from money and there is no use to try. Men work that they may live. And the reason they have begun to develop and exploit courtesy is that they have discovered that it makes for better work and better living. Success, they have learned, in spite of the conspicuous wealth of several magnates who got their money by questionable means, depends upon good will and good will depends upon the square deal courteously given.
The time is with inthe memory of living men,and very young men at that, when the idea of putting courtesy into business dealings sprang up, but it has taken hold remarkably. When the Hudson Tubes were opened not quite a decade and a half ago Mr. McAdoo inaugurated what was at that time an almost revolutionary policy. He took the motto, "The Public be Pleased," instead of the one made famous by Mr. Vanderbilt, and posted it all about, had pamphlets distributed, and made a speech on courtesy in railroad management and elsewhere. Since that time, not altogether because of the precedent which had been established, but because people were beginning to realize that with this new element creeping into business the old regime had to die because it could not compete with it, there have been all sorts of courtesy campaigns among railroad and bus companies, and even among post office and banking employees, to mention only two of the groups notorious for haughty and arrogant behavior. The effects of a big telephone company have been so strenuous and so well planned and executed that they are reserved for discussion in another chapter.
Mr. McAdoo tells a number of charming stories which grew out of the Hudson Tubes experiment. One day during a political convention when he was standing in the lobby of a hotel in a certain city a jeweler came over to him after a slight moment of hesitation, gave him one of his cards and said, "Mr. McAdoo, I owe you a great debt of gratitude. For that," he added, pointing to "The Public be Pleased" engraved in small letters on the card just above his name. "I was in New York the clay the tunnel was opened," he continued, "and I heard your speech, and said to myself that it might be a pretty good idea to try that in the jewelry trade. And would you believe it, my profits during the first year were more than fifty per cent. bigger than they were the year before?" And we venture to add that the jeweler was more than twice as happy and that it was not altogether because there was more money in his coffers.
Mr. McAdoo is a man with whom courtesy is not merely a policy: it is a habit as well. He places it next to integrity of character as a qualification for a business man, and he carries it into every part of his personal activity, as the states-men and elevator boys, waiters and financiers, politicians and stenographers with whom he has come into contact can testify. "I never have a secretary," he says, "who is not courteous, no matter what his other qualifications may be." During the past few years Mr. McAdoo has been placed in a position to be sought after by all kinds of people, and in nearly every instance he has given an interview to whoever has asked for it. "I have always felt," we quote him again, "that a public servant should be as accessible to the public as possible." Courtesy with him, as with any one else who makes it a habit, has a cumulative effect. The effect cannot always be traced as in the case of the jeweler or in the story given below in which money plays a very negligible part, but it is always there.
On one occasion—this was when he was president of the Hudson Railroad—Mr. McAdoo was on his way up to the Adirondacks when the train broke down. It was ill provided for such a catastrophe, there was no dining ear, only a small buffet, and the wait was a long and trying one. When Mr. McAdoo after several hours went back to the buffet to see if he could get a cup of coffee. and some rolls he found the conductor almost swamped by irate passengers who blamed him, in the way that passengers will, for something that was no more his fault than theirs. The conductor glanced up when Mr. McAdoo came in, expecting him to break into an explosion of indignation, but Mr. McAdoo said, "Well, you have troubles enough already with-out my adding to them."
The conductor stepped out of the group, "What did you want, sir?" he asked.
"Why, nothing, now," Mr. McAdoo responded. "I did want a cup of coffee, but never mind about it."
"Come into the smoker here," the conductor said. "Wait a minute."
The conductor disappeared and came back in a few minutes with coffee, bread, and butter. Mr. McAdoo thanked him warmly, gave him his card and told him that if he ever thought he could do anything for him to let him know. The conductor looked at the card.
"Are you the president of the Hudson Railroad?"
"Well, maybe there's something you can do for me now. There are two men out here who say they are going to report me for what happened this morning. You know how things have been, and if they do, I wish you would write to headquarters and explain. I'm in line for promotion and you know what a black mark means in a case like that."
Mr. McAdoo assured him that he would write if it became necessary. The men were bluffing, however, and the complaint was never sent in. Apparently the incident was closed.
Several years Iater Mr. McAdoo's son wasp coming down from the Adirondacks when he lost his Pullman ticket. He did not discover the fact until he got to the station, and then he had no money and no time to get any by wire before the train left. He went to the conductor, explained his dilemma, and told him that if he would allow him to ride down to the city his father, who was to meet him at the Grand Central station, would pay him for the ticket. The conductor liked the youngster—perhaps because there was something about him that re-minded him of his father, for as chance would have it, the conductor, was the same one who had brought Mr. McAdoo the coffee and bread in the smoking car so many months before.
"Who is your father?" he asked.
"President of the Hudson Railroad?"
"Boy, you can have the train!"
So far as monetary value of courtesy is concerned we might recount hundreds of instances where a tingle act of politeness brought in thousands of dollars. Only, the other morning the papers parried the story of a man who thirty, years ago went into a tailor's shop with a ragged tear in his trousers and begged the tailor to mend it and to trust him for the payment which amounted to fifty cents. The tailor agreed cheerfully enough and the man went his way, entered business and made a fortune. He died recently and left the tailor fifty thousand dollars. Not long before that there was a story of an old woman who came to New York to visit her nephew—it was to be a surprise—and lost her bearings so completely when she got into the station that she was about ready to turn around and go back home when a very polite young man noticed her bewilderment. He offered his services, called a taxi and deposited her in front of her nephew's door in half an hour. She took his name and address and a few days later he received a check large enough to enable him to enter the Columbia Law School. A banker is fond of telling the story of an old fellow who came into his bank one day in a suit of black so old that it had taken on a sickly greenish tinge. He fell into the hands of a polite clerk who answered all his questions—and there were a great many of them-clearly, patiently, and courteously. The old man went away but came back in a day or so with $300,000 which he placed on deposit. "I did have some doubts," he said, "but this young man settled them all." Word of it went to people in authority and the clerk was promoted.
Now it is pleasant to know that these good people were rewarded as they deserved to be. We would be very happy if we could promise a like reward to every one who is similarly kind, but it is no use. The little words of love and the little deeds of kindness go often without recompense so far as we can see, except that they happily the world, but that in itself is no small return.
Courtesy pays in dollars and cents but its value goes far beyond that. It is the chief element in building good will we are speaking now of courtesy as an outgrowth of character—and good will is to a firm what honor is to a man. He can lose everything else but so long as he keeps his honor he has something to build with. In the same way a business can lose all its material assets and can replace them with insurance money or something else, but if it loses its good will it will find in ninety cases out of a hundred that it is gone forever and that the business it-self has become so weakened that there is nothing left but to reorganize it completely and blot out the old institution altogether.
One must not make the mistake of believing that good will can be built on courtesy alone.
Courtesy must be backed up by something more solid. An excellent comparison to show the relation that good manners bear to uprightness and integrity of character was drawn a number of years ago by a famous Italian prelate. We shall paraphrase the quaint English of the original translator. "Just as men do commonly fear beasts that are cruel and wild," he says, "and have no manner of fear of little ones such as gnats and flies, and yet because of the continual nuisance which they find them, complain more of these than they do of the other : so most men hate the unmannerly and untaught as much as they do the wicked, and more. There is no doubt that he who wishes to live, not in solitary and desert places, like a hermit, but in fellowship with men, and in populous cities, will find it a very necessary thing, to have skill to put himself forth comely and seemly in his fashions, gestures, and manners : the lack of which do make other virtues lame."
Granting dependability of character, courtesy is the next finest business builder an organization can have. One of the largest trust companies in the world was built up on this hypothesis. A good many years ago the man who is responsible for its growth was cashier in a "busted" bank in a small city. The situation was a desperate one, for the bank could not do anything more for its customers than it was already doing. It could not give them more interest on their money and most of its other functions were mechanical. The young cashier began to wonder why people went to one bank in preference to another and in his own mind drew a comparison between the banking and the clothing business. He always went to the haberdasher who treated him best. Other men he knew did the same thing. Would not the same principle work in a bank? Would not people come to the place which gave them the best service? He decided to try it. Not only would they give efficient service, they would give it pleasantly. It was their last card but it was a trump. It won. The bank began to prosper. People who were annoyed by rude, brusque, or indifferent treatment in other banks came to this one. The cashier was raised to a position of importance and in an incredibly short time was made president of a trust company in New York. He carried with him exactly the same principle that had worked so well in the little bank and the result in the big one was exactly the same.
In a leaflet which is in circulation among the employees at this institution there are these paragraphs:
We ask you to remember:
That our customers can get along without us.
(There are in Greater New York nearly one hundred banks and trust companies, every one of them actively seeking business.)
We cannot get along without our customers.
A connection which, perhaps, it has taken us several months to establish, can be terminated by one careless or discourteous act.
Our customers are asked to maintain balances of certain proportions. If they wish to borrow money, they must deposit collateral. They must repay loans when they mature; or arrange for their extension.
If a bank errs, it must err on the side of safety, for the money it loans is not its own money but the money of its depositors. We (and every other bank and trust company) operate almost entirely on money which our customers have deposited with us. The least we can do, then, is to serve them courteously. They really are our employers.
Ours is a semi-public institution.
Every day, men try to interest us in matters with which we have no concern. It is our duty to tell these men, very courteously, why their proposals do not appeal to us. But they are entitled to a hearing. It may be that they are not in a position to benefit us, and never will be. But almost every man can harm us, if he tries to do so. And a pleasantly expressed declination invariably makes a better impression than a favor grudgingly granted. We ask you, then, to remember that our growth—and your opportunities—depend not only upon the friends we make, but the enemies we do not make.
Remember names and faces. Do something, say some-thing that will bring home to those who do business with us the fact that the Blank Trust Company is a very human institution—that it wants the good will of every man and woman in the country.
That is the kind of courtesy which has builded this particular organization. It is a pleasure to visit it to-day because of the spirit of cooperation which animates it. They have done away with the elaborate spy systems in use in so many banks, although they keep the management well enough in hand to be able to fasten the blame for mistakes upon the right person. The employees work with one another and with the president, whom they adore. It is, as a matter of fact, largely the influence of the personality of the president filtering down through the ranks which has made possible the phenomenal success which the institution has enjoyed during the past few years, another proof of the fact that every institution—and Emerson was speaking of great institutions when he said it—"is the lengthened shadow of one man."
Banks have almost a peculiar problem. Money is a mighty power, and to the average person there is something very awesome about the place where it is kept. Mr. Stephen Leacock is not the only man who ever went into a bank with a funny little guilty feeling even when he had money in it. When one is in this frame of mind it takes very little on the part of the clerk to make him believe that he has been treated rudely. Bank clerks are notoriously haughty, but the fault is often as much in the person on the out-side as in the one on the inside of the bars, especially when he has come in to draw out money which he knows he should not, such as his savings bank account, for instance. The other day a young man went into a savings bank to draw out all of his money for a purpose which he knew was extravagant although he had persuaded himself that it was not. Throughout the whole time he was in the bank he was treated with perfeet courtesy, but in spite of it he came out growling about "the dirty look the paying teller gave him!"
It is not only in the first contact that civility is important. Eternal vigilance is the price of success as well as of liberty. Another incident from the banking business illustrates this. Several years ago a bank which had been steadily losing customers called in a publicity expert to build up trade for them. The man organized a splendid campaign and things started off with a flourish. People began to come in most gratifying numbers. But they did not stay. An investigation conducted by the publicity man disclosed the fact that they had been driven away by negligent and discourteous service. He went to the president of the bank and told him that he was wasting money building up advertising so long as his bank maintained its present attitude toward the public. The president was a man of practical sense. There was a general clearing up, those who were past reform were discharged and those who stayed were given careful training in what good breeding meant and there was no more trouble. Advertising will bring in a customer but it takes courtesy to keep him.
Business, like nearly everything else, is easier to tear down than to build up, and one of the most devastating instruments of destruction is discourtesy. A contact which has taken years to build can be broken off by one snippy letter, one pert answer, or one discourteous response over the telephone. Even collection letters, no matter how long overdue the accounts are, bring in more returns when they are written with tact and diplomacy than when these two qualities are omitted. If you insult a man who owes you money he feels that the only way he can get even is not to pay you, and in most cases, he can justify himself for not doing it.
Within the organization itself a courteous attitude on the part of the men in positions of authority toward those beneath them is of immense importance. Sap rises from the bottom, and a business has arrived at the point of stagnation when the men at the top refuse to listen to or help those around them. It is, as a rule, how-ever, not the veteran in commercial affairs but the fledgling who causes most trouble by his bad manners. Young men, especially young men who have been fortunate in securing material ad-vantages, too many times look upon the world as an accident placed here for their personal enjoyment. It never takes long in business to relieve their minds of this delusion, but they some-times accomplish a tremendous amount of dam-age before it happens. For a pert, know-it-all manner coupled with the inefficiency which is al-most inseparable from a total lack of experience is not likely to make personal contacts pleasant. Every young man worth his salt believes that he can reform the world, but every old man who has lived in it knows that it cannot be done. Some-where half way between they meet and say, "We'll keep working at it just the same," and then business begins to pick up. But reaching the meeting ground takes tolerance and patience and infinite politeness from both sides.
"It is the grossest sort of incivility," the quotation is not exact, for we do not remember the source, "to be contemptuous of any kind of knowledge." And herein lies the difficulty between the hard-headed business man of twenty years' experience and the youngster upon whose diploma the ink has not yet dried. "Ignorance," declares a man who has spent his life in trying to draw capital and labor together and has succeeded in hundreds of factories, "is the cause of all trouble." And a lack of under-standing, which is a form of ignorance, is the cause of nearly all discourtesy.
So long as there is discourtesy in the world there must be protection against it, and the best, cheapest, and easiest means of protection is courtesy itself. Boats which are in constant danger of being run into, such as the tug and ferry boats in a busy harbor, are fitted out with buffers or fenders which are as much a part of their equipment as the smokestack, and in many cases, as necessary: Ocean liners carry fenders to be thrown over the side when there is need for them, but this naturally is not as often as in more crowded waters. A single boat on a deserted sea with nothing but sea-gulls and flying fish in sight cannot damage any one besides herself. But the moment she enters a harbor she has to take into account every other vessel in it from the Aquitania to the flat-bottomed row-boat with only one man in it. It is a remarkable fact that most of the boats that are injured or sunk by collision are damaged by vessels much smaller than themselves. Most of these accidents (this statement is given on the authority of an able seaman) could have been prevented by the use of a fender thrown over the side at the proper moment. Politeness is like this. It is the finest shock-absorber in the world, as essential from an economic point of view as it is pleasant from a social one. In business there is no royal isolation. We are all ferry boats. We need our shock absorbers every minute of the day.
No boat has a right to run into another, but they do it just the same, and a shock absorber is worth all the curses the captain and the crew can pronounce, however righteous their indignation toward the offending vessel. Sometimes politeness is better than justice.
Most of the causes of irritation during the course of a business day are too petty to bother about. Many of them could be ignored and a good many more could be laughed at. A sense of humor and a sense of proportion would do away with ninety per cent. of all the wrangling in the world. Some one has said, and not without truth, that a highly developed sense of humor would have prevented the World War. Too many people use sledge-hammers when tack hammers would do just as well. They belong in the same company with William Jay whose immortal epitaph bears these words:
Here lies the body of William Jay Who died maintaining his right of way. He was right, dead right, as he sped along, But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.
Courtesy is restful. A nervous frenzy of energy throughout the day leaves one at sunset as exhausted as a punctured balloon. The fussy little fellow who fancies himself rushed to death, who has no time to talk with anybody, who can-not be polite to his stenographer and his messenger boys because he is in such a terrible hurry, is dissipating his energy into something that does not matter and using up the vitality which should go into his work. He is very like the engine which President Lincoln was so fond of telling about which used so much steam in blowing its whistle that every time it did it it had to stop.
The Orientals manage things better than we do. "We tried hurrying two thousand years ago," a banker in Constantinople said to a tired American business man, "and found that it did not pay. So we gave it up." There is always time to be polite, and though it sounds like a contradiction, there will be more time to spare if one devotes a part of his day to courtesy.
But there is danger in too much courtesy. Every virtue becomes .a vice if it is carried too far, and frank rudeness is better than servility or hypocrisy. Commercial greed, there is no other name for it, leads a firm to adopt some such idiotic motto as "the customer is always right." No organization could ever live up to such a policy, and the principle back of it is undemocratic, un American, unsound and untrue. The customer is not always right and the employer in a big (or little) concern who places girls (department stores are the chief sinners in this) on the front line of approach with any such instructions is a menace to self-respecting business. America does not want a serving class with a "king-can-do-no-wrong" attitude toward the public. Business is service, not servility, and courtesy works both ways. There is no more sense in business proclaiming that the customer is always right than there would be in a customer declaring that business is always right, and no more truth.
No good business man will argue with a customer, or anybody else, not only because it is bad policy to do so, but because his self-respect will not allow it. He will give and require from his employees courteous treatment toward his customers, and when doubt arises he will give them (the customers) the benefit of it. And he will always remember that he is dealing with an intelligent human being. The customer has a right to expect a firm to supply him with reliable commodities and to do it pleasantly, but he has no right to expect it to prostrate itself at his feet in order to retain his trade, however large that trade may be.
Too little has been said about courtesy on the part of the customer and the public-that great headless mass of unrelated particles. Business is service, we say, and the master is the public, the hardest one in the world to serve. Each one of us speaks with more or less pitying contempt of the public, forgetting that we ourselves are the public and that the sum total of the good breeding, intelligence, and character of the public can be no greater than that of the individuals who make it up.
"Sid," of the American Magazine, says that he once asked the manager of a circus which group of his employees he had most trouble keeping. Quite unexpectedly the man replied, "The attendants. They get `sucker-sore' and after that they are no good." This is how it happens. The wild man from Borneo is placed in a cage with a placard attached bearing in big letters the legend "The Wild Man from Borneo." An old farmer comes to the circus, looks at the wild man from Borneo in his cage, reads the placard, looks at the attendant, "Is this the wild man from Borneo?" he asks. No human being can stand an unlimited amount of this sort of thing, and the attendant, after he has explained some hundred thousand or so times that this really is the wild man from Borneo begins to lose his zest for it and to answer snappishly and sarcastically. An infinite supply of courtesy would, of course, be a priceless asset to him, but does not this work both ways? What right have people to bother other people with perfectly foolish and imbecile questions? Is there any one who cannot sympathize with a "sucker-sore" attendant? And with the people who are stationed about for the purpose of answering questions almost anywhere? There are not many of us who at one time and another have not had the feeling that we were on the wrong train even after we had asked the man who sold us the ticket, the man who punched it at the gate, the guard who was standing near the entrance, and the guard who was standing near the train, the porter, the conductor, and the news-butcher if it was the right one and have had an affirmative answer from every one of them. How many times can a man be expected to answer such a question with a smile? For those who are exposed to "suckers" the best advice is to be as gentle with them as possible, to grit your teeth and hold your temper even when the ninety-thousandth man comes through to ask if this is the right train. For the "suckers" themselves there are only two words of advice. They include all the rest: Stop it.
It is impossible to tell what the value of courtesy is. Perhaps some day the people who have learned to measure our minds will be able to tell us just what a smile is worth. Maybe they can tell us also what Spring is worth, and what happiness is worth. Meanwhile we do not know. We only, know that they are infinitely precious.