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Remember the magic word

Eat with your mouth closed!” “Say please!” “Keep your elbows off the table!” These are just some of the typical phrases that bombarded me in my youth as I sat down for a meal with my family. “It isn’t fair,” I thought, as I drank some Juicy Juice from my plastic sip cup. After all, it wasn’t as if Chick-a-saurus (chicken in the shape of your favorite dinosaurs!) could be considered fine dining, so I didn’t understand why we had to act like we were in an elegant restaurant. But it was the principle of the thing, my parents told me. If I didn’t learn to eat or behave correctly now, then I never would in the future.

When I got to Duke I was forced into a setting where constant interaction with my peers was inescapable. You learn a lot more about a person’s character when interaction with them doesn’t cease at 3:30 p.m. when the bell rings. It’s when people are left with a grain of sanity or tolerance—like when you sit next to them on a hot and crowded bus, when you wait in line next to them to get into Cameron or you try to strike up a conversation with someone who just crammed all night for a chem test—that you learn how people truly are.

I always fervently believed that it was it was a certain sense of etiquette, of politeness, that kept people from becoming the “short, nasty and brutish” beasts Hobbes feared we were. I found this sense of etiquette noticeably missing on campus, however, and it shocked and confounded me. Was it that these people had never been taught? Was it just my naivete about the basic goodness of people finally being quashed? Or was there a larger issue at work here?

As a Cuban-American, I grew up in an environment with a certain set of formalities. For example, when I first got onto a crowded East-West bus I was appalled that not a single guy who was sitting down got up to offer me a seat because that’s what any self-respecting Latino boy would do in Miami. I later realized, however, that to many other people, gestures like this skirt the dangerous line between chivalry and chauvinism and therefore wouldn’t be considered a polite thing to do.

It took one more event to help me realize that not all cultures have the same way of expressing gestures of etiquette. One day a friend introduced me to his Caucasian girlfriend. Without hesitation, I leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek. As I pulled back, her expression of shock alerted me to my mistake. To me, that was a very standard greeting. To her, it probably erroneously established me as a very forward lesbian.

Despite the mistakes that can sometimes arise, one of the best things about Duke is that it brings together so many people of different cultures, beliefs and lifestyles. Chances are the best education you will receive about people unlike yourself won’t come from a sociology class, but rather from day to day interactions on campus. This precious resource, however, can never be tapped if our first reaction to something we deem as “rude” is disdain instead of an eagerness to learn the motivation behind the action.

Not every rude action can be attributed to different expressions or interpretations of etiquette, however. Sometimes, people are simply, inexcusably, impolite. Imagine students watching an elderly person clutch the metal handrail and nearly fall as the bus jerkily winds its way along and not offering them a seat. Contrary to popular belief, those signs that read “These seats are reserved for seniors” aren’t referring to students in their fourth year at Duke. Or students leaving the hallways littered with trash and broken bottles after a party so that the maintenance workers have extra work to do Monday morning. Shoving past a girl with a prosthetic leg to get ahead in line at Alpine Bagels. I saw all these examples last year, and these cannot be allowed to continue. What good is it if we get an excellent education and abuse the people that made it possible? So let’s make this year one that is brimming with understanding, respect and gestures of politeness…. Please? Thank you.

 

Carolina Astigarraga is a Trinity sophomore.

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