Random: On Illusions III: Social Graces

Okay, so really it isn’t random anymore. I really thought of this a long time ago, back in my days of yore. Actually more like back some time when I was standing about in the train back home and this just wondered about in my mind. I might have forgotten most of it but I’ll do some impromptu thinking now.

What is social grace? Some people choose to call it courtesy, but I think the term social grace imparts a greater sense of character and/or morality than courtesy. But my exact point is to ask how social grace is in that aspect an illusion. We are very often in today’s ‘civilised society’ made to observe a very great number of social practices specific to that region or culture. We realise, more often than not, that these practices are subject to change. One pertinent set of such practices that pervades the civilised world through and through is what we call social graces. Note that I use the unique word ‘grace’, because I wish to focus specifically on the practices that are not necessary (i.e. required of everyone under the law), and even under this reduced range, they vary:

  • queuing up for public transport
  • donating coins
  • helping (random) senior citizens with daily accessibility
  • giving up one’s seat in public transport
  • cleaning up after oneself at public eateries (where applicable)
  • etc.

They are all different. I do not say, as with everything, that they are a sweeping mask of illusion. I simply question the extent of reality of such a construct. As with most things social, there are plenty of cloud-castles.

Exactly which facet of this revered diamond I examine is the supposed ‘core’ vital to society, the values which can drive us to perform a number of the abovementioned actions. For example, orderly queuing up for trains and buses, giving up seats, and cleaning up one’s tray (not sure if you would understand this where you live. It is much encouraged here to take such initiative in public eating areas such as ‘food courts’.) I highlight these particularly because they invite the clearest understanding of what I point at. Whether it is concern for those less privileged or less fortunate, or being considerate for those around you, they do boil down to a degree of empathy – and compassion to an extent.

Maybe yes, I am questioning empathy, but not exactly too, because it is manifested in this ‘common etiquette’ that pervades all sorts of public spaces, but evades many attempts to understand it. Now, then, the thing that is brought up for scrutiny is neither the crucial tenets of society – empathy, compassion, etc. – or the acts of kindness and courtesy as put forth as means to civility, but it is the extent we attribute one with the other. Which is which should be clear. What exactly do I mean by extent? It means I do not deny the existence of either, nor the existence of their relationship. Indeed empathy without any forthmotion is rather pathetic, it would seem; more intriguing is finding pockets, no, even bubbles of society that go on these actions without the empathy.

Then it must be asked, what sets such societal participants into motion? If not a heart, or even a mind concerned about others, is any other proponent equal in driving-force? And yes, we searched and found Societal Norms to rise to the occasion. The streets full of people would not step forward when witnessing a snatch thief committing crime in plain sight, because no one else is doing so. That’s the specific bystander effect, a rather instantaneous and obvious show of a cultivated mentality that is quickly learnt by members of society. I recently read of a local incident of a pregnant woman in a train cabin experiencing great pain all of a sudden, kneeling on the floor, but no one would give up a seat, let alone rush forward to help. Saddening, appalling, but when we stand there, would we do the same?

My own studies of this matter led me to another recent counter-example, in some sense. There started to be posters for a new campaign to queue up before trains and buses, stating (dubious) statistics such as “98% say they would queue up to board the train. Are YOU one of them?” And, no kidding, it worked. Like magic, people started obeying the painted arrows on the train platforms, all queuing by the side, waiting for alighting passengers to move out first. MAGIC, really. But we all know courtesy and consideration does not, not, NOT grow overnight. Therefore this is a superficial show.


  1. Subliminal advertising or otherwise
  2. Normalisation of ‘acts of graciousness’
  3. Habitualisation

Simple, really.

This then, should force us to re-examine society. How flexible is this social fabric? To what end is it autonomous, and what end is it a mindless template? How much of society really independently thinks, and how much really goes with the flow? When you see someone in need, there are a number of negative thought processes that combine both of those. When you reason that you wish for self-indulgence and luxury over discomfort in helping others, yet also see no one else doing otherwise, everyone remains status quo. There we have it.

The problem of giving up seats (or anything for that matter) is, indeed, complex yet elegantly straightforward. To do or not to do, but why do when everyone else is not doing, why do when it is easy not to do? The campaigns needed to whip the people into place are proof that any quick change seen in society are definitely not changes from the heart; they are changes forced because the people are held in some social joint lock, uncomfortable to go against but a compelling obligation to do as everyone else is doing. (with reference to my above 3 reasons). Then it is made social norm and a habit, between which there is a distinction. The bottom line is, we all know how difficult change is. Especially things doing with the condition of the heart. These campaigns and calls to courtesy can condition the mind with the condition that the heart remains as it is. If I recall, apartheid was like that. The laws were abolished, yes, but it took decades to reduce the superiority/inferiority race complex significantly. Lasting change often comes last.




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