Qwertyman No. 25: Courtesy Ca. 2023

Qwertyman for Monday, January 23, 2023

THIS TOPIC wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about if I hadn’t come across—in my meanderings online as a collector of antiquarian books and papers—a copy of a slim pamphlet published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1936, titled “Courtesy Appeals by the President’s Committee on Courtesy.” But as soon as I saw that title, I knew I had to get that pamphlet and reflect on the observance (most likely in the breach) of its prescriptions today.

To be honest, I never even heard of a “committee on courtesy” in UP. Neither, as a former student and professor, did I ever instinctively attach the word “courtesy” to UP, although I will not agree to any collective condemnation of “Iskos” and “Iskas” as boorish and uncultured. Granted, UP lore is rich with tales of what we’ll call youthful insolence toward their elders, in ways that would make even millennials cringe. (Who was that young poet who, in a writers’ workshop, supposedly stole a famous lady poet’s underwear—don’t ask me how—and strung it up a flagpole or hung it on a line, prompting her friend—another professor known for her fiery temper—to curse the laughing fellows: “I wish your mothers had aborted you!”) 

Meekness may not be one of a UP student’s strongest suits, because we teach them to assert themselves. But we also teach them to criticize or comment with style and intelligence, as when a young wit responded to a customary recitation of then President Carlos P. Romulo’s kilometric list of honorary degrees by saying, “Why, Mr. President, you have more degrees than a thermometer!” (In fairness to CPR, that fellow went on to an illustrious career accompanied by much—and some say self-generated—pomp and circumstance.)

Courtesy, of course, is not about sticking out but about staying in—behaving oneself for social acceptability and harmony, living up to someone else’s expectations by observing a strict code of do’s and don’ts. At least that’s how it was appreciated in the 1930s, when President Jorge Bocobo created the committee that came out with the prescriptions in the pamphlet. Although he served as one of UP’s most hardworking and effective presidents—someone who pushed UP students to go out and serve the masses—Bocobo was also known to be a rather prudish disciplinarian. He had been on the committee that censured Jose Garcia Villa for publishing his “obscene” and “ultramodernistic” poem “Song of Ripeness,” leading to Villa’s suspension and hastening his departure for more liberal America. He also cut down on the popular student dances that Rafael Palma allowed, and enforced the rule for student uniforms. When Guillermo Tolentino presented his design for the Oblation statue, Bocobo had one important comment: protect its modesty with a fig leaf, which was done. Not surprisingly, although again a bit too simply, he was called “the gloomy dean” by the editorialists of the time.

In 1936, when the pamphlet came out, Jorge Bocobo was almost midway through his presidency (1934-39). I learned that 8,000 copies were printed to be handed out to all students, and teachers were required to discuss its contents—all 20 pages of them—in class.

Some of its prescriptions are entirely understandable for the period:

“A young lady of social position does not go to a ball without a chaperon.”

“When a gentleman is introduced to a lady, he does not extend his hand first. It is the lady’s place to show whether she wants to shake hands or not.”

“When a lady leaves a gentleman to whom she has been introduced, she never says she is ‘glad to have met him’ or that she ‘hopes to see him again.’’

Some would be perfectly applicable today:

“Annoying the ladies by staring at them or making remarks about them as they pass cannot be countenanced.”

“Avoid being a bore by talking too much. Be a sympathetic listener.”

Some would be difficult to enforce:

“It would be nicer if gentlemen should remove their hats on entering a building.”

“Do not wear a tuxedo at daytime.”

“(Do not) thrust the individual knife into a butter dish or the individual fork into a pickle dish.”

“Bananas are peeled into a plate and taken with the fork.”

I was amused, as many of you would be, but these social commandments (yes, they were far more than “appeals,” and students and faculty were disciplined for disobeying them) invited me to wonder how we look at courtesy today or even think about it, let alone practice it. Thanks to the anonymity provided by the Internet and to a toxic political environment, rudeness if not obnoxiousness seem to have become the norm. It’s almost customary to assume that the other fellow is uninformed, hostile, stupid, or just plain wrong, and I have to confess to thinking this of many people I encounter for the first time, especially online. 

I’ve been on the receiving end of these assumptions as well. An expat American—a Trumper—once tried to convince me that I knew nothing about America, as did an expat Brit who lectured me about the monarchy like I’d never read a book (I could’ve lectured him back on Elizabethan revenge tragedy, but he could have been just a regular fellow who didn’t know anything about me, and why should he, so I desisted and let it slide).

Courtesy today clearly involves more than etiquette or protocol, more than observing antiquated codes of behavior requiring you to use this fork or that spoon. It’s more a matter of attitude toward other people, of assuming them worthy of respect and an intelligent and civil response (until they prove otherwise, as many inevitably do, especially in politics). 

Unfortunately we also too easily conflate courtesy with external manners, with opening doors for ladies (which I still do, although my wife Beng sometimes has to remind me there’s a door in front of us). On a higher order of behavior, aren’t profligacy and ostentation extreme forms of discourtesy to a people struggling to make ends meet? Do arrogance and impunity invite respect, or resentment and disdain?

What could a “Courtesy Appeals” for 2023 read like? “Do not waste the people’s hard-earned money” seems like a good place to start.

(Some factoids mentioned here come from an unpublished, unofficial history of UP. You can check them out against an official history published recently by the UP Press.)