Human Character in Shifting Chairs

I was discussing a short biography of the founder of an institution with its legendary chairperson when I realised that it was time for me to leave. I replaced the chair I had used when I pushed it back to get up. Out of force of habit I also re-aligned those by it. Why did I do so? Leaving the chair askew and in some disorder made me so uncomfortable that at the risk of being considered a bit eccentric, I pushed the furniture back into some semblance of neatness.

To my pleasant surprise instead of saying “Oh let it be, don’t trouble yourself”, the head of the institution chuckled and said, “A forgotten courtesy today, replacing one’s chair!”

She went on to narrate an anecdote that astonished me. Years ago, some wealthy Japanese funders had visited an institution elsewhere in India. A collaboration was under discussion. Everything went well till the moment the meeting ended. The Indians scraped their chairs back and prepared to leave the room when the Japanese politely asked them to stay on a few minutes more. Without any discussion among themselves in their language, they explained even more politely that they had already decided against the collaboration because they were unimpressed by the indifference to personal neatness and orderliness they had noted in their visitors. By their lights, one’s attitude to collective good was a measure of one’s personal commitment to any group venture.

Can this be true? Can one act be connected with everything else? “Never trust a man who ill-treats his staff or animals” say many people. Sharada Ma said, “A man’s character is not decided by his response to great crises but by the way he carries out his humdrum everyday routine.” How does a person treat a shopkeeper who accidentally hands over the wrong change? Sadly, rudeness to waiters is almost routine and embarrassingly in contrast to the smiles lavished on companions at the same table.

Every moment is a moment that tests us in the way we respond to people and situations. Affluent people fighting with a fruit vendor to save Rs 10 or denying a weary porter his due after he loads their car with bags they couldn’t carry are common sights.

Why do we reserve our consideration and fine manners for “people like us” and not for everyone? How much of it is training and how much introspection and self-discipline? In a world where lightning speed no longer has any meaning, could we teach our children the value of courtesy and to not ask “Who’s this?” into the phone because “May I know who is speaking?” takes just a second longer.

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