The quality of our daily lives is influenced to a very large degree by our interaction with others. However, the way we treat the stranger on the street is often dictated not by conscious intent, but instead by the powerful forces of trendy behavior. Although these social influences can be beneficial, they also allow us to become complacent. In the worst case scenario, we become little more than sheep, unwilling to do our own thinking and merely shuffling along in whatever direction the herd takes.
Those who sport thick wool coats might be quick to point out that following the accepted norms of society shows that you're a good citizen who contributes to social harmony. However, what happens when the pattern of behavior for a culture changes over time to one that is less benevolent, or perhaps even destructive? Shall we all converge upon our local costume shops and put on a lemmings suit so that we're appropriately dressed as we dive off the cliffs in unison? As we've all been told by our parents, the fact that everyone else is doing a foolish thing is rarely an acceptable justification. Besides, I'm afraid of heights.
If our society took a sudden shift towards negative and disruptive attitudes, surely we would rebel against those unpleasant trends and refuse to take part, right? But what if the shift was a gradual one, taking place not over the weekend, but rather over the course of several decades? Each gradual decline would go unnoticed as it happened, but in days to come it would be transformed into normal, acceptable behavior. At that point it would be considered perfectly appropriate. At least by our wooly friends.
In today's fast paced world and ever growing cities, personal interaction and taking responsibility for our effect on others is becoming less and less of a priority. We seem to be so busy jamming as many activities as we can into each day that our ability to multitask is valued more than how we treat people.
Of course, whether it's parents feeling entitled to allow unruly children in public places or the dangerous practice of paying more attention to a cell phone than to driving a car, we defend our actions by pointing out that everyone else is doing it. This is what happens when the standards of a civilized society degrade and the herd mentality encourages selfish behavior rather than consideration for others. However, when you allow respect and common courtesy to become a thing of the past, it's not just the other guy who suffers. It influences the way people treat you as well.
Think about the consequences of your actions, and how they will affect the people around you. Without a doubt, this involves effort on your part. At times, showing courtesy to others might even be inconvenient for you. However, lest you think that you have to put forth all the effort while others, usually people you don't even know, get the rewards, then consider this. To most everyone else, you are the stranger. It works both ways.
When you start living actively rather than passively and making conscious decisions about how you treat others, you may not change the world, but you'll certainly get a better reaction from those around you. Best of all, because everyone likes to feel valued, your radical behavior will start to catch on with others, who will see the benefit of following your example.
Society hasn't become more selfish and less considerate because we think it's the best way to behave. Rather, it's become the default, the path of least resistance. By making courtesy and respect for others a priority in your daily life, you do more than brighten your personal little corner of the world. Your actions can start a chain reaction that will shape the very fabric of tomorrow's society into something enjoyed by all. Including you.