“The heart of graciousness is compassion. It’s attention to those around you, whether they are your favorite person in the world or that person trying to get by you on the sidewalk. It’s kindness, and most of all, it’s giving love to those around you.”
What does it mean to be gracious? It’s more than just manners, although they are related (and manners, as any Emily Post devotee knows, is more about making people feel at ease than about using the right fork).
In her new book, Louisiana native Kelly Williams Brown expounds on the topic, largely by asking gracious people for their advice, worldview, philosophy, and practical tips (e.g. what to have on hand should guests drop by).
Graciousness flows from the recognition that “Every human is just as human as you are. …Though it is very (very) easy to assume otherwise, each person you will ever encounter is just as much in their own head as you are in yours.” Graciousness is “assigning and extending humanity to everyone you meet.” It is about “facing the world with kindness and compassion.”
Brown asks, “How do you live a life in which kindness and assurance, instead of anxiety and irritation, are the emotional guideposts?” And if you weren’t already interested in becoming more gracious, that might be the question that gets you interested – because who wouldn’t rather be assured than anxious, kind than irritated? Being irritated is, well, irritating. The occasional burst of righteous outrage can be satisfying, but as a constant mode of operation, it’s stressful and tiring. Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to navigate the choppy waters of life as calmly and smoothly as a steamship? (Steamships, incidentally, are Brown’s favorite style of transportation. Those who dislike flying will really enjoy her section on air travel.)
“We decide, every moment, who we shall be and what we are going to add into the world with our words and actions or lack thereof.”
As a librarian who works at a public service desk, I have many opportunities every day to practice being helpful, kind, patient, and gracious. (I say practice, because of course, I am not always all of these things.) I have a lot of practice giving people the benefit of the doubt – imagining what might be going on in their lives to explain why they are behaving a certain way right now – and practicing compassion and calm.
Brown’s section on customer service is quite good, no matter which side of the desk you’re on (and most of us have experience on both sides). She advises, “Try thinking about every relationship, no matter how brief, as an ‘us.'” What moves “us” forward? Think about the other person’s needs as well as your own, and you’re more likely to reach a conclusion that satisfies you both.
“Graciousness is about focused attention, kindness, and empathy and about moving deliberately in accordance with your values.”
In addition to being full of wisdom – both philosophical and practical – on being gracious, Brown’s book is written in a close, conversational, and often very funny way. It’s clear that she is interviewing these women (they are mostly women) because she aspires to be as gracious as she perceives them to be. As one of Brown’s subjects said, “Maybe we’re just going through life to come out on the other side with compassion.”