I have noticed over the last few years that there’s a trend away from courteous behavior in my community. There are more people not picking up after their dogs in the park. There are more people speeding down my street, despite the increase in pedestrians and children biking beside them. There are more people parking illegally to shorten their walks to sporting events at the school, and fewer people holding the door open for the person behind them.

And then there’s this nonsense I saw at Costco this past weekend.

Putting your shopping cart safely in a corral is not a hard task. Yet, here’s a photo of what my Costco’s parking lot looked like Saturday afternoon:

This is one of several islands of abandoned carts.

This is one of many islands of abandoned carts.

Abandoned carts filled a good 15% of the parking lot. After taking this shot with my phone, I turned around and saw another customer finish emptying his cart into his Canyonero and then shove it away across the parking lot towards other parked cars. He stood there watching it for a few moments (admiring his work?), then got in his vehicle and zoomed off while the cart was still rolling away.

Now, the cart corrals were filled, overfilled in fact. I spotted several Costco employees standing around the lot doing nothing, perhaps waiting until after the store closed in another hour to begin cleaning the growing mess. Costco was not doing its part to keep the carts moving from the corrals back into the store, and the patrons were responding by dumping their carts willy-nilly all over the place. But even with the mess, I still managed to walk my cart over to a corral and add it securely to the growing stack rather than leave it out as a hazard to my fellow shoppers.

The whole scene was a breakdown in courtesy. Courtesy isn’t just some idealistic notion–it is a fundamental part of our social contract. It is the Golden Rule in action (check out Karen Armstrong’s TED talk on the Golden Rule). If we all do onto others (and our shared environment) what we would like to have done to us, our communities are much more pleasant places.

The boundaries of Home do not end at the lot lines plotted on a deed. Home extends way into the community. For our Homestead, Home includes the local school system, the nearby community park, the recreation department that we participate in and volunteer for, and the local business environment where we do our shopping. When other people make a hazardous mess in my Costco parking lot, they are trashing part of my Home and inflicting their mess on the rest of us.

The next day we headed up to Whole Foods, which played the role of Gallant opposite Costco’s Goofus. There were no carts out of place in the parking lot. There was already an employee outside collecting the few carts left in the corrals and bringing them up to the store, well in advance of any overflow. It was a more pleasant experience, a more inviting space, a more courteous community.

I don’t mean to say that the people who shop at Whole Foods are better than the people who shop at Costco–for the most part they are the same people. However, Whole Foods does a better job of shepherding courtesy on their site. They tidy things up before any sense of mess starts to show, and people are more likely to keep a clean space clean. Costco allowed things to get so messy that most people didn’t see the point in caring for their small part of it, so they added their cart to the growing problem. Costco does nothing inside or outside their store to encourage a courteous community, and so what they get is people shoving carts across the crowded lot.

The lesson here is that courtesy, and the lack thereof, is a self-perpetuating thing. The more you give, the more you get. If you act without courtesy, you can expect rudeness in return. Most importantly, if you are in a leadership role, you must actively foster courtesy in your group, and you must act quickly to corral discourteous behavior.

Whether you are courteous or rude, your actions create ripples that eventually come back to you in form. So make sure that the ripples you contribute to your community come from courtesy and kindness. When give into the world that which you would like the world to give to you, you invite courtesy and goodness into your own life.

Oh, and putting your cart away nicely, please.

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