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Mary Fairhurst Breen is a Toronto writer.

It’s a fair assumption that many of us are in distress at present. Even if nothing dire is happening directly to us, there is a sense of impending doom. Our cities are failing all but their most affluent citizens. It falls to the rest of us to somehow remain of good cheer. To this end, I’m campaigning for a return to basic manners. We can make our communities a tiny bit more livable (while also pushing governments to remember their purpose) one human interaction at a time.

Most days, when I head into High Park, an older gentleman stops to say hi to my dog. He looks like a disheveled Santa, with a long grubby white beard. It would appear he lives in the park and/or its surrounding bus shelters. We have the same conversation every time. He says something like, “He’s a big boy! What kind of dog is that?” and I respond that he’s a Heinz 57. Then the man guesses what kind of lineage my dog might have, and I say, “Could be!” until he’s run out of breeds and the dog would like to get a move on.

I can’t solve this man’s homelessness, but I can have a pleasant exchange with him. So I do, because my mother raised me not to be a jerk.

One summer afternoon, I found myself blocked by a Lexus in a bike lane. The teenaged driver was painting her toenails, feet propped on the steering wheel. I asked through the open window – calmly and at a reasonable decibel level – “Do you think you could do that somewhere else?” She screamed obscenities loudly at me.

I’m always on high alert around luxury vehicles, which tend to come to a sudden stop wherever it suits their owners. But this scene left me speechless, unable to do more than trundle off on my old-lady bike, muttering decidedly old-ladylike thoughts about the upbringing of this girl.

It can’t just be generational, this perception I have that society is becoming ruder and meaner. The unapologetic boorishness of so many newsmakers and those who spend their days spouting hate and threats online seems to be having a trickle-down effect that taints even the most banal interpersonal exchanges.

One day as I traversed a crosswalk, one hand pointing and the other holding my granddaughter’s hand, a car kept creeping closer and closer to us. Toddlers have two speeds, as any good driver should know: distracted snail and “chase me!” The driver repeatedly leaned on his horn, scaring the bejesus out of my short-legged companion. Maybe he was a bona fide jerk. Or maybe he pulled over a few blocks later with remorse and thought to himself, “What is happening to me?”

The lack of human decency isn’t only noticeable in our interactions with strangers. Being of a certain age, I haven’t had the misfortune of being dumped by text or, worse, ghosted. But I’ve noticed that many a TV plot revolves around such offences. I don’t get it. If you’ve spent time with someone over a period of weeks or even months, probably with no clothes on, how can it be too much trouble to utter some parting words?

I was ghosted by a prospective employer once, even after three rounds of interviews. This was for a position involving workplace rights, no less. I didn’t find out that I was the runner-up until I read the announcement about the hiring of the winner. Are we also seeing the trickle-up effect of bad manners to the point where companies can flout the norms of professionalism?

Every religion mentions something about treating others the way you’d prefer to be treated. Every culture has a metaphor along the lines of walking in somebody else’s shoes. Like my mother before me, I had one simple governing principle in my home: “Don’t be a jerk.” With my daughters, it wasn’t hard to model what that meant.

Later, when I became a foster parent to teens, the context for courtesy was very different. Punctuality and curfews were meaningless, because nobody had ever really cared where they were. I tried to demonstrate the fairness and value of all household members, encouraging them to call if they were going to be late, be quiet so others could sleep, and share domestic work. I was, unfortunately, much too late for democratic parenting.

I was perhaps less shocked than some when a group of girls was accused of killing a homeless man in a swarming attack in Toronto a few months ago. The youth in care who I met lived in a dog-eat-dog world. They beat people up for sneakers. They destroyed every stick of furniture in a condo they somehow rented through Airbnb for a party. Even a cursory glimpse through human history shows us that the vulnerable mistreat those who are even more vulnerable in a desperate search for some kind of agency. Which arguably does make humans jerks, as a species. But we don’t have to be.

Good comedians follow this rule: You can punch up (mock people with more clout than you) but you can’t punch down. That’s all manners are about – not the oppressive social control of Regency England so artfully skewered by Jane Austen, but rather the dismantling of hierarchies. The purpose of courtesy is to value everyone equally (though a little teasing of the 1 per cent won’t do them any harm).

Ask yourself where you stand on the privilege spectrum in relation to all the people you encounter on a daily basis. Minimum-wage retail salesperson? Pry your earbuds out and speak when spoken to. Guy sleeping across three subway seats? Leave him the croissant you impulse-bought to go with your coffee. Telecom call-centre worker? Okay, take a breath and thank them for their time trying to solve an issue that’s every bit as infuriating to them as it is to you. More so, if you are someone who rides an old-lady bicycle and can barely find the on/off switch.

Think of your behaviour not as externally imposed deportment, but as the implementation of your own DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies.

Some years ago, there was a lovely initiative where people in Toronto were invited to send postcards to female politicians of every stripe and at every level of government, simply to thank them for putting themselves out there. If mailbags full of these arrived year-round, maybe the Jacinda Arderns of this world wouldn’t have to quit. Okay, they probably still would, but it’s clear we can’t afford the rising price of incivility.

When I was a kid, writing thank-you notes on Boxing Day was as much a part of my holiday tradition as putting cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve. I actually loved this ritual. It was like reopening my presents. My mother had a rule that if someone didn’t acknowledge a gift, it would be their last. Harsh, but fair. Acknowledging effort or thoughtfulness costs nothing. I’m not talking about the kind of gratitude platitudes people share on social media. I’m talking direct action. Fill out the customer satisfaction survey to recognize good service. Call the hospital to say how great the MRI technician was. Tell the barista she makes a fine cappuccino. Use your power to improve someone’s day.