Everyday Self-Reg: Manners and Courtesy

Everyday Self-Reg: Manners and Courtesy

When I was a kid I had a very negative view of manners. I was taught manners and forced to use them. But I didn’t understand what they were for. To my 10-year-old self, manners felt like a form of social control, rules dreamed up by adults who felt driven to make kids behave like “little ladies and gentlemen.”

Consequently, I actually felt uncomfortable about being polite. I found it stressful and it felt phoney. So I avoided using manners when I could. That’s unfortunate because, as you might have learned earlier in life than me, manners have value. Coupled with genuine concern for others, manners can be a tool for co-regulation, helping to reduce the stress of social situations.

I want to share a story about how an elderly stranger’s artful courtesy helped co-regulate me through a fairly limbic moment the day my youngest son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I don’t know how much you know about Type 1 diabetes, as opposed to Type 2. Unlike Type 2, which tends to come on gradually, Type 1 comes out of nowhere. By the time obvious symptoms appear it’s usually a health emergency. When we arrived at the ER, our boy was very, very sick and we were all in high stress mode, trying to hold ourselves together.

He was too weak to walk, so I ran to grab a wheelchair. That’s when I almost lost it.

I can’t remember exactly why, but in my frantic haste, I couldn’t seem to pry a chair loose from the corral where they were kept. What I remember very clearly is that I was perilously close to a full-blown adult tantrum.

What I will never, ever forget about that day is the saintly, elderly volunteer who ambled over and very quietly and graciously helped me. In terms of co-regulation, he did all the right things: soft voice, relaxed body language, gentle (but not ingratiating) smile. He adroitly kept the focus away from what I was doing wrong, and focused on helping me. So I didn’t see him as a threat, which could have easily been the case.

In short, he treated me with genuine courtesy.

If I look back on this through a Self-Reg lens, you could say the man “lent me his calm” and reframed my behaviour. He didn’t chide me for manhandling the wheelchairs, but saw that I was stressed out, and that the best way to stop me from yanking the chairs was to be helpful. He didn’t know exactly what all my stressors were, but I expect he could see that the two he could address were my inability to wrangle the wheelchair and my need to get one quickly. And—really important—he didn’t increase my stress by making me feel foolish. As a result, I went on my way with the equipment I needed, feeling calmer, a little grateful, and with more energy available to help me support my son through the tough day that lay ahead.

Bottom line: this guy was doing Self-Reg, and his understanding of genuine (as opposed to rule-driven) courtesy helped him do it. To me this is one wee example of how the capacity for Self-Reg is there in all of us. It’s there in all the various ways we’ve learned to be sensitive and responsive to other people’s needs, including their stress. Can you look back and see ways in which you’ve done Self-Reg in the past, before you’d ever heard of Self-Reg? I’ll bet you can. But now Dr. Shanker’s framework gives us a clearer and more comprehensive way of thinking about it.

I can’t help but wonder if my younger self might have been more comfortable with manners if I’d been taught them via a Self-Reg, rather than a self-control, perspective. Who knows? I guess I should just be thankful that, as Stuart says, “it’s never too late.”

By | 2018-02-22T17:27:42+00:00 November 8th, 2017|


  1. Stefani Burosch December 6, 2017 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Love this reframe John! Something that I have struggled with myself 🙂

    • John Hoffman December 7, 2017 at 11:12 am - Reply

      Thanks Stefani.

  2. Melissa Raine December 8, 2017 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    Great piece John: I recognise moments like this myself and always hope that those strangers know what an impact they had.

    • John Hoffman December 9, 2017 at 1:05 pm - Reply

      Thanks Melissa. I have sometimes tried to help strangers regulate. It’s not always easy to know what impact it has.

  3. Corale May 1, 2018 at 11:34 am - Reply

    Your negative view of manners reminds me of my negative view of “naming emotions”. I grew up with a mom who was very interested in brain development and helping children but I didn’t “buy” this discussion of emotions. It made me uncomfortable and distant, yet she persisted. It made it hard for me to reach out when I “was” emotional and needed comforting from a parent, because I just figured it would turn into a lecture on “naming my emotions”. As an adult, I understand the value of this but use it sparingly with my children, instead trying to lighten the mood with a calm voice and caring touch… especially since our lives are so busy. I need to remember to give my children the words of emotions – but not over do it.

    • John Hoffman May 11, 2018 at 9:45 am - Reply

      Interesting point Rebecca. It’s a good reminder that any time we’re trying to teach kids something or teach a skill, we need to pay attention to how the child is responding, and then respond to that.

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