It’s hard to remember how it started. Maybe it was after my husband snapped at me for something tiny, like misplacing my house keys. Or after I snapped at him for something truly heinous, like putting our pasta strainer in the wrong drawer. Either way, a few months ago we acknowledged a sorry truth: We were more polite to people we weren’t married to than we were to each other.
Consider our colleagues. Both of us had worked with any number of (euphemism alert) challenging personalities over the years. But had we lost our cool with said personalities on a regular basis? We had not. Had we repeatedly eaten their dark-chocolate M&Ms without asking? No way. How ridiculous, then, that we couldn’t manage the same civility with the one person we had promised to honor, cherish and share a pasta strainer and tax forms with.
We resolved to do better. Sure, Bill and I had a great marriage even with the rudeness—I loved him, he loved me, we agreed that Key & Peele was the funniest show ever. But how much better could it be if he quit breezing into our bathroom without knocking? I urged him to find out. Bill, in turn, suggested I might give him fewer guilt trips for letting our shower become a sanctuary for rare species of mildew.
The thing that helped most, in our campaign for courtesy, was to ask ourselves: Would I treat someone at the office this way?
A few weeks in, we realized we had turned a corner. Bill was remembering to knock at least half the time. I was restricting my chore reminders to once a week (usually). We said “please” and “thank you” more often. If Bill was writing at home, I channeled my thoughtful workplace self and resisted the impulse to pelt him with questions all day. We kept a lid on our tempers. As you might expect, all this gave our household happiness a serious boost.
Soon I found myself trying harder with other members of the family, too.
There was our 14-year-old son, for instance, whom I had conveniently “forgotten” to pay for hours and hours of baby-sitting his sister. If he had been an adult employee of mine, he could long since have sued me for back pay and won. I finally gave him the cash and also let him know I was donating to Wikipedia in his honor. (The kid loves Wikipedia.) A few days afterward—I don’t think it was a coincidence—he came up to me out of the blue and gave me a big, gangly teenage hug.
Then there was our 8-year-old daughter, who had begged me for months to help her make a charm bracelet. Every week she asked, “Can we do it now?” Every week I said, “Soon…” I was acting, I realized, like a boss I once had who kept postponing a pet project of mine until I got so frustrated I literally banged my head against a wall (where he could see me do it, of course). So one day before my daughter quite reached that point, I cleared my schedule, grabbed my box of wire and beads, and told her to meet me at the kitchen table. Her squeals of delight probably woke dogs in the next ZIP code.
Last but not least, there were my parents and brother. I would never let a message from an editor go days without an answer, but that’s what often happened with email and voicemail from Mom, Dad and Barr. So—just as I would with work-related replies—I started putting them on my calendar: Msg M & D re visit. Call B & catch up!!! Whether they’ve noticed the drop in my turnaround time, I can’t say. But I’ve definitely noticed a drop in my tendency to feel like a jerk.
The new Do Unto Family as You Would Unto Colleagues policy hasn’t been foolproof, it’s true. Bill and I have backslid into bickering plenty of times over such pressing issues as whether it’s OK to scrub a pizza stone with soap and whether a person, fed up with his spouse’s no-soap stance, is certifiable for suggesting paint thinner instead. Overall, though, the rise in politeness has been pronounced. So pronounced, in fact, that Bill recently turned to me in bed and said:
“For the next half-hour or so, could we not treat each other like colleagues?”