If we know nothing of our neighbor's beliefs or background we may unwittingly offend him. If we have only a vague idea of his religious customs and taboos we may seem discourteous by our failure to respect them in our contact with him.
Courtesy is a superficial name for actions that can have a very important place in the character building of a human being. Both children and adults should know about the often unthinking cruelty inherent in intolerance of other religions than their own. And how intolerance often stems from our primitive suspicion of anything that is different or not a part of our own experience.
Many educators believe that one way to help children and adults toward better relations with their fellow man is to give them some knowledge of others' beliefs and customs as a purely educational activity, not with the idea of disturbing their own religious affiliations. There are important differences and similarities between denominations, between the belief of the Roman Catholic and that of the Jew - and among Jews themselves - between what the Quaker believes and what guides the Buddhist or the Greek Catholic. If we think less of the differences and inform ourselves of the similarities I believe we will have a warmer, more understanding attitude toward our neighbors.
The wise parent, I feel, teaches his child that no matter what people's beliefs are, all who follow religion are seeking the same thing, the strength to be good. Or what in their religion teaches them is good and worthy in their day-to-day communion with their fellow men.
Our country may be predominantly Protestant, but the lives of all our minorities are intimately connected with our own, many in very subtle ways. If our Italian tradesmen shut their shops to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony, we may be affected. For that day at least we must find other places to shop, just as on Yom Kippur much business throughout the country slows down or stops or is in some way affected - through the absence of personnel or the closing of some key business houses. If every fourth or fifth person we meet on St. Patrick's Day is wearing the green, we are conscious of the Irish-descended among us, of their predominantly Catholic adherence.
Every community has its minorities. A Methodist is in the minority in an Irish or Italian neighborhood. A white man is in the minority in the Chinatowns or in the Harlems of America. The key to comfortable community life is courtesy - true courtesy that respects the rights and feelings of all. Courtesy and friendly knowledge about your neighbor help prevent tensions. As America grows we'll need, more and more, to use courtesy in our community life.
excerpted from pages 243-244 of:
Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette: A Guide to Gracious Living (1954)