THE BLOG

The Best Gift to Give This Holiday Season

12/18/2013 01:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

Don't be "That Lady" This Holiday Season

Wondering what to get friends and family, or how to teach your kids to "give back" during the holidays?

Decades ago, my mom taught me a very simple lesson, which I now realize was a true gift to last lifetime.

She said, "Be kind to the waitress and cashier behind the counter. They could be someone's mom, dad, sister or brother. How would you want people to treat me? Say thank you, look them in the eye and let them know you appreciate their help -- they are people with families and lives, just like you."

Here in the tony Boston suburbs, I hear much earnest talk about "the importance of giving back." It rings a bit hollow, a catchphrase betrayed by the "me first" behavior on display in check-out lines and parking lots of the local Trader Joe's, Target and Whole Foods. (I've noticed this more at upscale retailers. Makes sense, right?)

It's pretty funny to see a mom in yoga pants and a puffy North Face jacket cutting in front of you to get their kid to ballet class with the same sense of urgency and self-importance as certain senators rushing toward cameras at a press conference. As if "giving back" makes you a good person and treating other people with courtesy is irrelevant.

Kids learn not by what adults say about "being a good person," but by how they see us treat cashiers and fellow shoppers in stores and parking lots (at least that was my experience). This holiday season, we can all give our children, family and friends (and fellow shoppers and ourselves) a gift that lasts a lifetime:

1. Be kind and respectful to the person serving you behind the counter. Lose the "if you are doing a service job in my neighborhood, you can't afford to live here and are not my peer" vibe. The cashier or server might be as intelligent and hardworking as you believe yourself to be, but was not as lucky to be born to the right parents or go to the right schools (which provide fruitful social connections that help you meet the right people for the right jobs). Or maybe they are doing something really cool and creative and this is a side gig; or they might have been laid off from their higher-paying job (just like yours); or they can't find a job in this market (unless you were job hunting in the great depression, the job market was easier when you were looking). Or they might love their job and be quite happy with it, except when they have to serve people who are rude to them.

2. Be aware of and courteous to people waiting to pay behind you in the check-out line. If someone has only one or two items and you have a cart-full, let them go in front of you. Do not talk on your cell phone; no one wants to hear the details of your life, no matter how interesting you think it is. Have your payment ready, BEFORE the cashier has all your purchases bagged and rung up (even better, help the cashier bag your stuff). Other people have places to go too, don't be "that guy/lady" obliviously holding up everyone in line.

3. Do not try to cut in line and pretend that you didn't know you were doing it, or use your kid/dog/super busy job as an excuse to do it and become indignant when someone calls you out on it. You guys/ladies know who you are. It wasn't cute as a teenager, and it is SUCH bad form as an adult, no matter how eco-friendly, socially conscious or charitable you consider yourself in other realms of your life.

4. Stay off your cell phone when driving in the store parking lot. Do not drive around talking on your cell phone, cutting people off, stealing parking spaces and saying, "Oh, I didn't see you, I was in a rush!" And, if you can be generous of heart when no one is there to give you a gold star for being a good person, let someone have the closer parking space, especially a senior citizen or people with small kids.

5. Do not block intersections with your car. If you can't make it all the way across, stay where you are. By blocking the intersection, you are holding up hundreds of people who are all as busy as you are, on their way to places that are as important as where you are going (I know, hard to believe, but true). Make an effort to actually care about that, and don't hold up everyone in a half-mile radius. You will be a happier and better person for it.

6. Use your indicators when making a turn. It is a common courtesy to use your indicators to let your fellow drivers know where you are headed so they can plan their next move and not crash into you or cut you off. Get in the habit of putting you indicators on. It is stupefyingly easy to do, and there is no excuse not to -- except if they're broken, if you occasionally forget, or if you're a self-absorbed, inconsiderate person who wants to cause accidents.

7. Last but not least, LEAVE A GOOD TIP. Bartenders, waiters and valet parkers depend on tips (not their less-than-minimum-wage paycheck) to feed their families, put gas in the tank or buy beer. It doesn't matter how much money you have or don't have. If you get good service, tip 20 percent plus. If you feel like you can't afford a good tip, do not order the meal. Get something cheaper and tip accordingly. If you have kids and they are making a mess and your server is nice, leave 30 percent, because your table is a lot of extra work. If the restaurant is busy and you are taking a really long time, lingering and chatting over coffee or water refills, leave 30 percent, the server could be making another tip off of a new customer if not for your catch-up session. If you feel you are getting bad service or bad food, ask to speak to the manager. The only reason to leave less that 15 percent is if you had bad service and the manager wouldn't talk with you. If you leave a shitty tip, and don't try to remedy the issue DURING the meal, chances are you could very well be feigning ignorance and/or fear of conflict to weasel out of paying what you should. Sorry to say it, but a bad tipper often equals a bad person.

God (if you believe in her/him) is kind of like your kids, more influenced not by what charity board you sit on, or how much you give to help communities supporting orphans in Africa (excellent cause by the way) but by how you treat others that are not in your social class or circle when no one is looking.

All of the above lessons were drilled into me growing up. Even then, as much as I try not to be, there are times I've totally been "that lady" (more of the oblivious cell phone stuff, not the bad tipping or stealing parking spaces).

This holiday season I am going to make an extra effort to be aware and not do inconsiderate things that irritate and steal time from other people. I hope you will join me.

We might be able to make this world a more civil place, even if for a little while.

Thanks Mom, I miss you.

(NOTE: Most moms in yoga pants and puffy jackets are very nice. All kinds of people can be rude, and nice. I know. It was just a funny scene.)