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Can Common Courtesy Really Improve Your Relationship?

Art of Relationships podcast graphic, Chris and Alisa holding hands

Can small, every day courtesies really make a difference in a relationship? In today's podcast, Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace share how simple acts of kindness can bring results you might not be expecting.  

Mandy: Welcome to another Art of Relationships Podcast. We are grateful for listeners like you. Let's get right into it.

Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another podcast. It's really good Lisa to be here. It's so fun to have Mandy introducing us.

Alisa Grace: Yeah. I love that Scottish accent every week coming in. She's awesome.

Chris Grace: Well, this is the Art of Relationships Podcast. Chris, my wife, Alisa. We've been doing this for a little while now. Lis, one of the cool things is we get to work at the Center for Marriage and Relationships, which is at Biola University.

Alisa Grace: Yeah. In fact, this podcast is produced by the Center for Marriage and Relationships at Biola. So we would love for you to go check out our website at So today, we actually got an interesting message from someone who sent their question into the CMR. Chris, do you want to talk about it? You want to start us off?

Chris Grace: It was cool. Someone named Joshua, and he did just asked if we ever did a podcast on courtesy, the role of courtesy in things like marriage, and talked about a quote that he came across in Severe Mercy about whatever one of us is asked the other to do, it was assumed the asked would weigh all the consequences the other would do. Thus, one might wake the other in the night and ask for a cup of water and the other would peacefully and sleepy fetch it. 

Alisa Grace: Yeah. Right. 

Chris Grace: Then it says, we in fact defined courtesy as a cup of water in the night and we considered a very great courtesy to ask for the cup as well as to fetch it. So what is it then Lis? The question is about small things matter because they teach us to be not only courteous, but serving and kind, and the more we know about it and the more we know about each other, he asked too, it seems like the more we are aware of who they are. So it's a great topic. What do you think about small courtesies, small kindnesses that have a huge impact in any relationship?

Alisa Grace: Yeah, well, before you were reading that, it made me think of the book that came out years ago called Everything Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Isn't common courtesy the ability and propensity to say please and thank you often? I mean, isn't that just the baseline of common courtesy that we should be using in our relationships?

Chris Grace: Yeah. It seems like it. I think what this question is getting at is, you're right, something we learned early on. In fact, if you ever watched kids on the Halloween kind of tricks that parents have learned to pull on their kids is the next morning after Halloween, they say, "Kid, I ate all of your candy. I'm really sorry," and they film them. 

Alisa Grace: Oh, yeah. 

Chris Grace: When they do that, I find it interesting, some of the kids know cry or are sad or can't believe it, that someone that they love and trust betrayed them. But some of the kids go, "It's okay, mommy. I know. You're okay, mommy. that's fine, you ate all and it's okay." But I think what's interesting about it is when you're young, you say my love and my trust for you is so important that even though this is something that I was looking forward to and wanting, and you didn't fulfill that, you're still in my sphere of love. I know you would never do anything to harm me or ask for something weird like a cup of water in the middle of the night that you yourself could get.

So what do you think, Lis, that those small little things that we do, so maybe we should talk about, what are they and what have we found successful, the small courtesy? So, I mean, we know the word. We know what it's like. But it sometimes comes down to who gets to... Do you wait for the other person before you start eating? You both have your meals and a small courtesy, as if we're friends and their meal hasn't come at a restaurant, we wait for them. It's a small courtesy, but not everybody does. If your spouse gets their meal first-

Alisa Grace: I'm thinking of somebody in particular. We've talked about that before. 

Chris Grace: Yeah. So how often do we then just sit there and say, "No, we should do this." It's the small little thing. So a small courtesy of waiting. Or how about another small courtesy of making sure that you're quiet in the morning if you wake up first and the small courtesy of closing the door or keeping the lights down low or keeping sound down or a small courtesy of when you fill up the other's car with gas. You know what, there are a lot of them that can make a huge impact.

Alisa Grace: It's funny. John Gottman, the leading marital researcher, he says that it's the small acts of everyday common courtesy and kindnesses that makes the biggest difference in a relationship. So when I think about that, Chris, I think about like an example of that just in our everyday life, that's kind of funny that we make a joke of it, but actually when I stop and think about it really means a lot to me. That's when if we're sharing a piece of food or something like that, you always make sure to give me the last bite. Even if we've shared it equally, it's like if there's one bite left, you'll hand it to me.

So then I'm mindful of that and so I take that and I bite that in half and then you take it and you bite in half. Pretty soon, we're like handing back and forth the nibbles and it becomes a contest to see who can make the other one eat the last bite. But what that communicates to me is just an awareness of, "Hey, Lis, I see you. You're important to me and I want to make sure that I go above and beyond a give. I want to be the giver in this and it's my joy to give to you." That's just one of the fun, silly ways that we've incorporated that into our relationship that actually goes a long way and means a lot.

Chris Grace: It's interesting. I wonder Alisa, sometimes courtesies in some area are easier than courtesies or kindnesses in another area. So when we go out, we share our plate. We tend to divide it equally. Or we don't even divide it. We just share and if I get X and you get Y, we'll be back and forth and we want to give each other the last bite and we say, "No, no, you take that." It's a hard courtesy sometimes for me to have learned. It's a hard kindness because I like to eat, like you do, and I want to be full and I want to have the food that I like. I may not like yours, but you might like mine. Then all of a sudden now, I'm getting half of what I wanted.

So for some people, that courtesy may be a challenge. They're like, "I can't do that. We got to divide our food or I get at my own plate." It's okay for you to have that area where maybe you don't share. But maybe there's other areas where you do it easier. Now, I think that sometimes we should be challenging ourselves if we are feeling like maybe this is an area for me that's really hard. Maybe I need to work on what Paul talked about, right? The idea of do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind. Regard one another is more important than yourselves, right? 

Do not only look out for your personal interest, for the interest of others. Now, do I want to go fill the car up with gas? No, I haven't driven the car in three weeks. So why would I have to? It's a small courtesy. Do I like to get out of the car, fill it up, pull in? No, I don't want to do any of that. That's a harder one. So I could just drive home and leave it. So Lis, what are your thoughts? Some courtesies are easier for some people. Maybe dividing food or letting them eat off your plate or getting up early.

Alisa Grace: Well, let me ask you this. When you think about that, you say that they're hard. In your mind, what do you think makes it hard to do those small acts of kindness on a regular basis? What makes it hard? 

Chris Grace: Well, it's interesting that you brought up John Gottman because he would've said that, and he does say, these are called turn toward bids, bids for attention sometimes. We can turn toward our partner or away. I remember some of the research showing that those couples that tend to turn toward have a little bit easier time. So maybe if you're used to turning away or... I think some people might struggle with a small kindness or a small courtesy. Or you remember in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she pulls up and they're waiting at the train station and she pulls up in and they go, "Did you bring a lot of luggage?" They said, "No." She said, "Small favors" or small blessings or whatever.

Alisa Grace: Small favors.

Chris Grace: Small favors. Well, she was maybe being a little sarcastic, but the idea is sometimes we look at another person's behavior and we think, "Wow, that was just a small favor, a small blessing." But it can have a huge impact. The hard part is when I struggle maybe with the relationship isn't going as well, or maybe I feel taken advantage of. Maybe I'm feeling like I always share, but you never do. I always fill the gas thing up, but she never does. All of a sudden now, I'm starting to keep a sheet, a calculus.

Alisa Grace: A tally. Yeah.

Chris Grace: A tally. I've done X, Y, Z. Not only that, but I started with A, B and C, and my spouse really is not the kind that is small favored kindnesses, and that would be hard.

Alisa Grace: Yeah. I completely agree with that. I think another reason would also be maybe latent anger. We had a fight yesterday and I'm still not completely over it. So I have the opportunity to, hey, I'm getting myself a glass of tea and I see you sitting in there and you don't have one. I could just go ahead and make a glass for you and bring it to you, but I still have some of that residual anger left over. So, well, forget that. You can get your own. I'm just going to get mine. So maybe latent anger.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Or maybe not latent, you're just ticked, right, and it's-

Alisa Grace: Passive-aggressive. I'm going to show you I'm angry.

Chris Grace: Yeah. I think that's right, Lis. I think sometimes in relationships, even in ours, if you feel like the other has taken advantage of you, maybe they're not quite as kind, it's always one-sided, I give 10% percent, they give 50, whatever. The calculus that we use and those tally sheets sometimes can work. Obviously, they start to work against us. People talk about 50-50. We never buy that. Hopefully you've heard this for the listeners. A 50-50 marriage is really messed up. It needs to be a 100-100. In fact, it needs to be a 110-110, if you can. You're always giving more. You're always giving 100%. You're always looking out for their interest. The hope and goal is that the other person does. It's hard if they don't. It's 100-50.

Now, one interesting study, Lis, is they asked couples, how much housework do you do? How many of the small things do you do? Almost everybody overestimated the amount that they do while the other person overestimated the amount that they do. So it go is like this, the person would say, "I always do 80% of the housework." It's supposed to be, even, let's say. "I do 80, they do 60." "Or I do 80% of the small favors. They do 40." People overestimate. The question is always the same, well, why are people always overestimating and underestimating the other? Maybe, Lis, the researchers found that it had something to do with I see my behavior all the time, I know when I do small favors, I know when I put gas, I know and I recall those and so I'm always going to overestimate. While the other person, I don't always see or remember or I didn't do it and so I underestimate.

Alisa Grace: That is a great point. So maybe oftentimes our partner is doing some small things and we're just not noticing.

Chris Grace: Oh yeah. That's good.

Alisa Grace: We're not aware of it. One thing that John Gottman points out as well is the need for people to take notice of the small everyday ordinary things like taking out the trash. Well, okay. Nobody should be getting a big medal in life because they took the trash out, right? They should just go take the trash out because it needs to be taken out. But the more successful relationships, the more successful marriages do take note and call out those ordinary kind of kindnesses every day. Who was it? Amy Gordon researcher, Dr. Amy Gordon says  that, "Not only do I notice that my partner takes out the trash and not only am I grateful that he takes out the trash, but I go a step further and I'm grateful that I have the kind of partner that would take out at the trash because they know I hate to do it."

So that's a subtle nuance right there that not only am I aware that my partner, this other person, maybe it's your kids even, it's not just limited to a spouse, maybe it's your roommate that you live with, not only are they doing just common, ordinary everyday chores, but we're saying thank you and taking notice because they don't have to do it in the first place, right? I mean, life works better when we do those kind of things. But even knowing that we have the kind of roommate or friend or partner that will do that because maybe they know we hate to do it, or they just go out of their way and things go smoother when we notice those small things and we say, "Hey, thanks for taking out the trash. I know you didn't have to."

Chris Grace: Yeah. That's so cool. 

Alisa Grace: Thanks for filling my car up with gas. I know you didn't have to. Right? Thanks for making their lunch last night before we went to bed so I didn't have to do it this morning. Thank you.

Chris Grace: Yeah. I think that's so cool because it goes like this, it's not just that we do or somebody does something for us. So let's start with the finding in psychology that shows that we tend to overestimate the things that we do, the small favors, because we've done them and we're aware of them. They're easily to pull from our attention and from our memory. While I may not necessarily see or remember or think about the ones that my partner has done for me, the small things, and so we overestimate.

But I think Lis, what you added was the solution to that is then to be very good at calling out and remembering and making an intentional memory of when the other person does it. The way you do that is by calling it out and saying, "Hey, that was really cool of you to take the trash out. Thank you so much." Versus, oh yeah. Okay, good. They finally did it. Right? So different. So, Lis, it's funny because I think what you're starting to get at is we start to see this idea of small blessings, small favors, small courtesies are things in which require do you think a response on our part that is. Is it really something that you appreciate and are grateful for if you never call it out? 

So someone does something small and you think, "Yeah, okay. Well, they should do that anyway." Or, "Oh, well, I'm glad they brought me my tea, because I brought them coffee last week." Right? It it's almost as if part of the equation here is not just to be intentional about small courtesies, which by the way, we are saying are the key to happy relationships and one of the smallest things that we can do have some of the greatest benefits and that's just doing small kindnesses. But Alisa, it's also then you're saying that it's the ability then or the solution to our overemphasizing ourselves as the cause of events, the actor who's doing more of these things, is to begin to call out the other person and that involves saying something grateful or being thankful.

Alisa Grace: Yeah. I love that quote by, he's an American author, William Arthur Ward. He said this about expressing gratitude. He said, "Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." So there's an important part of this cycle of a healthy relationship of, for first of all, noticing those small acts of kindness and small acts of thoughtfulness that our partner or the other person does, but it's going the next step of remembering to say thank you. Thank you. Gosh, I really appreciate that.

Chris Grace: Man. That's good, Lis. Being able to you not express it can actually... Well, okay. Let's take it down to now even other relationships. Certainly in a marriage, in strong marriages, we've already established the fact that small kindnesses are good. They happen more often in good marriages. But you can feel inequity that you're doing more. Maybe the solution to that is to begin to say, "Well, hold on here. Just because the other person doesn't doesn't mean I can't. Just because the other person isn't doing this on a regular basis does not mean in that I should do this. I'm going to, in fact." 

So Lis, I want to go to all relationships in just a minute, but let's leave the marriage one with this last thought from you. If somebody, for example, isn't really feeling comfortable about doing the small things. I remember some advice you gave and maybe we talked about it on a podcast before. I can't remember. They said, "I no longer do the small things like greeting my husband at the door." I remember you saying, "Because he doesn't come in and say hi to me and he just walks in and leaves. Or if I come in late, he just doesn't come and greet me. I just decided, well, forget it." But you told her something very interesting.

Alisa Grace: I told her about that research that shows when we behave a certain way, that our emotions begin to follow. So if the idea of going to the door to greet her husband at the door, usually she's in the kitchen or maybe in another part of the house, he comes in, they kind of yell, "Hello, I'm home." Okay. They keep doing whatever it was they were doing. Well, what I told her to do was, "If you want to start feeling that excitement about him coming home, then you have to act excited. So think back to those early days of when you were very first married. How did you behave when one of you came home?" 

It's like, oh gosh, you drop everything you're doing and you run to the door. You give kisses, you're hugging. How was your day? You're looking him in the eye. You're smiling and say, "Ah, I missed you today. I'm so glad you're home". Well, imagine if we kept doing that. So what she reported, she was like, "Oh." She really didn't buy into it at first, but I got to hand it to her because she was willing to try. I said, "Try it every day for two weeks and see what happens."

Sure enough, she said, "Oh my gosh. After just to a couple of days, I began to notice that I was looking forward to him coming home. Not only that, when he walked in the door, it's like he stopped. He put his like his satchel down and he looked for me. Instead of just going off to go do what he would normally do, he paused and he looked for me like, 'Hey, where are you? Why aren't I getting my hug and my kiss'?" There was that expectation of that positive interaction now that they both began to look forward to. It was such a small little change in her behavior that she initiated that led to more and more and more changes in the relationship.

Chris Grace: Her emotion and her excitement coming in. 

Alisa Grace: Yeah.

Chris Grace: By the way, I think that is a great example of how in any relationship you can begin to do something, even if it feels inequitable. I would challenge people to be careful about the 50-50 relationship. Instead, not just even a 100-100. You give 110. Even if the other person doesn't. You love them and win them. Now again, in very difficult busted, broken relationships and marriages, there's more scarring, more deep pain and sometimes little tweaks like this don't always work. But that's a different story and different example and a different podcast, so.

Alisa Grace: Yeah, absolutely. Chris, I wanted to also bring up this thought too, is we are really, really good about finding the things that are wrong, right? When you get some evaluations back, maybe from a group activity, you can have 99 of them that are glowing and positive, but you're going to remember that one that said something negative and it kind of colors the whole thing, right? So we're really good at picking out the negative in each other. We're really good at what you didn't do right and I'm going to call that out. I'm going to make sure you know that you messed up. Well, what if we unilaterally made a decision, okay, for a whole week, I'm not going to complain this week. I'm just not going to complain. I'm not going to point out what you did wrong, where you fell short, what I would done better, had I been doing it.

But I think we would really be shocked at the amount of negativity that comes out in our perspective. What if instead we made a point to only point out and to be very quick about pointing out the good things the other person did. Whether it's, "Hey, I appreciate you working hard for us and you've got a really strong work ethic. I really appreciate that." I don't know. It's got to be the other person is, I don't know, really struggling, and maybe they do more things wrong than they do good. But I think what happens is when we begin to point out the positives and we call that out in each other, that creates the desire in the other person to want to do better because we really like getting those strokes instead of getting our hands spatted all the time.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Well, guess what you just defined. You just defined what people have called the emotionally intelligent marriage. The emotionally intelligent marriage is when you don't allow the negative small, little critical things to overwhelm the positive good feelings that you've had and those that have landed upon a good connected marriage. I think Gottman is the one that called this an emotionally intelligent marriage first was it's because they keep those positives so strong and so often, like the gratitude for a whole week without complaining, they don't get overwhelmed by the negative. 

Let's switch now. Let's just talk about in general small courtesies and kindnesses now in other relationships. Here's one. You and I both teach classes at a university. We speak at conferences with family life, let's say, or growing healthy relationships or all these other groups. One of the interesting things that I've noticed is that people in general, when there are a lot of people, let's say 100 or 200, 300 students in a class, most of them get up and leave at right after class. 

I think a small kindness if I was a student that I remembered was two things. I remember early on on the students that would smile and nod as a small kindness during the lecture like they were there. They knew something and I think they learned something and that is giving feedback to the professor was so important, for many professors, especially when I was younger, that I would glam onto then just keep lecturing to that one student out of 200 in that room that was smiling and nodding and saying they were with me non-verbally.

Some students I learned were with me, but they were non-verbally kind of checked out or they weren't paying attention to their face or they looked distracted. They may or may not have been, I've learned. But it was the ones that smiled and nodded. So here's my thought, if you're a student or if somebody has done something well, served you well in a restaurant or in a checkout line or driving or they lecture, let them know. Sometimes just take off and say, "Hey, thanks for that lecture. That was awesome. Thank you so much." You know how much time a lot of faculty put into of these lectures, how much effort they put into speaking, or how much effort they put into preaching or leading a group or chauffeuring people around?

That kid that gets out, walks up and says, "You know what, I really appreciate the fact that you drove us up the mountain today. Thank you. I really appreciate the fact that you took us a beach today. I really appreciate the fact that you lectured today. Thank you so much. That was awesome. Thanks for all your hard work." We could do that on a daily basis. Those are the small gratitudes and courtesies that you start to practice now that could help you in relationships.

Alisa Grace: It not only makes the recipient of that courtesy feel good, but it makes us feel good and doing it.

Chris Grace: By giving it. Yeah. 

Alisa Grace: Yeah. I even think about driving on the freeway and you're on the freeway and here comes all the traffic trying to merge over. There's always that little side of you that wants to hurry up and get just ahead of the other car so that I can be in front of them and make them go behind me. Well, what if I were to just go ahead and let that other car merge? Oh my gosh. We avoid a potential road rage situation or accident. But then too, you just figure, well, what else? Another small kindness. Paying for somebody's coffee in the line behind you at McDonald's or Starbucks. 

I did that one day, Chris. Yeah. I don't know if I told you this, actually. I paid for the car behind me. I think it was at a McDonald's. There was a couple behind me. I didn't know them. I just thought, "You know what, I'm just going to do this little fun thing." So I paid for them and I told the cashier, "Just tell them have a blessed day." I said, "And I want you to have a blessed day too." She's like, "Oh wow, thank you." So as I'm pulling out, I can see in my rear view mirror that car's pulling up behind me and they're having the conversation. As I'm pulling out of the driveway and back onto the street, they wave and wave and wave and I smile and I wave like, "Yeah, you're welcome. You're welcome."

Well, I go on my way. I go down about two blocks down and I pull over and I'm filling up my car with gas. Well, as I'm filling up my car with gas, I can see out of the corner of my eye that there's a man walking towards me. So already as a female, that's just going to put me on high alert, like, "Okay, it's not like I'm freaking out." But I'm aware of my surroundings and I'm aware there's a strange man making a beeline towards me right here at the gas station. So I just kind of keep doing what I'm doing, but he comes up to me and he says, "Excuse me." I just know the next word out of his mouth is, "Yeah. Do you have some spare change?" Something like that. I don't get paid till Friday.

But actually what he said, "Excuse me." I said, "Yeah," and turned around, "Yeah. What can I help you with?" He says, "Yeah, I was the car behind you back there at McDonald's and you paid for our food. I was so struck by that. I just wanted to know why you did it." I was floored. I had no idea that this was the same guy, because it was far enough and couldn't see him and I was like, "Wow, I just wanted to do something nice for somebody today. The Lord's blessed me in so many ways and I just want to fill that blessing out and put it out there for other people too so they can feel the blessing of the Lord." He says, "I just came back from the military. We're really struggling financially. I just want you to know how much that meant to my wife and me. Thank you."

You could have picked my jaw up off the ground. Had no idea. The fact that he actually pursued me, number one, was a little dangerous, but it was amazing that he went to that length to say thank you. I guess it's just to say you never know what that small kindness. Somebody actually told me the other day. I don't know why people pay for people behind them. They should give that money to like people who really need it, not somebody that could go and buy their own thing. I just said, "Well, you never know what's going on in that person's life. You never know what the smallest act of kindness what it might mean to them." She's like, "Yeah." So.

Chris Grace: So yeah, that's really cool Lis. What a great story. I love it. It's a good story of taking and doing something that communicates kindness, courtesy, but it also communicates respect and that's an effort. It took a little bit of effort and it blesses you too just to go up and say thank you to somebody that has done something small. I love that. It's just an amazing example of the way in which we can influence and do the small things. So what a great way for not just people that have impacted us, even strangers, it takes effort in relationships to show that my small little things required me to think about something and we're front and center in another person's thoughts like that. 

It does communicate what a great opportunity also to be a witness for who God is and who Jesus is and what he's done in your life to say the Lord has blessed me. It's just my opportunity to say, yeah, if you want to know, it's because I think God has given me something pretty powerful and that's life in his son and his spirit and what that means for me as it's changed my life and what that means. I like to look at people differently. I see them as God, hopefully sees them. Sometimes, it makes me even want to help in a way and because what Jesus did for me.

Alisa Grace: I love that.

Chris Grace: That could be a great way of getting your testimony out there.

Alisa Grace: Absolutely. I guess we can, as we start to wrap this up today, I think that quote from John Gottman that he says, "Never underestimate the power of doing those small acts of kindness because it's those small things that can occupy the largest part of someone's heart."

Chris Grace: Wow.

Alisa Grace: I love that.

Chris Grace: Man. 

Alisa Grace: Good stuff. 

Chris Grace: I think we just end right there.

Alisa Grace: All right.

Chris Grace: Well, it's good to talk about small things. You, of all people, Lis, are amazing at doing that in the marriage and in our relationship. You've always been awesome. Not just for the guy that's behind you in at McDonald's, but you do that in marriage and it's awesome. Small little things and saying thank you and doing little kindnesses and favors. I do 95% of the things that you do less, but oh wait. No, wait, that's the other...

Alisa Grace: That was a conversation we had early on in our marriage, wasn't it?

Chris Grace: No, it's a great way to end it. Not the way I ended it, but the way you did, which is it occupies the largest part of their heart. Awesome. Well, it's good talking with you.

Alisa Grace: You too. Don't forget to check us out at If you have a question or you have an issue or topic that you would like for us to address here on the podcast, just shoot us an email at, and you never know, we might answer it right here on the podcast. So thanks, Chris.

Chris Grace: You too, Lis. Thanks. 

Alisa Grace: Okay. Bye bye.

Mandy: Thanks for listening to the Art of Relationships. This podcast is only made possible through generous donations from listeners just like you. If you like it and want to help keep the podcast going, visit our website at and make a donation.