George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. As I read all 110 of them, many, if not most, of those listed are still appropriate today. I remember being taught many of them in my youth. So what happened during the last several decades? I am sure that many of you have noticed the steep decline in simple civil discourse; people seem to yell, berate, and condemn those with dissimilar points of view. People forget the common courtesies of relinquishing one’s seat on a public conveyance to a elderly or disabled person or pregnant woman. Adolescents walk around with an air of entitlement as if they were the only persons in the room. People talk on cell phones in public spaces as if it were their own personal phone booth. And the list goes on.
Here are a few of the rules from Washington’s original list:
- Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.
- When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.
- In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.
- If You cough, sneeze, sigh, or yawn, do it not loud but privately; and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.
- Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
- Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.
How many of us have experienced people who have yawned with their mouths wide open and continued to talk while doing so? How many of us have had someone sneeze or cough without covering their mouth? How many times have we watched someone adjust their undergarments in public or while in our presence? How often have we watched someone drum their fingers in a meeting or while dining with someone? How many of us are guilty of these very same acts?
In George Washington’s day, civility was paramount. It stemmed from the British who for centuries have been acknowledged for their proper manners and formal behaviors, i.e., their civility. Though the U. S. began with the settlers from England, once they began the expansion to the West, the rough and tumble life of the pioneer, left little time or interest in civility. Survival was key. And gradually, in the process, civility became less important and in some quarters was dropped altogether. Furthermore, as the urban cities along the eastern seaboard became more congested as wave after wave of immigrants came ashore, the blending various cultures diluted the British civility. The cities thus lost much of its British formality.
When people live far from one another in the open plains, sometimes miles apart, the necessity or even the opportunity for civil discourse is minimal. Urban environments, crowded cities, and increasing populations, however, require civility in order that people get along with one another when in close proximity. It is time to re-visit therules of civility and come up with a set that is appropriate for the 21st century. Civility must be taught. It does not come naturally.
If you were contributing to the development of a variation of George Washington’s list, what would you include? Mine would include:
- Be gracious with all those you encounter.
- Be tolerant of people whose point of view may be different than your own.
- Be generous of spirit, engaging people as you would wish to be engaged.
- Avoid interrupting others with whom you are engaged in conversation; give them room to complete their thought.
- Chew with your mouth closed; use a napkin when dining, keeping one on your lap though-out the meal.
- Cover your mouth with your left hand (because you shake hands with your right hand) and look away when coughing, sneezing, or yawning.
- When in the presence of others, do not adjust your undergarments and avoid touch those parts of your body below your waist.
- Be conscious of violating the personal space of others by either your hand gestures or body movements.
- Use your cell phone discretely when in the presence of others; be mindful of their privacy if not your own.
- Never speak on your cell phone during dinner with others.
- Return calls and email within 48-hours.
- Always respond to invitations, especially those marked RSVP.
- When carrying on a conversation, modulate your voice such only those with whom you are speaking can comfortably hear you.
- When dining with others, do not use your fingers to eat your food (except those food designated as “finger foods).
- When in the presence of others, keep your fingers from entering your mouth, nose, or ears.
This is just my beginning. What would yours be?
Civility makes crowded daily life in relationship to others more bearable. Civility reminds us that while we may not be able to control the world around us, we can control our own behavior. We can be the type of person we would like to have in our life. We can change the way in which people act toward us by being an example of how we would like to be treated. We can create a more civil society one person at a time…by beginning with ourselves.
[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica - Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating "like" on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]