More Than Manners: The Role of Civility In Society Today

Civility

For many years, I lived in the area of northern Virginia that was originally part of George Washington’s estate. Mount Vernon’s home was just a few miles from mine along a meandering tree-lined road called the George Washington Memorial Parkway. My husband at the time, Ben Jarratt, spent his college years at Washington and Lee University, where his education imprinted on him the responsibility to live up to the ideals of our first president. Sprinkled about our American colonial-style home was the lore of George Washington. His Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation had a prominent place on our bookshelf.

As a young man of fourteen, George recorded in the back of a school notebook, in his own beautiful handwriting, a list of inviolable tenets that would guide him throughout his life. Today, Washington is often credited as the author of “the rules,” but he actually took them from a French etiquette book written by a Jesuit priest in 1595. The book offered practical advice to young noblemen who were destined to fill positions in high society.

I wondered how George Washington’s rules of civility might apply today. Some of the guidelines seem very arcane compared to how we now live, and perhaps they don’t even apply anymore. For example, most of us never have to worry about “hearth etiquette”: “Spit not in the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it” (rule 9).

Most of the maxims in the guide, however, are timeless reminders to always look out for the comfort of others: “Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop” (rule 6). And then there’s empathy: “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy” (rule 22); simple respect: “Whisper not in the company of others” (rule 77); and just good old table manners: “Being set at meat, scratch not, neither spit, cough, or blow your nose, except [when] there’s a necessity for it” (rule 90) and “Talk not with meat in your mouth” (rule 107).

The directives are much more than mere mechanical, polite responses to social scenarios; rather, they focus on our relationships and interactions with each other through such qualities as courtesy, humility, trust, honor, and respect. Just as in Washington’s day, we can look to timeless concepts that celebrate the fundamental values of civility. They worked centuries ago, they work now, and they can sustain us in the future—if we put them into practice.

Now, let’s address a common snag in our thinking that we need to adjust: the idea that the world’s challenges with incivility are insurmountable and that we can’t contribute to solving them for the following reasons/excuses:

At first glance, the preceding reasons seem to be pretty valid excuses to justify putting up with uncivil behavior. I hear you and acknowledge the legitimacy of those statements, but I invite you to come along with me on this journey to newfound civility in society. I ask you to suspend disbelief for the time being and ponder what would happen if we flipped the script and made the statements above into positively framed, actionable concepts.

Most people would say civility is about being kind to each other and having decent manners. That’s a good start, but it’s far from a complete consideration. Civility is about so much more than paying lip service to good manners to win a promotion, a bonus, or a popularity contest. Genuine civility is not about using rehearsed charm to persuade others to do our bidding. Real civility—which does, of course, incorporate good manners—is actually selflessness. It’s about recognizing the humanity in the people around us and in ourselves, so we can find our way forward together in life, even if we disagree with each other. Civility—unpretentious, generous-of-heart behavior—raises us all. It’s a win-win when it’s implemented.

Incivility shuts down discourse, while real civility encourages open lines of communication and the freedom to share ideas among ourselves. Civility is not about what we must refrain from saying to avoid hurting another’s feelings. It’s about saying exactly how we feel and what we believe in a way that will be heard and understood—gently enough so that we will be motivated to think through our own beliefs and ponder change. 

We must remember that humans have different backgrounds, traditions, values, financial situations, and so on. We don’t have the same opportunities or experiences. Sadly, we just don’t see everything through the same lens. We must extend to others the freedom to be different from ourselves without judging. Judgment is not within our purview; it’s not our job.

We must all learn how to coexist productively and peaceably on this planet while, at the same time, celebrating the freedom of the individual to be a unique and independent being. That’s all. That’s how we build a civil society. And it’s a DIY solution—it doesn’t cost anything, require much time, or require influence. On the other hand, the lack of civility could cost us everything. Even when we’re tired, distracted, or triggered when confronted with uncivil behavior, we can still incorporate a practice of civility into our lives. Let’s build bridges of communication and learn how to tolerate and understand ideas other than our own. Let’s learn to discuss and dissent while expanding our belief in the freedom of expression. The future of our freedom will depend entirely upon the renewal of our societal commitment to civility. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

SHELBY SCARBROUGH began her career in the White House as a member of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s advanced team, where she helped coordinate such landmark events as the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow Summit. She then served as a protocol officer in the U.S. Department of State. In 1990, Shelby founded Practical Protocol, LLC, a company that plans bespoke events for foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa.

Shelby’s experiences in both public service and the private sector have given her a unique insight into the practices that lead to positive relationships and productive communication between individuals, countries, and societies. Shelby resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a speaker, entrepreneur, and writer.

Excerpt from Civility Rules! by Shelby Joy Scarbrough

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