Rules of Civility

Rules of CivilityOverheard in a workplace conversation from an older worker to a younger one, “Please compliment your parents for having raised a very well-bred young man.”  The young man had not done anything terribly special.  But he had asked the opinion of the older man, had said, “thank you” when advice had been offered, and had added how he might apply that advice.

“Appreciated your visible support in the meeting”, read the email from Fran to Dean.  Dean had done nothing more than paid attention, smiled at Fran, and nodded.

“Jean’s a great colleague,” said Enid.  “She never blames anyone else when things go wrong.”

Everyone was piling on about Eric, who had made (and admitted) a blunder.  Mike said simply, “I’ve made mistakes, too.”   Later, one of the colleagues commented about Mike, “What I like about him is that he doesn’t criticize.”

What is most striking about each of these interactions is that the unexceptional civility of people has become noteworthy.  Small gestures of good will or of simple politeness still have the power to make a difference in daily lives.

If you ever visited Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, you may be familiar with the 110 ‘rules of civility’ that he wrote, most likely copied out as a young student, based on the manners that were then considered important social guidance of the time.  Although some don’t translate well to today (“Kill no vermin as fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others.”), most bear review even in today’s much more informal times for the value they offer.

Today we won’t cover the first president’s full 110 rules, but some deserve highlighting for the continuing potency they carry.  They were appreciated 250 years ago, and are equally – or perhaps even more – valued today for their increasing rarity.

  1. Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present. Demonstrating respect for people, intentionally, is something we sometimes miss in the crush of busy lives.  But that simple act confers dignity on others and elevates them when so much in the world operates to knock them down.  Respect is a precious gift.
  2. Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth…. Washington here noted all the nonverbal cues of disapproval – eye rolls, head shaking, eyebrow-arching, making wry grimaces.  They haven’t changed!  His point still holds that if you disagree, be clear about it, not indirect.  It sends signals of disrespect.  And we see lots of these today!
  3. Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy. It’s hard not to gloat when we see what we think is a deserving person taken down, but there’s little that defines leadership more than the ability to offer grace.
  4. Take all Admonitions thankfully in what Time or Place Soever given but afterwards not being culpable take a Time [&] Place convenient to let him him know it that gave them. Here is the power of accepting public criticism and correcting inaccuracies in private.  It confers on you the dignity of not making a public row and an escalating confrontation, and saves a colleague a similar public embarrassment if she is wrong.
  5. Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparag[e]ment of any. In other words, take that rumor mill with a grain of salt.  And be especially careful of repeating those ‘flying reports’, even if they can be verified.  That disparagement creates long-lasting harm.  No matter how accurate, is that your intent?  Assume the good intent of others, and go with your own best intent.
  6. When Another Speaks be attentive your Self and disturb not the Audience if any hesitate in his Words help him not nor Prompt him without desired, Interrupt him not, nor Answer him till his Speec[h] be ended. This can be summed up in one word, Listen.  It’s an art we’ve not focused on well recently.  Yet in study after study, it is one of the most appreciated traits of a strong leader.  And the behaviors described by Washington are still pretty much what today’s employees want.
  7. Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. Don’t carry rumors.  They demean you as someone unconcerned with verity.  If you can’t verify it – and if it’s not important information for the organization’s decision-making – all you do is paint yourself as someone who never outgrew the teenage girl stage of life.
  8. Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Ce[les]tial fire Called Conscience. The last of Washington’s rules probably outdoes all the others.  If you remember this one, the rest fall in line.

While Washington’s ‘rules of civility’, by and large, have lost their punch as time has taken its toll on their specificity, it’s good to remember that civility has not lost its punch.  Each of us value dignity, respect, the right to be dealt with fairly, encouragement, and candor.  Those seem simple, but look around you and you know they are rare.  Practice them and you will find they are gifts of unique grace we offer to one another, unimaginably priceless to those who receive them.


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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