February 21, 2010
Very Civilly Yours
Lately I’ve been irked by the lack of civility that has hit our country like some sort of syllabic plague. A few years back National Public Radio ran a story about George Washington and the fact that when he was a mere lad, he took it upon himself to handwrite a little something he called, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which were built upon a number of 6th-century guidelines he’d gleaned from some Jesuit gentlemen.
When I read the list, it made me wonder. What happened to us and by “us,” I mean our society? Sometimes we are just plain not nice to one another. I notice this when I flick on a news show and watch a panel interview. The people don’t even allow each other to finish breathing in and out, let alone finish their sentences. A question is asked of the guest, she is poised to answer, takes a breath, utters a syllable, followed by heading into a conversational direction related to the question and then some numskull goes out of turn and rips into her. George dealt with this issue in #6 on his list when he stated, “…speak not when you should hold your peace.” There isn’t a whole bunch of peace holding out there, or listening, as far as I can see.
George Washington was probably a teenager right about the time when he set forth his intentions as to how he wanted to live his life and how others might follow suit. I’m thinking teenagers have changed quite a bit since the 18th century because we know he was most likely not spending his time rolling his eyes when his parents were talking, as is evidenced by #12 where he writes, “roll not the eyes; lift not one eyebrow higher than the other.”
The father of our country wasn’t spending all of his time standing in front of the mirror either, preening as he admired the cut of his jib, (although there are plenty of paintings of George, so he was not adverse to a pose here and there). He was a thinking man who did something with his time by establishing a respectful tone, as he sets forth in #49, “use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.” Notice he didn’t add, “…until they have left the room” or “…unless you act anonymously.”
I’ve always known I’m no Mother Teresa but, as it turns out, I’m no George Washington either because I’m guilty of not even making a list about treating people respectfully, let alone checking it twice. And the details on our Potomac River-rider’s list? Whew! No less than 19 points of the 110-point list deal with the consumption of food, followed by all manner of...manners.
George knew how important it is to refrain from irritating behavior, like crunching carrots, sniffing incessantly or tapping your foot to that new kid, Mozart’s, music. He takes this point on with number #4 on his list where it includes taking note of the distraction that is a “humming voice.”
I ask you, now, to join me in my vow to be a more civilized person of whom George Washington would be extremely proud, adhering to the number one Rule of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
And for those who have difficulty keeping a civil tongue in their head, let us not engage with them negatively, but instead bid them adieu with a jaunty, “Have a nice day!”