Rules of Civility: Some Advice From the Past and the Present

I recently read a fascinating article in the Epoch Times about, of all things, civility—or the lack of it in today’s politically, socially, and racially fractured world. I decided to share it with readers and my followers. Please take the time to give it a read. You might find it beneficial. I did.


Rules of Civility: Some Advice From the Past and the Present



We don’t hear that word much these days. My online dictionary defines it as “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” Come to think of it, we not only don’t hear much about civility, but we also don’t see much formal courtesy exhibited by most of our public figures or even by some of the people we encounter in everyday life.

Instead, “Do your own thing” and “Be yourself” seem the watchwords of our age.

Look, for instance, at our casual use of language. In some professional settings, we find ourselves addressed right off the bat by our first names. To the doctor or dentist we visit, we’re “Bob” or “Sally.” However, most of us bestow on them the honorific of “doctor,” which, unintentionally or not, places us in a subservient position.

Even worse is the frequent crudity of our words. Today’s F-bombs dropped in casual conversation, public pronouncements, books, and rap music would have shocked my mother and her friends. Or my father and his friends, for that matter. In my childhood and even later in high school, I never once remember hearing anyone using that word.

Other examples of incivility abound. We may not think of dress as a matter of civility, yet many people present themselves in public in ways that 60 years ago would have also induced in my mother and her friends a major meltdown. The plethora of tattoos, the purple hair, the pants drooping down the posterior, the pajamas worn on shopping trips to the grocery store, and the obscene T-shirts some wear all send messages that we’re a culture big on doing our own thing. Civility isn’t a part of that equation.

At any rate, “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech” seem at times missing in action. Yet I wonder: In abandoning formality and politeness, are we possibly abolishing some element vital to our interior selves, or even to civilization itself?


When we hear the words etiquette or manners, most of us probably think of rules taught in childhood: Don’t chew your food with your mouth open, put your napkin in your lap, say please and thank you, and don’t interrupt a conversation. These precepts when practiced are a sort of modicum of civilized behavior, signs of a proper upbringing.

Although this view of manners is all well and good, however, it constitutes just the surface meaning of civility, and for that matter, of personal dignity. We may know which fork to use for eating a salad or the correct way to introduce a friend to our grandfather, meanwhile treating others rudely or with contempt. In other words, we may know and practice the rules of etiquette but lack the fundamentals of civility.


In his introduction to “Rules of Civility: 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace,” Richard Brookhiser explains how George Washington as a boy developed a list of rules—some of them acquired from other writers—that would serve as his guide through life, at least in terms of his behavior. Many of these guidelines, like “Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle,” are quite specific and aimed more at outward conduct than at moral principles.

Yet, as Brookhiser wisely describes these rules, “They seek to form the inner man (or boy) by shaping the outer. … The effect of all the rules taken together is to remind you that you should not just do whatever feels right, or the first thing that comes into your head; rather, you should always be mindful of other people, and remember that they have sensibilities, and feelings of self-respect, that deserve your respect.”

This development of outer behavior working its way inward left its mark on Washington for the rest of his life. Though he at times displayed a fiery temper, most of Washington’s contemporaries remarked on his composure and great sense of dignity. Brookhiser gives us this example of the effect he had on others: “When Washington had been president for seven years, a foreign diplomat’s wife observed that he had ‘perfect good breeding, & a correct knowledge of even the etiquette of a court,’ though how he had acquired it, ‘heaven only knows.’”

Washington had this persona because he had aimed at this impression of good breeding and etiquette his entire life. Given the impression he made on the other Founding Fathers, it’s even likely that he became our first president in part because of his bearing and his taciturn dignity.


Washington’s first rule introduces this principle of proper behavior: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.” His last rule, #110, reads as follows: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Both rules lead us toward civility, the philosophy behind etiquette.

In “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” Johns Hopkins professor P.M. Forni lists as his first rule, “Pay attention.”

Here, I think, Forni not only hit the nail on the head, but drove it all the way home. In the whirlwind world in which we all live, paying attention to others seems a lost virtue. We drive through our days steering by routine and automatic pilot, sometimes scarcely seeing the store clerks, our fellow employees, and even our family members, intent as we are on the headlines on the internet, problems at work, or our dwindling bank account. Here is just one reminder from Forni of how we might pay greater attention to those around us:

“I am not just talking with a colleague but with this colleague, who told me several weeks ago that he was concerned about his child’s health and whom I have seen grow more and more preoccupied in the last few days. I will keep this in mind as we plan our next month’s teamwork.”

Paying attention to others in all sorts of ways—talking with them, laughing together, really listening—is surely the foundation of civility.

One Small Example

Years ago, a man I know described an encounter with another driver on an entrance ramp to an expressway. He pulled onto the ramp and found himself behind a driver who refused to accelerate above 45 miles per hour. He wasn’t rude enough to beep his horn, but he did let loose a string of expletives, and as they reached the highway, he slammed his foot on the gas and sped past the other car. As he did so, he glanced over and in that car saw an older woman who looked very much like his mother. There, he paused in his story.

“And?” I asked him.

“And I felt like a jerk,” he said shamefacedly.

Which leads us back to Washington’s last rule about that celestial fire called conscience.

The Sunshine of Civility

At the very end of “Choosing Civility,” Forni writes: “What is civility if not a constant awareness that no human encounter is without consequence? What is it if not sharing with intention the best in us? Sharing it, again and again, adding brightness to the day.”

Heaven knows we need that brightness today.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.


About Ronald E. Yates

Ronald E. Yates is an award-winning author of historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy. Read More About Ron Here

1 thought on “Rules of Civility: Some Advice From the Past and the Present”

Leave a Comment