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Civility: A Long Lost Art?

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Civility: A Long Lost Art?

Ci-vil-i-ty: civilized conduct, especially courtesy; politeness; a polite act or expression; a code of conduct.

This is how the dictionary defines civility, but how often do we see it?

On a street corner in Detroit, an elderly woman dropped her cane, teetered against a parking meter for support, and asked a group of young passersby for help in picking it up. They refused, even mocking her for her inability to stand completely upright as they continued on their way.

At first period in a Cleveland middle school classroom, a student let the door slam on a not-so-popular classmate carrying a heavy load of books, resulting in a concussion. He was applauded for his actions by his fellow students. And in the lobby of a busy New York high rise, people were in such a hurry to get to work and “not get involved,” they continued to step around the diabetic man who’d collapsed near the elevators without offering assistance. Though he was dressed in a business suit and carried a briefcase, one person interviewed afterwards said she’d assumed he was drunk, which was enough for her to keep going. Others said they hadn’t given it a second thought.

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In a world governed by reality television where verbal and physical attacks ratchet up ratings, and apathy, modern-day survival of the fittest, and even outright cruelty toward others are systematically encouraged and rewarded, kindness and respect may just be a lost art. And what about the concept of acquiring “friends”? Seems it’s become a Facebook competition rather than building solid relationships based on caring and support. In fact one noted sociologist has quipped that the only difference between the behavior of contemporary society and that of prehistoric man is the number of syllables used to express things.

Back in the early 18th Century, a teenaged George Washington transcribed and presented the “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” With 110 tenets in all, and while some today may appear antiquated having little to do with 21st Century life, many are startlingly relevant– for example number 1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with some sign of Respect, to those that are Present, or number 65: Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest….” Imagine a world where people went out of their way to respect, support, and uplift others, rather than tearing them down? Small efforts toward compassion and common courtesy at work, in school, and with our families at home can inspire and transform others–even ourselves–into better human beings. So what can you do to change things?

On the first day of school in Mrs. Logan’s Manchester, New Hampshire 6th grade class, students were asked to write personal essays on ways to be polite, helpful, and considerate of others, their essays shared with classmates later on. Throughout the year each student consciously practiced what he or she wrote, and what others wrote, in the classroom, the cafeteria, at school activities and other events with friends, and at home with parents, siblings, and grandparents. The results, though not always measured in giant steps, nevertheless quietly transformed the community and even extended beyond its borders to out of town school sporting events, school concerts, and more.

“When you demonstrate compassion and do things in the spirit of cooperation, consideration, and friendship–I mean when you really extend yourself, people take notice,” said Mrs. Logan. “And hopefully it rubs off on them as well.”

In a troubled section of Houston, discouraged by their deteriorating environment, frustrated by the lack of funds to change things on a grand scale though compelled to take a bold step, a group of citizens got together and designated an aptly named “Help Week.” In this period of time, each participant would dedicate themselves to everything from opening doors for coworkers and strangers, thanking the harried checker in a busy supermarket line, offering assistance to their neighbors, complimenting the bus driver or restaurant server, or simply smiling at people who appeared stressed on the street.

“I think maybe the world changed for a few others on the receiving end and it sure changed for me,” said one participant who vowed to continue his actions on a daily basis. “When you show people that you’re interested, everybody wins.”

Perhaps George Washington’s last rule of civility serves us all and says it best–number 110: Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

Maybe he was on to something. What about you?

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1 Evelyn { 12.29.14 at 6:55 pm }

I agree with all who’s commented. But keep having a thought as to how can we can help make a difference. A movement to change often starts with just one or a few who lead the movement forward. How many of you will be willing to meet via email? to do a little brainstorming to see how we can get people aware and thinking along these lines. If you’re interested, I set up a temporary email just for this purpose. So send me an email at if you want to explore possibilities.

2 Michele { 12.28.14 at 10:13 am }

I find it interesting that all three example of incivility opening this story are located in the North (i.e., Detroit, Cleveland, NYC) and in large cities, which may explain why I had difficulty relating. Growing up in the deep South and now living in Texas (with a few years up north), this is quite astonishing behavior. Perhaps because in living in a smaller town, word gets out fast as to who isn’t courteous. For example, at work, there are two roads that merge for the exit — one of which has a yield sign, and the other side can continue without stopping; yet, at rush times, a practice of turn-taking has developed among employees so that the folks at the yield sign don’t get stuck there.

3 Sharon Lorefice { 12.27.14 at 10:42 pm }

It seems a colder and more uncaring world than it was only forty years ago.The customs of common civility are all but gone.

4 shawnee papincak { 12.27.14 at 9:27 pm }


5 Cindy { 12.27.14 at 6:40 pm }

We need Charity…(True Love of Christ) He was and is the greatest example of civility and compassion. We have become a me society unnatural affection for another and disrespectful to another; sad but true.

6 Janet { 12.27.14 at 6:38 pm }

I have found people do not hold the doors open for others anymore. I’ve had my hands full and had the door shut on me. I still hold the door open for others. I’ve observed that the younger-ish people walk past with no acknowledgment that I held the door, or show signs of being uncomfortable, not sure what to do because I held the door open for them. The people older than me (older than mid 40s) smile and show great surprise that I held the door for them. It is pretty sad, really.

7 carolyn { 12.27.14 at 6:10 pm }

The forgotten Bible verse, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” applies to these events! The parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus taught was given for a reason! People choose to pass folks in need of help, without a blink of an eye, totally ignoring their matter how severe or life threatening! Woe are we who fail to extend God’s mercy & love! There but for the grace of God go I!!!! Wake up folks~learn to care & love others besides yourself!!

8 TD { 01.26.13 at 9:54 am }

Perhaps this will begin the sorely needed conversation and attitude shift that has been losing ground for over 40 years. Doing a “good deed” is merely treating others with respect & dignity.

9 Farmer Ama { 01.25.13 at 2:00 pm }

CONVINCED and Convicted.. ever in the eyes of God, but who the heck ARE we now?

10 Ann M. { 01.25.13 at 9:04 am }

This article made my day! Being civil to one another has become a chore when it should be just who we are!

11 Jane Hanlon { 01.23.13 at 3:16 pm }

Finally someone put a name to what I’ve been feeling we lack as a society for weeks!!!! W/civility also comes respect. Everything around us is tearing that down. Then we wonder why madmen are opening fire at people, esp children. This is spiritual warfare in my books, folks, and I’m not alone in thinking that one. Go re-watch Back to the Future Part ii, again, and look at the deteriorating society Biff created. And we don’t open our eyes to see how we played a part in letting things go too far. I especially have been convicted of that a lot lately. Anyone else???

12 Karen { 01.23.13 at 11:25 am }

I concur with Gary.

13 Kate { 01.23.13 at 11:23 am }

In these days of handling problems with violence, these rules are sorely needed.
I try to maintain these helpful actions each day. I pledge to not notice anymore when not reciprocated.

14 Nina { 01.23.13 at 10:42 am }

Very good article. Perhaps we can start a trend….a positive one for a change and be kind to our fellow man or woman as it may be.

15 Gary { 01.23.13 at 10:20 am }

Best thing I’ve read in a long time. George Washington’s tenets should be required reading. Just good common sense.

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