Welcome once again to our book study on George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” (Applewood Books, 1988). I’ve so enjoyed reading your responses these past few weeks. A few of you have prior knowledge of GW rules for civility. Others of you have been embracing our first President’s treatment of others. Did you know that the highest priority was placed on civility by our Founders? I learned this week that their priority on civility was responsible for America’s success in building this new nation. We live in a society where toxicity and incivility are thought to be the whole intent of the First Amendment. Your right to speak up and speak out is guaranteed. The Founders assumed I think, that we would value civility as they did when we say what we want to say. How far we have strayed! That’s why I’m encouraged to see how many of you have embraced our discussion on civility.
In rules 30-39, GW talks about how to treat others who are of equal, superior, or inferior state. You see, they were still influenced by living in a country with titles of nobility. While young American did away with birth titles and focused more on earned authority, the manners aspect of treating others with respect remained.
Let’s look at rule #37-“In speaking to men of quality do not lean nor look them full in the face nor approach too near them, at least keep a full pace from them.” Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who gets right up in your space? Americans like people, but we just don’t like ‘em too close, ya know? George Washington kept a full pace away. So, step back, look at people in the eye, and have a conversation. When you are too close, people stop listening and just focus on how to release themselves from the discussion. Our goal of conversation is engagement, not intimidation!.
How about this one? Rule #38- “In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.” Women have the natural inclination to want to nurture, fix, help those in distress. Men see a problem and want it fixed 5 minutes ago. What I am reminded in this admonition from GW’s book is to visit the sick. Pay attention to them and how they are feeling. Encourage them. Be a blessing to them. Don’t play the role of sous-physician (like a sous-chef). In other words, keep the focus on them, not on what you think they should be doing/not doing. I am so guilty on this one. Ouch!
Rule #39- “In writing or speaking, give every person his due title according to his degree and custom of the place.” In our effort to be a less formal, jeans-wearing culture, we have become way too casual, no? We dress down, so we speak down. If someone has a title, address them by their title unless invited to do so otherwise. Oh, can I add this? Don’t give someone a name that is not their name unless invited to do so. “Candace” is not “Candy.” “James” is not automatically “Jim.” Someone with a 4 syllable name? Say the whole name, like “Deborah Jane.” Some modern names may seem awkward to say. You give dignity and worth to a person by calling them by their preferred name and title, where applicable.
Lastly, Rule #35- “Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.” In my effort to be short and comprehensive, I’ll stop here…!