George Washington when he was 16 wrote out 110 rules of civility to guide his life. Washington originally wrote down the rules presumably as an exercise in penmanship but later committed them to practice and memory. They helped develop the decorum, civility, and courage that guided Washington through war and the birth of this nation. You can read the Washington’s Rules of Civility here Washington’s Rules
The rules originally composed by French Jesuit priests in 1565 range from the practical to the profound. At the root of the rules is respect and civility toward friend and foe. Rule 1 lays this idea out perfectly with the words: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present”. Many currently in the public sphere would do well to take this rule to heart!
Most of the rules have application today. One of them that I found particularly compelling is Rule 18: “Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unasked also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.”
The letters, books, and papers in Washington’s time are the cell phones, twitter feeds and social media today. Here is a brief update of Rule 18 refined for today’s technology. “Do not look at your cell phone or multitask while in the company of others, whether it be in person or Zoom. Put your cell phone in silence mode and only look at it in an emergency after asking permission. Do not stalk or gaslight your colleagues on social media. If your opinion differs, comment in a civil tone grounded in fact!” Let’s break it down further.
1. Put Your Cell Phone Down. We are tempted to pull out our cell phones at the drop of a hat. Many of our conversations become nothing more than a battle of dueling cell phones. With information at our fingertips, it is even more important to listen with full attention to your colleague, instead of trying to one up them with the trending twitter feeds. Washington knew the importance of being attentive even when the equivalent to today’s social media posts were the dueling pamphlets of competing patriots!
2. Do not stalk, talk. It is easy today to form a preconceived opinion of someone from stalking their social media feed or what others say about them online. It is also possible to ruin a person’s reputation by adding fire to gossip or rumor. Instead of forming an opinion from second-hand thoughts or unclarified comments, build your judgement of a person’s thoughts and character through direct dialogue. Peering into one’s media presence out of context is like ‘looking nigh when another is writing a letter’ in Washington’s time. Look not nigh, look them in the eye!
3. Guard Your Opinions with Reason and Civility. It is easy to react with emotion when someone writes something you disagree with on social media. Resist the urge to do so. If you feel you must post your opinion, do so factually and civilly. Better yet, pick up a phone or meet the person you disagree with to understand the context. I recognize there are times when the other person may have not acted with respect or is gaslighting you. Resist the urge to fight fire with fire. Instead dowse the fire with the cool water of reason and civility.
Rule 18 is just 1 of Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility. Most still resonate today. For example, just think how better off some politicians would have been if they followed rule 2: “2. When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.” Some of them may be of a bygone era but not many! I encourage you to read Washington’s Rules of Civility. What the world needs now is more civility, respect, and courtesy.