Read an Excerpt
The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct
By P. M. Forni
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 P. M. Forni
All rights reserved.
Life and Relationships
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WHEREVER THERE IS A HUMAN BEING, THERE IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A KINDNESS.
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
LOVE IS PATIENT AND KIND; LOVE IS NOT JEALOUS OR BOASTFUL; IT IS NOT ARROGANT OR RUDE.
— Paul of Tarsus
THREE THINGS IN HUMAN LIFE ARE IMPORTANT: THE FIRST IS TO BE KIND. THE SECOND IS TO BE KIND. AND THE THIRD IS TO BE KIND.
— Henry James
Here we are at the end of the century, drifting through a heroless age. We have no leaders we can trust, no visions to invest in, no faith to ride. All we have are our own protean moralities, our countless private codes, which we each shape and reshape according to our own selfish needs. We don't dare to think too far ahead, we can't see too far ahead. Here we are, trapped by whatever season we find ourselves enduring, waiting out the weather, staring at a drought sun, stupefied, helpless — or scrambling like fools to make it home before the rain really comes down and the dry river floods and the hills crash into the valley. Where do we find the courage to do what is right?
I came across this passage by novelist Peter Gadol when everybody was getting ready to celebrate the turn of both the century and the millennium. It was a striking description of a malaise with which, to a greater or a lesser extent, many of us were familiar. Gadol's words resonated with me in particular because of my involvement with the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a cluster of academic and outreach activities aimed at assessing the relevance of civility and good manners in today's society. While working on the Project, I had been giving thought to the widely perceived decline in the quality of social interaction — the so-called coarsening of America.
Gadol's words on the end of the twentieth century apply to the beginning of the new century as well. Constant uncertainty about our identities and our future seems at times our only certainty. Long-established values appear obsolete, but to agree on what the new ones should be is a daunting task. Quite often we don't know where to look for standards against which to measure our efforts to be good citizens of the world. In fact, the notion of standards itself has been growing more and more problematic.
And yet we still need to be able to say yes to some things and no to others as a matter of principle and with enough conviction. We still need to believe in something that will give us our vital daily dose of meaning and motivation. As we grapple with the complexities of our age, I suggest in this book that we agree on one principle: that a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another every day of our lives.
When we lessen the burden of living for those around us we are doing well; when we add to the misery of the world we are not. To me, this is a simple, practical philosophy that makes sense and feels right. And since I started speaking in public on these issues several years ago, I have discovered that it makes sense and feels right to people from every walk of life and every part of the world. How are we to carry out the business of living day in and day out in accordance with this premise? I propose that as a society we take a new, close look at that intriguing code of behavior based on respect, restraint, and responsibility that we call civility.
M. Scott Peck chose to open his wise guidebook to smart, decent, and loving living with an utterly plain and clear statement. "Life is difficult" is the founding truth of his work, one he connects to "Life is suffering," the first of the Four Noble Truths taught by Buddha. Of course, countless versions of this truth appear in wisdom literature throughout history. "Life is difficult." I like the simplicity of the utterance. We can all benefit from basic truths stated in direct and simple language. In the hasty confusion of our days, we easily lose sight of basic truths. As we fail to make them part of our everyday thinking, we eventually become unable to recognize them clearly and confront them effectively. And so we stumble through life in a cloud of dust raised by our own misguided steps.
When we manage to make real contact with a basic truth, sometimes we are inspired to act upon it, and thus we may change our lives radically and permanently. Greatness is not just in the truth itself but in what we can do with it. "Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer difficult," says M. Scott Peck. Now, we may be able to reach this wisdom and strength or we may not. All of us, however, can find ways to cope effectively with difficulty.
That life is difficult is the founding truth of any book that offers practical help. Millions of pages would not have been written if life were not difficult and we didn't need help coping with its challenges. The message that we want to hear — that we never tire of hearing — is that although life is difficult, it is not unbearable; that there is something relatively simple that we can do to overcome life's difficulty. We are not passive vessels into which pain, anxiety, and sorrow are poured. In fact, we can become effective managers of our actions and emotions. As such, we can reduce the impact of sorrow and unhappiness upon our lives. Although life entails hardship and suffering, we can do something about it — we can always do something about it. Life may be difficult, but serenity, contentment, well-being, and even happiness are not only possible but also within relatively easy reach.
I am convinced that, to a significant extent, life is what our relationships make it. Every page of this book is imbued with this simple conviction. Good relationships make our lives good; bad relationships make our lives bad. We are usually happy (or unhappy) with others. Although at times we can be happy in spite of others, we are usually happy thanks to them, thanks to the good relationships we have with them. To learn how to be happy we must learn how to live well with others, and civility is a key to that. Through civility we develop thoughtfulness, foster effective self-expression and communication, and widen the range of our benign responses. Civility allows us to connect successfully with others. While there is no substitute for healthy self-esteem, we also need to transcend our Selves. Finding a comfortable balance between the two is where everyday wellness and happiness begin, and what civility is all about.
We exist and we perceive our identity not in a vacuum but rather in relation to others. Life is relational. Whether we like it or not, we are wax upon which others leave their mark. When someone sees us as a thing to use or abuse, that becomes part of who we are in our own eyes as well (self-esteem notwithstanding). When we are on the receiving end of an act of kindness, we feel validated. We translate that act into a very simple, very powerful unspoken message to ourselves: I am not alone, I have value and my life has meaning.
What Is Civility?
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MAYBE I WAS COMING DOWN WITH CHANGE-OF-SEASON INFLUENZA. IF SO, I SHOULD REALLY CONSIDER BUYING A LITTLE WHITE HALF MASK FOR MY SUBWAY RIDE HOME.
— Sujata Massey
For many years literature was my life. I spent most of my time reading, teaching, and writing on Italian fiction and poetry. One day, while lecturing on the Divine Comedy, I looked at my students and realized that I wanted them to be kind human beings more than I wanted them to know about Dante. I told them that if they knew everything about Dante and then they went out and treated an elderly lady on the bus unkindly, I'd feel that I had failed as a teacher. I have given dozens of lectures and workshops on civility in the last few years, and I have derived much satisfaction from addressing audiences I could not have reached speaking on literature. I know, however, that reading literature can develop the kind of imagination without which civility is impossible. To be fully human we must be able to imagine others' hurt and to relate it to the hurt we would experience if we were in their place. Consideration is imagination on a moral track.
Sometimes the participants in my workshops write on a sheet of paper what civility means to them. In no particular order, here are a number of key civility-related notions I have collected over the years from those sheets:
Respect for others
Respect of others' feelings
Respect of others' opinions
Going out of one's way
Lending a hand
Abiding by rules
This list tells us that
Civility is complex.
Civility is good.
Whatever civility might be, it has to do with courtesy, politeness, and good manners.
Civility belongs in the realm of ethics.
These four points have guided me in writing this book. Like my workshop participants, I am inclusive rather than exclusive in defining civility. Courtesy, politeness, manners, and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness. Civility is a form of goodness; it is gracious goodness. But it is not just an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals; it also entails an active interest in the well-being of our communities and even a concern for the health of the planet on which we live.
Saying "please" and "thank you"; lowering our voice whenever it may threaten or interfere with others' tranquillity; raising funds for a neighborhood renovation program; acknowledging a newcomer to the conversation; welcoming a new neighbor; listening to understand and help; respecting those different from us; responding with restraint to a challenge; properly disposing of a piece of trash left by someone else; properly disposing of dangerous industrial pollutants; acknowledging our mistakes; refusing to participate in malicious gossip; making a new pot of coffee for the office machine after drinking the last cup; signaling our turns when driving; yielding our seat on a bus whenever it seems appropriate; alerting the person sitting behind us on a plane when we are about to lower the back of our seat; standing close to the right-side handrail on an escalator; stopping to give directions to someone who is lost; stopping at red lights; disagreeing with poise; yielding with grace when losing an argument, these diverse behaviors are all imbued with the spirit of civility.
Civility, courtesy, politeness, and manners are not perfect synonyms, as etymology clearly shows.
Courtesy is connected to court and evoked in the past the superior qualities of character and bearing expected in those close to royalty. Etymologically, when we are courteous we are courtierlike. Although today we seldom make this connection, courtesy still suggests excellence and elegance in bestowing respect and attention. It can also suggest deference and formality.
To understand politeness, we must think of polish. The polite are those who have polished their behavior. They have put some effort into bettering themselves, but they are sometimes looked upon with suspicion. Expressions such as "polite reply," "polite lie," and "polite applause" connect politeness to hypocrisy. It is true that the polite are inclined to veil their own feelings to spare someone else's. Self-serving lying, however, is always beyond the pale of politeness. If politeness is a quality of character (alongside courtesy, good manners, and civility), it cannot become a flaw. A suave manipulator may appear to be polite but is not.
When we think of good manners we often think of children being taught to say "please" and "thank you" and chew with their mouths closed. This may prevent us from looking at manners with the attention they deserve. Manner comes from manus, the Latin word for "hand." Manner and manners have to do with the use of our hands. A manner is the way something is done, a mode of handling. Thus manners came to refer to behavior in social interaction — the way we handle the encounter between Self and Other. We have good manners when we use our hands well — when we handle others with care. When we rediscover the connection of manner with hand, the hand that, depending on our will and sensitivity, can strike or lift, hurt or soothe, destroy or heal, we understand the importance — for children and adults alike — of having good manners.
Civility's defining characteristic is its ties to city and society. The word derives from the Latin civitas, which means "city," especially in the sense of civic community. Civitas is the same word from which civilization comes. The age-old assumption behind civility is that life in the city has a civilizing effect. The city is where we enlighten our intellect and refine our social skills. And as we are shaped by the city, we learn to give of ourselves for the sake of the city. Although we can describe the civil as courteous, polite, and well mannered, etymology reminds us that they are also supposed to be good citizens and good neighbors.
Respect in Action
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Living according to the principle of respect for persons is difficult. And yet we can do it, thanks in part to our ability to identify with others and — at least to a certain extent — to feel what they feel. This ability is empathy.
The extraordinary relevance of the rules of civility to our lives is that by following them we put into everyday practice the principle of respect for persons. Civility does the work of empathy. With a training in civility we develop the invaluable habit of considering that no action of ours is without consequences for others and anticipating what those consequences will be. We learn to act in a responsible and caring way. Choosing civility means choosing to do the right thing for others — for the "city." The by-product of doing justice to others is the enrichment of our own lives. I hope that we will never tire of rediscovering that being kind is good for the kind.
Yes, we live in an age of radical individualism and cultural relativism. Yes, the lack of meaningful coherence in our lives can be disheartening. And yes, sometimes we feel lost because of the dizzying amount and variety of information readily available in a world enveloped by the uninterrupted buzz of the electronic media. But we need not succumb to bafflement, indifference, or despair. "Our countless private codes which we each shape and reshape according to our own selfish needs," to use Peter Gadol's words, are far from being our only viable reference for conducting the business of living. We needn't "scramble like fools." One thing we can do is act upon the realization that the quality of our lives depends upon our ability to relate and connect. Harmonious and caring relationships foster a happy life. In order to build such relationships, we need the respect, consideration, and kindness that we easily grant to and receive from our fellow humans when we are civil.
Happiness and the Mind
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THE HAPPINESS OF YOUR LIFE DEPENDS UPON THE QUALITY OF YOUR THOUGHTS.
— Marcus Aurelius
HAPPINESS DOES NOT DEPEND ON OUTWARD THINGS, BUT ON THE WAY WE SEE THEM.
— Leo Tolstoy
The Bible, Gautama Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James are among the most frequently quoted sources of this momentous notion: our happiness does not spring from the events of our lives but rather from how we choose to respond to those events. Many students of human happiness see life satisfaction as a product of the thinking Self.
Excerpted from Choosing Civility by P. M. Forni. Copyright © 2002 P. M. Forni. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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