When I first heard about the Rye Civility Initiative, my first thought was: Boy, do I live in a town with high-class problems! I mean are we really going to start worrying about something as nebulous and old fashioned as civility? How about a Fix the Potholes Initiative? Or a Teach Everyone How to Use the Traffic Circle Initiative? I’m even willing to head up the Put Your Phone on Silent in The Nail Salon Initiative if I can garner enough support. But I’m starting to think that encouraging civility is a huge step to solving all of those problems and more.
When I’m walking through my happy day in my friendly town, nothing could be easier to muster than civility. I chat with the smiling lady who’s telling me she liked my last article, and I think what’s not to respect? Let me into the left hand lane or return my lost cell phone, and you can be sure I’ll respect the heck of you. Civility really becomes relevant and critical at times of tense disagreement, when emotions run high and much is at stake. Like in a parking lot.
Last week I was at the YMCA, doing my granny run with just enough time before I had to get home, shower and get to a meeting. When I got to the parking lot I found that a car had parked behind me, and the driver had forgotten to leave her keys with the valet. The attendant went inside to try to find her, but apparently she had decided to leave the gym and do a few errands in town. She’d gone walkabout, as it were, and took my morning with her. I was literally stuck, boxed in, and boxed out of the shower-meeting portion of my day.
What do you say to a person in this situation? This is where the notion of mindful, deliberate civility is critical, when maybe the warm fuzzies for your fellow man are not flowing so easily. Is there an easy way to internalize civility so that you rely on it like a habit when you’d rather fly off the handle?
George Washington tried to give us guidelines for living a civil life in The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. (There is a rather civil debate on the Internet as to whether he wrote these rules or copied them.) I didn’t happen to have my copy handy in the YMCA parking lot but the first of these rules is, “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.” Then there’s lots of stuff about not taking your clothes off in public and how much and where you should eat and drink. They conclude with the 110th rule, which reads, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” Bingo. I think our forefather was directing us to the two critical ingredients of civility: respect and awareness. Look inward with honesty and look outward with compassion.
In the YMCA parking lot I was wholly focused on my own interests. I’m going to miss my meeting. I’m going to miss my shower. I’m really sweating here. How could this woman do this to ME? Since I was already so involved with myself, I decided to look a little closer. Yes, I too sometimes do thoughtless things that inconvenience others. I sometimes forget to signal or don’t notice that the light has changed. I sometimes stop my car in the middle of the street to chat with a friend and fail to notice the cars lined up behind me. There’s more, but you get the idea.
It was a humbling exercise, and by the time I finished my self-examination I was feeling pretty darn civil. If I can figure out how to make this a habit, then maybe I can keep it together the next time someone parks so close to me that I have to crawl through my trunk to get into my car. Because, guess what, I sometimes park like an idiot too.
All of this makes me think that maybe the Rye Civility Initiative is the most important thing happening in our town right now. The overriding vibe of mutual respect that comes from civility is good for everyone, and it’s even key to furthering our own self-interests. If you want your words to be heard and understood, choose civil ones. Calling the guy at the city council meeting a big fat dope isn’t the fastest way to bring him around to your way of thinking.
Interestingly, an addendum to George Washington’s Rules of Civility was just found on the underside of his flip desk, revealing three more timeless guidelines:
111. When quitting your carriage, endeavor to occupy only the number of parking spaces that corresponds to the number of carriages you are currently driving.
112.Do not become exasperated with the elderly person in front of you who is struggling with the self-checkout at Ye Olde Stop and Shop.
113.Be fastidious in your commitment to putting soiled socks in the hamper.