When he was 16, young George Washington copied a list of “110 Rules for Civility” in an effort to improve his penmanship. Although they are now known as “Washington’s” Rules of Civility, the list itself was created by French Jesuits for their young students in 1595. So by the time George started copying them, they had been around for a long time.
We can see immediately that there was no social media in 1595, otherwise the Jesuits would have shortened the list and created a more provocative title such as “10 Mind-Blowing Strategies To Make People Admire You (you won’t believe number 6!)”.
But gentlemen in the non-21st century didn’t worry about how many “likes” their latest tweet received. They were more focused on cultivation of character. You can read all 110 rule here, but here are a few I’d like to call out, listed by the number in which they appear on the list…
3. Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.
I had to look up “affright”, which simply means “to frighten someone”. So, don’t frighten your friends, I guess.
12. Shake not the head, feet, or legs; roll not the eyes; lift not one eyebrow higher than the other, wry not the mouth, and bedew no man’s face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.
I personally try to avoid bedewing other peoples’ faces with my spittle, but I do occasionally lift one eyebrow higher than the other.
82. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
Wise words in any century. Often we are pressured in a conversation to make a commitment – either a personal one or the commitment of the company we work for. It is better in those situations to say “I don’t want to make a commitment I can’t keep, so let me think on that a bit and I’ll get back to you by (date/time)”. I have found people – even angry customers – are receptive to that because you’re acknowledging the seriousness of their request.
89. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
Stephen Covey referred to this a “loyalty to those who are not present”. A simpler way to say it is “don’t gossip”.
87. Let your carriage be such as becomes a man grave, settled and attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others say.
Words to live by in this hyper-polarized political era.
110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
The list ends with this one, and what a fitting conclusion it is. Many of these “rules” are clearly written in another era (number 26: “In putting off your hat to persons of distinction, as noblemen, justices, churchmen, etc., make a reverence, bowing more or less according to the custom of the better bred, and quality of the persons.). But this last one is succinct and as true today as it was in previous centuries.
May you be a source of civility in world increasingly marked by incivility. May you keep your own little spark of “celestial fire” alive.