Posted by: susanideus | April 11, 2010


Civility costs nothing and buys everything. ~Mary Worley Montagu

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines civility as politeness; courtesy; a polite act or expression.

What is it in today’s world that makes civility such a rare occurrence?  I have been appalled recently at reports of the fighting and back-biting rhetoric in the Congressional halls of this country. On certain radio and TV talk shows, name-calling and rudeness have reached new heights—or would that be lows?  And, what’s even worse, in my opinion, is there are those who laugh and cheer at such conduct as if they were at a prize fight.

But, let’s face it, it’s not just on the radio or TV or in Congress. Have you noticed the casual profanity in the everyday language of so many people?–“it’s just an expression, it doesn’t mean anything.” Well, you know what, it does mean something and it can sting and hurt. Words are powerful. What about all the road rage? Are people in such a hurry these days that they will drive erratically, endanger others, lay on the horn and gesticulate profanely–just to move up a few car lengths? What about the sales clerk who talks on the phone while ringing up your sales, and acts like you’re disturbing her? The lack of civility, of everyday good manners, is apparent on all levels of society, starting with…well, with me.

There are times when I let a bad mood get the best of me and my sarcasm or rudeness can wound someone close to me.  It happens at work when I engage in the mean gossip rampant in my office rather than trying to diffuse the situation. It happens when I shop and am less than polite to a weary clerk who has probably been on his/her feet for hours–not to mention that he/she might be shouldering a load I know nothing about. It happens when I’m driving, and I express anger at these Houston drivers, and occasionally answer with a quick blast on my own car horn.  It happens within my family when I presume on our close relationships, and take out my bad mood on them with sharp retorts and angry over-reactions. With all of the contentiousness so prevalent, I have become more sensitive to my own un-civility, and I am trying to be much more thoughtful before I speak. In the absence of forethought, however, I do find a heartfelt apology will help mend fences.

Life is not so short that there is always time enough for courtesy. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Could extensive use of the computer for communication have contributed to the problem? I have a friend who contends that we’ve lost some of our civility because we don’t see the person with whom we are communicating–no facial expression or tone of voice to help us “interpret.”  We may try by using emoticons or jargon like *JK* (Just kidding!). This friend says our senses have been dulled. We don’t have as much opportunity to practice being observant of the feelings of others. Something to think about.

Is it that the focus of society is off kilter? Is it easier to say whatever comes to mind than to try and control our tongues? Who teaches civility and manners these days? I have heard parents excuse a child’s rude behavior with a comment like “He’s just being a kid!”  Since when is being young an excuse for not being taught how to behave? Is it perhaps that we have lowered our standards in terms of what is acceptable behavior? Is society as a whole so self-centered that this is no longer important? I really don’t want to be that cynical, but if there is any truth in that, society is in big trouble. How can we afford to not be civil? How can we take that chance?

Rude, crude words and hateful rhetoric can escalate into rude, crude behavior and hateful actions.  These behaviors and actions breed intolerance–and intolerance leads to war. Simplification? Of course. But, just look around…

I wish I had the answers. I wish I knew all the questions! I do believe it begins on a private level, with me, within the family structure and then in every other aspect of  life.  Choose civility! Teach and model good manners. Do unto others…  We’re all a part of the community of humankind. Let’s start acting like it.

By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community. ~Henri Nouwen in Out of Solitude



  1. This is a great essay, Susan. I wrote one that would be a great counter/debate to this a little over a year ago – about how much MORE polite people seem to be acting. However, I do have to admit that I am seeing more and more of the lack of courtesy these days as you mentioned above, and it saddens me. When I encounter this, I tend to swing the other way in sort of a turn the other cheek manuever – I am even MORE tolerant and polite to the rude person. It gets harder and harder to do, and as I tell my son and the teens/college age kids I so frequently work with – when they are rude or use unpleasant language, it only shows me their ignorant side. That said, it is only right for someone to legitimately show their anger or speak their piece, it’s healthier to let it out. So – HONK THAT HORN at that jerk, Susan!

    • Rhonda, I guess I subscribe to the Christian version of turning the other cheek and being extra nice too. I’ve always liked this passage when it comes to that. Paul said in Romans 12:29-31:

      Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

      I don’t think we should just stuff our anger either, but find appropriate times & places to vent without starting an incident. Anger leads to more anger, and it can be a vicious cycle. I wonder after I blast my horn at the jerk if that might not be the last straw before he turns to truly destructive road rage. Sigh…it’s hard to know these days, isn’t it? Do we instinctively trust our fellow man or become a cynic?

      Am I being too preachy?

  2. Susan,

    What a thoughtful post. I think ALL of us (myself included) need to slow down and live in the moment, enjoy each moment. There is no guarantee of the next moment (not to be glum…). Although it requires more effort, I think we need to focus on giving the positive to others.
    Isn’t it fun to put a smile on someone else’s face?

    And it multiplies. Pass it on.

    What can each of us do today to put a smile on the face of someone who needs it? Can you park your fly-away anger? Can you step up to the challenge? I’m inspired…

    I think I will!


    • Judy,
      I loved the entire spirit of your comment, but I was especially struck by the phrase “fly-away anger”–once spoken, angry words cannot be taken back: the same for angry gestures and anger-fueled actions. Once anger has been spewed into the atmosphere, it’s akin to a toxic spill–it spreads and it is extremely difficult and often costly to clean up. I know because I did that very thing today, and I’m not at all sure how to go about cleaning it up. I guess that comes under the heading of seeking forgiveness.

  3. One thing that bothers me is that people are not only so quick to give offense, but also to take offense. How much of our incivility comes from fear? Fear that we won’t be first in line or be given the respect we deserve or be … whatever it is we think we need? If soft answers turn away wrath and perfect love casts out fear, we need a lot more of those behaviors. Have you ever wondered what would happen if a committed group of people set about to consistently spread calm and compassion? By the way, the person writing this comment is the queen of fly-away anger.

    • I think you’re so right, Kathy. How have people become so afraid? You know, there’s not always glory in being first–sometimes I learn more by observing the race. Any change begins right here, at the individual level, as we concentrate on being the good neighbor, on turning away wrath. If I respond to someone with kindness and mercy–and she passes it along–and he responds to someone with gentleness and understanding–and so on and on and on… For me the key is that it is a CHOICE we (I) make daily, often several times daily. Love is an action verb, and it is an intentional act.

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