Each of us strives to model our lives according to a set of spiritual, political and professional principles. These principles may have been ingrained subconsciously or by virtue of our upbringing. In reviewing current events, it is clear that there has been a large spike of activity regarding uncivil, behavior both inside and outside of the classroom. For instance, disruptive behavior in the classroom has increased with distractions arising from rude vocal confrontations and challenges of authority from the students in class. They show up in the judicial office on the last day of assigned deadlines with belligerent airs of messages never received “until last night,” trying to find a way out of assuming responsibility for their actions. Moreover, students are now expecting to be served, rather than doing their part as community members on and around campus. As a result, these continuous and cumulative actions can wear on our patience and us. The pressing issue: how do we practice civility amongst ourselves? If others around us are contributing to the rise of uncivil behavior, could we, through our modeling, unwittingly be part of the cause? This article examines the supposition that rather than looking out there for the cause of incivility, we should first examine ourselves. Each of us bears some of the responsibility for the lack of courteousness and consideration in society today.
Let’s examine the word “civility” and its origins. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, civility is derived from the Latin civilitas as well as the Old French civilité, meaning courteousness, politeness, citizenship, community, and city. Therefore, the concept of civility focuses on fostering a community in which courteousness, politeness, and good citizenship are some of the central themes.
The writer Don Miguel Ruiz’ outlines a code for life in The Four Agreements (1997). This is a code from which a general model for the way we conduct our lives can be drawn. Our ethics come from our surroundings, upbringing, values and mores, instilled by our families or those around us. The Four Agreements serve as a guide for conducting our lives with civility and ethical behavior.
When Ruiz says to “be impeccable with your word” for his first agreement, he means for us to speak with integrity, saying only what we mean, and to avoid using our words negatively—such as is done with harmful gossip. We often don’t stop to think about how the comments we make at the water cooler may affect those around us, or the negative consequences if the subject of the gossip happens to drop by and all conversation comes to a halt. An observer could say that if we had the time and energy to use our words negatively, we could very well also have the same time and energy to use our words positively. The message that a positive demeanor a person or group carries is contagious. Conversely, the negative airs are similarly contagious and often proliferate at a higher speed.
Ruiz’ second agreement is “don’t take anything personally.” This task is more arduous at some times rather than others. When colleagues or students step into our offices and launch an unrelenting tirade upon us—whether it is about work, a bungled incident, or a bad day – we often feel the need to retreat to our safe havens. When it appears that our office-guests are looking for a source on which to place their blame and frustrations, we come out and make ready to defend ourselves. This is human nature; no one wants to be the receptacle for negativity or criticism. We need to develop the temperament to realize that we shouldn’t take such things personally, preventing us from reacting in an uncivilized manner. By showing reasoned restraint, our community would become a better place to work, study, or live in. Ruiz defines his thinking by saying that “nothing others do is because of you; what others say and do is a projection of their reality, their own dream; when you are immune to the opinion and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”
“Don’t make assumptions” is Ruiz’ penultimate agreement. Assumptions often occur when the message being conveyed is not fully complete. When we are unsure of what our supervisors want us to do, or what a student in your office is in search of, we would do well to ask for more information. Often we battle our inner ego over whether or not we will appear silly for asking such a simple question. We don’t realize that such simple questions could save us all the trouble of inaccurate assumptions and unnecessary or inaccurate work.
The fourth agreement is “always do your best.” Our best efforts change as time passes; such is the process of life. This does not mean that the further along the road of life we are, the less effort we should put into our work or interests. Rather, we should always strive to put our best foot forward in all our endeavors. Doing so will create an air of productivity within ourselves, and, like a positive or negative attitude, it is contagious. By doing so, we will be contributing to the original premise of civilitas, the concept that civility fosters a community in which courteousness, politeness, good citizenship are some of the central and key themes.
In the words of Dr. P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, “civility is a form of goodness; it is gracious goodness…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.” By synthesizing Ruiz’ code for life and Forni’ s advice, the foundation for building a stronger community with civility at its core has been set. Civility is important because it contributes to the development of respect, understanding and trustworthiness in everyday life, whether it is at home, school, or in the workplace.
Chapman, A. (2003) The Four Agreements—Don Miguel Ruiz. Retrieved April 19, 2005 from http://www.businessballs.com
Forni, P.M. (2002) What is Civility? In Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (p. 9). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Submitted by Oscar Ocuto, Program Specialist – Office of Judicial Affairs, Gallaudet University