Read an Excerpt of Choosing Civility
"Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present."
Acknowledge others' existence, their importance to you, their feelings, and the things they do for you. Acknowledgment comes in many forms: remembering someone's name, paying a thoughtful compliment, summarizing what was just said for a newcomer to the conversation, holding a door open to let someone through, welcoming, thanking, and just plain saying hello.
New to the United States, a green graduate student from Italy eager to understand the world around me, some twenty-five years ago I rode the bus daily to the UCLA campus in Westwood, California. One of my first powerful impressions of America came from those rides. Much to my surprise, many passengers would say, "Good morning," to the driver as they stepped onto the bus and "Thank you" and "Have a good day" as they stepped off. I had never witnessed anything like that. In Europe nobody paid much attention to bus drivers. When I lived in Milan, they had been for me nearly indistinguishable from the machines they drove—almost like another anonymous, mechanical part. But on those blue buses of the Santa Monica-Westwood line, thanks to my fellow passengers' acknowledgments, I started to see—to really see—the drivers as persons. The ability to look past the job at the individual was an American skill I would continue to learn in the next several years.
A simple "Hello" or "Good morning" is the most basic form of acknowledgment. Every day, when we arrive at our workplaces, we greet our coworkers. As a rule, we don't infuse our greeting with particular intensity. There is no need to. By saying, "Good morning," to Sharon and Rebecca, the secretaries in my department at the university, I automatically acknowledge their existence. Without voicing the thought, I am telling them: You exist, and this matters to me. I am also saying: I know that you monitor—as I do—our relationship; rest assured that, as far as I am concerned, you and I are in reciprocal good standing. Whenever we are with others, we rely on a system of obligations and expectations. If one morning I failed to say, "Good morning," my omission would beg an explanation. Sharon and Rebecca might wonder whether something they did caused the unexpected change. My greeting may be more cheerful one day and less another, but it always performs its crucial job.