Read an Excerpt of Choosing Civility
"A human moment occurs anytime two or more people are together, paying attention to one another."
—Edward M. Hallowell
"The principal form that the work of love takes is attention."
—M. Scott Peck
Several middle schoolers are walking down the hall. They are laughing, they are teasing one another, and they are loud. As they walk by a closed classroom door, one of them does the unexpected. Only a few seconds ago she seemed oblivious to anything but the microcosm of her giggling peers. But now, as she glances at the closed door, the thought that a class or an exam may be taking place behind it flashes through her mind. Immediately she lowers her voice and hastens to hush her friends.
A small act? Yes, but an impressive one nonetheless. First, the young woman managed to see in her mind's eye what may have been happening beyond the closed door; then, she was able to imagine the discomfort that her group's noisemaking could cause; finally, she was willing to act upon her empathic imagination. This complex process, however, could not have started had she not been aware of her surroundings. She could be considerate because she was paying attention.
Without attention, no meaningful interaction is possible. Our first responsibility, when we are with others, is to pay attention, to attend to. Etymology tells us that attention has to do with "turning toward," "extending toward," "stretching." Thus attention is a tension connecting us to the world around us. Only after we notice the world can we begin to care for it. Every act of kindness is, first of all, an act of attention. We may see a coworker in need of a word of encouragement, but it is only if we pay attention that we may do something about it. We may hear a child cry, but again, our help is contingent upon our stopping and taking notice.
We spend much of our daily lives neglecting to pay attention. I know I often go through my surroundings without taking them in, without making them mine. When I drive from home to the office and back along my well-traveled route, rarely is my attention struck by the individual objects of the world around me. Rather, my glance is trapped by the patina of the familiar covering them. A tree is nothing but a tree, a storefront just another storefront, a bus just a bus, a passerby just a passerby. Nothing interesting there.
I believe we are all familiar with this kind of experience, just as we are acquainted with its opposite. We also are able to relate to the world as a new and interesting place, as something worthy of attention. Sometimes we need a special occasion to do so. Now I am covering the same stretch of road I cover every day, but this time a friend visiting from out of town is with me. As I point out the sights to him, my perception becomes keener and the familiar turns slightly unfamiliar. I manage to see what I see every day as if for the first time. The tree becomes an old dogwood. A handsome calico cat sleeps in the storefront's window. The bus roaring by flashes a destination that reminds me of a resort I loved as a child. And the passerby is a middle-aged, seemingly upset woman pressing a white handkerchief to her mouth. What have I been doing? I have been looking at my everyday world through the eyes of the stranger. I have stripped reality of its generic wrapper. I have been paying attention.
- I am not just talking with a colleague but with this colleague, who told me several weeks ago that he was concerned about his child's health and whom I have seen grow more and more preoccupied in the last few days. I will keep this in mind as we plan our next month's teamwork.
- I am not just reminiscing with a high school friend but with this friend, who married early, never went to college, and seems threatened by the friendships I developed in college. I should reassure her of my commitment to our friendship.
- I am not just critiquing the work of a student. I am speaking to this individual student, whom I saw struggling during the semester as she tried to match the performances of more seasoned fellow students. As I go over her essay with her, I will remind her of her strengths and tell her I believe in her potential.
- A car is trying to join the traffic flow from the parking lot to my right. Since the traffic is bumper-to-bumper, if everybody thinks of that car as just another car, its driver will be stuck forever. I will slow down to let him in ahead of me.
- Virginia notices that in the back of our train car several of the travelers are reading and working. Since we want to talk, she observes, it would be a good idea to sit in front, in order to disturb them as little as possible with our chatter.
Although attention is a reading of what is around us, it is also timely self-awareness. We want to be aware of how we are reacting to the circumstances at the very time we are reacting to them. We want to make sure that there is a good fit between how we feel and what we do. Somebody's words hurt us and we perceive a swell of outrage inside. Let's stop for a moment to pay attention to it. Is it warranted? Are we overreacting? Are we about to respond in a way we will soon regret? As a friend asks us to recommend him for a job, our first reaction is one of uneasiness. Before we do anything else it's a good idea to pay attention to why we feel that way. Is it because we honestly believe he is not a good candidate for the job? Is it because we resent his good opportunity? Is it a mixture of the two?
Attention looks two ways: outward and inward. As it checks the world, it checks our souls. It is up to us to put to good use its inexhaustible wealth of information. When we manage to do that, we are at our best and live life to the fullest.
Salt and Pepper
When I teach my courses on civility and manners, I tell my students: "We are eating together in the university cafeteria and I ask you to pass me the salt. What do you do?"
The exchange that follows that question usually goes like this:
"I will pass you the salt," answers student A, somewhat puzzled by having to state the obvious.
"What else?" I press.
"That's it," he replies. "You asked for the salt and I'll pass you the salt."
"What else?" I insist.
Fifteen seconds of silence, then a tentative answer comes from student B: "I will pass you the pepper as well?"
"Yes," I reply. "That's what we find in books of etiquette: salt and pepper always travel together. The books, however, neglect to tell us why. You tell me, then, the reasons behind the rule."
Student B is ready now: "I will give you the pepper as well because you may need it later?"
That's indeed part of the rationale. And that's where ethics intersects etiquette. "You," I tell student B, "will be thinking of a need of mine that may or may not become apparent. By doing what you are doing, you are not just observing an arbitrary rule. Your act has an ethical component, since it requires attention and consideration. If the essential feature of the creep is self-centered obliviousness, you are the opposite of a creep."
At this point somebody points out that keeping saltshaker and pepper mill together makes it easier to locate them. The next person who needs them will not have to chase them around the table. "By following the rule, then," I conclude, "we show consideration for people we don't even know." The students are intrigued by this unveiling of implications. They talk about the salt and the pepper with their friends and their dates. And they begin to understand that a humble book of etiquette can be used as a primer in moral philosophy. This meditation on good manners and their ethical underpinnings both expands and gives focus to the students' awareness of the needs of others. My hope is that repeated exercises like this will make them less likely to engage in recklessly self-centered—or even abusive—behavior.
"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.
And yet we often play the game of invisibility. We see someone we know coming our way, but instead of saying hello or even just nodding our acknowledgment, we proceed as if that someone were invisible or we weren't there. Is a glimmer of acknowledgment in a fleeting encounter so burdensome? Are we shy? Are we lazy? Are we prey to misguided pride? Are we so goal-directed that we won't bother with anything that doesn't advance our progress toward our goal, whatever that might be? Are our souls shrinking beyond repair?
We can't feel gregarious every moment of our lives. At times we will be turned inward, unavailable to others, protective of our space and frame of mind. And that's all right. Sometimes we need that to recharge after the great expenditures of physical and nervous energy required by today's life. We can, however, do without the invisibility game. It is insincere and petty. Let's at least nod each other into existence. And let's not play another game, either, that of waiting to be acknowledged before acknowledging in turn. I hope that we will always have enough self-esteem to feel that being first in greeting doesn't entail loss of face.
The Three Strikes of Incivility
As Judy waits in line at the bookstore's cash register, a woman nonchalantly slips ahead of her. Where is the harm of that? The rude act—a lack of acknowledgment—causes harm in at least three ways. First of all, Judy is inconvenienced by being made to wait longer. She has other things to do, she needs to complete her business as soon as possible, and she can't.
Second, Judy is harmed by the woman's dismissal of her presence. The woman acts as though Judy didn't exist or her existence didn't matter. The loss of face makes Judy perturbed and resentful.
Third, if Judy feels that she should do something to redress the slight, this will perturb her as well. She will wonder whether she really wants to bring the issue to the woman's attention. Is it worth her while? Will an unpleasant exchange ensue? Is the incident going to escalate? If she doesn't react, is she being cowardly? Yes, rudeness begets conflict with others but also conflict within ourselves, and the latter can prove as hurtful as the former.
"We must be as courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
—Paul of Tarsus
I have always found the passage on strangers and angels in the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews rich in both meaning and poetic resonance. The overt meaning is clear: the Apostle is encouraging the faithful to be generous because there might be divine messengers among those they will benefit. Whenever I think of Paul's entrancing words, however, I see a related meaning developing from them, like a branch growing from a tree trunk. This second message is: Be generous because, whether you are aware of it or not, there is a spark of divinity in all of those you will benefit. Be generous to the angel in all of us. In other words: think the best of your fellow humans and act accordingly.
Thinking the best of others is a decent thing to do and a way of keeping a source of healthful innocence in our lives. When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that. In my role as a teacher, my drive and enthusiasm in the classroom owe much to my assumption that all of my students are essentially good human beings, interested in the pursuit of knowledge, and willing to work hard. Believing that they are good, I want to be good for them. I feel challenged to match their excellence. Am I deluding myself in thinking the best of them? At times, perhaps I am. But what really counts is that almost: all of them will rise to the occasion, riding the tide of my trust. As I think the best of them, they will be shaped by the credit I am willing to give them. They will begin to become what I think they are. This is one of teachers' greatest rewards.
Even outside the classroom I expect that everyone I meet will turn out to be good rather than bad. I have felt this way all of my life. What I find exciting in a new acquaintance is the thought: Maybe I'm making a discovery here; maybe someone entering my life who is nice. That's what gives me joy: the possibility of goodness. I appreciate exceptional intelligence, I can be changed by beauty, and I am intrigued by charisma. But I will be moved by goodness. Of course I am aware that not all those I meet can be paragons of goodness. Still, my bet with myself is that they will be nice to me. I think of my goodwill as an unspoken challenge to them and envision that our lives will be made better by our interaction.
There is no doubt that thinking the best of others can boost the quality of your life. Among other things, it will help you establish rapport with many people who otherwise would remain strangers. Be careful, however, not to overdo it. Thinking the best of others can make us dangerously vulnerable. Your optimism should not be unthinking but rather tempered by the right dose of realism. Having a positive attitude doesn't mean that you should trust just anybody with your life. I do wish that I had been more cautious at various times in my life. And yet thinking the best of my fellow human beings remains a very important part of who I am.
So, when it comes to people, have great expectations: it will be good for your soul, and it may touch theirs. At the same time, don't discount the possibility of unpleasant surprises. If people let you down, don't rush to judgment, but don't disregard the disenchanting evidence, either. Sad as it may be, accept that your opinion and feelings are changing. At some point, you may decide to tell the people who have disappointed you about your discontent. Be frank. No matter what their reaction to your frankness may be, you can at least take comfort in thinking that you will have given them a precious chance to learn something about themselves, you, or both.
A Note on the Fair Americans
People from other parts of the world are often struck by Americans' seemingly unbounded willingness to take a chance on others. This is a defining American trait, just like the belief in freedom and in the rights of the individual. What is America if not the place where people can expect to be given a chance, where they are given the benefit of the doubt when they come under suspicion and a second chance after a fall? These are all forms of thinking the best of others. As a European who has lived in the United States for a long time, I continue to marvel at this mixture of idealism and radical fairness in the American soul.
Take this quiz and put your manners to the test.