It is more than 50 years since Emily Post, the guru of etiquette, passed away. Has civility passed away with her? When Speaker of the House John Boehner referred to the president's legislation as "crap," I began to wonder.
In "The Promise," his best-seller about President Barack Obama's first year in the White House, Jonathan Alter writes, "it [is] hard to see how things [are] going to get more civil when every loudmouth with a talk show or hatemonger with a laptop [can] mainline venom into the system."
Today in politics civility has reached new lows — to the detriment of our citizens. When one side sets out to oppose the other for no rational reason, everyone loses. But it needn't be that way.
Approximately 20 years ago, way before he became Republican National Committee Chairman, Michael Steele was a participant in a writing and editing workshop I conducted at a Washington, D.C. law firm. Throughout the years, Mr. Steele and I have kept in touch intermittently. Although we disagree politically, we are able to disagree politely — and humorously — and can discuss most anything.
While civility is sorely lacking in politics, two other areas are known for rudeness as well: the workplace and the schools, at all levels. According to a study conducted by Management Professor Christine Pearson at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, 45 percent of the 800 respondents surveyed contemplated changing jobs due to incidents of rudeness. Twelve percent actually did change jobs.
In 1997, Professor P.M. Forni, who taught Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project "aimed at assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society." He subsequently wrote "Choosing Civility: the 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct" followed by "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude."
At the top of Professor Forni's list of incivilities, echoing the University of North Carolina study, is "discrimination in employment," followed by "erratic or aggressive behavior" in the workplace and "taking credit for someone else's work."
Besieged by stress, people are often poorly trained in self restraint. For example, I'll never forget the time I heard the owner of a local garden center insult a customer who had asked him a simple question. True, it was a stressful holiday time, but his inappropriate behavior clearly shocked his workers as well as other customers, two of whom put down their poinsettias and walked out.
Whether one owns the business or works for the business, it is important to be polite and considerate of others. With the exception of P.M. Forni's classes in civility at Hopkins, I am not sure how many other schools and colleges promote civility, which seems especially necessary today, considering the instances of excessive bullying we now know about that caused more than one picked-on student to commit suicide.
I recently heard Carol Campbell Haislip, owner of The International School of Protocol in Baltimore, speak to a group about civility. Ms. Haislip, along with a partner, conducts courses teaching etiquette to everyone from children and teens (at both inner-city and private schools) to adults and business professionals. She also holds workshops for teens and young people on table manners and job interviews. The guest who begins eating before his host usually doesn't get invited back. Nor do people who routinely forget to say "please" and "thank you."
The offensive habit of answering a cell phone or text message in mid-conversation, during an appointment, during meals, during meetings or classes is yet another timely example of incivility. As is failing to pick up after a pet.
When we live among others, we must be aware of them. Too many individuals think the world revolves only around them.
"Be agreeable," says Professor Forni. Benjamin Franklin put it even better: "If you [want to] be loved, [then] love and be lovable," which is, of course, a rephrasing from the Bible: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program, is president of BWB-Business Writing at Its Best, Inc. She is the author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing" (Basic Books). Her e-mail is email@example.com.