Rules of civility

Joanne Berger-Sweeney
Photo by Julie Bidwell

Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
— Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, an investment executive turned novelist, describes a clever, brash heroine who is introduced to upper-class 1930s New York society through an unusual and somewhat unfortunate set of events. The story follows the heroine as she defines her own values and observes the strict rules of civility to which others adhere. These rules, and the title of the novel, were based on the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a book containing 110 principles that originated from a set of guidelines authored by French Jesuits in the late 16th century. The guidelines were popularized when our country’s first president, George Washington, a teenager at the time, handwrote a copy of them. It is said that Washington’s actions helped him internalize the ideas, albeit imperfectly, in turn molding his character. While it should be said that Washington didn’t practice all of what he learned, I was struck by rule number one—the excerpt at the top of this letter—and its relevance for our Trinity community today.

This rule guides us to show respect for one another—no matter who or what is involved. It doesn’t dictate that we should respect someone only if that person looks or sounds like us or agrees with our opinion; no, it is clear: civility calls upon us to respect everyone we encounter.

It seems that in our current society, we have lost some of the rules of civility in our interactions. This leads to me think about why. There’s no question that political divides have torn at our civility, but these circumstances preceded our most recent presidential elections. The seeds of divisiveness have been laid for decades and are the fodder for incivility. Recently, I heard a troubling prediction from a political watcher in Washington, D.C., who foresees that every four years we will see a flip in political power, that we will be swinging back and forth regularly, because each side will block, with a complete lack of civility, any progress the other side tries to make. We all can play a role in changing this problematic prediction; we can be a part of a more civil future.

My thoughts go back to a young George Washington, who was trying to learn these rules of civility, not too far removed from the age of Trinity’s entering students. It’s at this time of life that our students are exploring the rules of social connections and interactions and trying to discern how those rules will guide them and shape their own values. As I told our newest first-years when they took their places on the Main Quad at September’s Convocation, Trinity may not have a book with 110 rules of civility, but the college provides guideposts and a space in which they can create their own civil rules. They will do so based on values from their upbringing coupled with those they acquire living and learning on campus, where they interact with people from across society and the world. Their time here will give them the empathy, careful listening skills, and value system to guide them, and we will provide innumerable opportunities to use their rules—to practice, revise, practice, and revise.

Higher education—and Trinity’s residential liberal arts experience—provides the pathway for our students’ transformative educational experience, which evolves from simply what students do to what they live and who they are. That journey fosters not only their intellectual development but also the social and moral growth that can contribute to a more civil society. As an institution of higher education, we welcome this extraordinary responsibility and privilege. And every single person who benefits—or benefited—from a Trinity College education has the ability and responsibility to share the fruits of their experiences here with others. We are now ambassadors of the rules of civility; we can model how to interact with others with respect.