A lack of civility in modern life is pervasive in our world today, and our cable news and newspapers never let us forget it. But we experience the lack of civility most acutely in our daily lives. Giovanni della Casa was a perceptive observer of human nature. In his book Il Galateo, he reminds us that the timeless principles of civility are grounded in unchanging traits of good character, such as empathy for others. His theory of how civility supports our freedom and flourishing was inherently aesthetic. We are interdependent, and della Casa understood that what we absorb through our senses influences our mental and emotional states. Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, what we do and say invariably affects those around us. He anticipated the discovery of “mirror-neurons,” which explain why we intuitively feel emotions that we observe in others. This gives each of us an incredible power to either promote or weaken our community with our daily conduct.
Our everyday behaviors are regulated by unspoken, subtle guidelines that have developed over time to make coexistence not just tolerable, but enjoyable. If we choose to do life with others, instead of in complete isolation, we do not have unlimited freedom. We don’t have the right to categorically disregard the comfort of others by doing whatever we would like. Counterintuitively, true freedom comes with self-imposing restraints on our words and conduct for the sake of others—the only path by which we might become fully human, and truly free.
“[Spitting] is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there.”
– Giovanni della Casa, sixteenth-century Italian etiquette writer, making an important point about both civility and love
Della Casa explicitly links manners with this project of human community; he adopted a theory of manners that resembles the modern French idiom la petite morale, or “little morals.” He saw morals and manners as two sides of the same coin, united in their purpose of making life together possible. He saw them as means by which we might become free from our baser nature and impulses, forging, as English philosopher Roger Scruton put it, “a society of cooperative and mutually respectful individuals out of the raw material of self-seeking animals.”
We are not isolated, self-sufficient monads. Our everyday interactions can either elevate or degrade our experience of living in society together. Our considerateness toward others promotes mutual trust, and in turn, our freedom and flourishing.
Small, gracious acts toward one another spark a virtuous cycle. We see a need arise, such as someone trying to open the door with coffee in their hand. We act on our duty to meet that need, and hold the door open for them. If duty is deployed, and duly recognized with a simple Thanks, both parties move on with their day. The person doing the kindness feels virtuous and is encouraged to be kind again in the future. The person who received the kindness feels safe, and is inspired to pay the kindness forward in a future interaction. All is well with the world. This simple, virtually costless exchange is a small but important thread weaving and sustaining the entire social project.
“When the elements of truth and right are developed in the social doctrine of a welfare, the folks are raised to another plane. They become capable of extending their constructive influence on a man in society. These we call the mores. The mores are the folkways, including the philosophical and ethical generalizations as to societal welfare which are suggested by them, and inherent in them, as they grow.”
– William Graham Sumner, nineteenth-century American sociologist, Folkways
Social life is a dance of a thousand social rituals that coordinate our interactions with each other, each day. Best-case scenario, they go according to plan, and we think little of them.
“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”
– Henry David Thoreau, nineteenth-century American writer, Walden (1854)
But what if, as sometimes happens, instead of being thanked, the person who held the door open was scorned—or worse, ignored? We’re at first surprised that things did not go as expected. Then, we often feel rejected, offended, and angry. We resent feeling overextended—we were kind when we didn’t have to be—and made to feel invisible. It feels like the good deed has been thrown back in our face.
We often over-extrapolate from single instances like this and make generalizations about society and others. “People just don’t care for one another anymore”; “What has happened to the world?”; “That person must be a horrible human being.”
“You can never confuse him with anyone else, since the neighbor . . . is all people.”
– Søren Kierkegaard, nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, Works of Love (1847)
Now, a vicious cycle has begun. You may question the rituals of courtesy you have been conditioned in, and not only second-guess yourself the next time you feel the urge to hold the door open for someone, but second guess the wisdom in all the trust-building norms your culture values. You may stew about the offense, and carry the mistrust and hurt throughout your day. Having had that exchange might have put you in a bad mood, you might feel tempted to displace your negative emotions onto someone else, passing on the unkindness by being short with your colleague, barista, or taxi driver. You might think twice before doing anything nice for others for a while. What’s the point? Society is in decline anyway, you might reason.
What could have been an impersonal, albeit kind, exchange that filled our emotional reserves and gave us a nugget of motivation to support the social project that day has now drained us of our emotional energy, become deeply personal, and caused us to want to give up on society altogether. “They did not thank me on purpose,” one might reason. “They meant to hurt me.”
People are thoughtless all the time. This means that situations such as this will happen. We must cultivate the practice of “unbundling” situations: instead of seeking to fit them into a story about how horrible people and the world are, we should choose to see them as one-offs.
Overlooking ways to be thoughtful toward others are missed opportunities to sow seeds of trust and goodwill that can pay dividends across time and place. Forgetting to thank others for small kindnesses are, too. Conversely, being thoughtless can corrode the social project beyond the isolated incident, causing people to lose faith in society and others.
Whether or not we want to accept it, we rely on one another. Life in society means moderating our selfishness, and requires negotiating our needs and those of others. More than memorizing a list of rules, cultivating a disposition of civility—of fundamentally respecting others—will help us navigate the potential minefield, and reap the high benefits of life together. There are certain basic principles of getting along with others every day. Our very civilization is held together by small, common courtesies, which is why such small, simple daily acts matter. As della Casa wrote, “Don’t be looking like you consider the things discussed above as trivial and of small moment, for even light blows, if they are many, can kill.”
This essay is excerpted with permission from Alexandra Hudson’s new book, “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves,” which is available to order here.