Finish the Rules
Take a look at all 110 of the original Rules of Civility and create your own interpretations for today's world.
Respect today means keeping physical distance between you and anyone you encounter. Shaking hands is no longer a sign of respect in these precarious times. These days, nodding or waving is the accepted form of saying hello. At home, showing respect might mean respecting your family’s need for personal space, for help with chores, or for extra love and care. Washington would have approved of these new methods because they are evidence of concern for others’ well-being.
We all take a small delight in surprising and startling our friends and family members on occasion, but in this uncertain time, we should recognize that people may be facing unknown stress or strain and that even a surprise meant to be fun can be a real struggle. Take care not to shock anyone unnecessarily, so that when you do have to share tough information about new rules, restrictions, or people that have contracted the virus, your friends know you are serious.
Washington learned that it was never appropriate to cough or sneeze without covering his mouth and nose and that’s especially true now. But one bit of advice Washington would surely have modified is his admonition to cough or sneeze into your hand. If you can’t control the sneeze or cough or yawn, use the inside of your elbow even when you are just with your family. That way you won’t be sending droplets airborne to fall on others. You can also use a tissue to cover your cough, then discard it immediately. Many of us are covering our faces with masks too.
Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, October 23, 1789
"...how is the poor child - kiss Maria I send her two little handkerchiefs to wipe her nose" ”
A civil person should always be aware of others in their conversation and be a respectful listener. Although we now use new methods to communicate, these rules still apply. If in a video chat with someone, don’t fall asleep. Communicating through video means that we can sit while others stand or walk. This rule reminds us that we should bring equal amounts of attention and respect to what others have to say. Make sure you don’t talk too much and recognize when it is time to hold your peace. And take extra care not to talk over one another when you are sharing a video conversation with many others.
Good advice for when life gets somewhat back to normal: don’t disturb people’s work. For now, as we navigate a COVID-19 world, as during Washington’s time, a polite person never turns their back when being introduced to someone. And we must take care in approaching person-to-person interactions. Face the person you’re meeting, then you can nod or wave to say hello. Do whatever is both respectful and comfortable for you and for them, but always keep six feet apart.
We sure are instructed to wash our hands a lot these days. Have you heard the advice to wash your hands for 20 seconds? It helps to sing “Yankee Doodle” verse and chorus to make sure you’ve washed for long enough. Clean those nails too. George Washington was also instructed to keep his nails, hands, and teeth clean. The same applies today. Our dentists would want us to practice good oral hygiene since we can’t go to regular dental check-ups while we are practicing physical distancing.
Pleasant but grave, indeed. Be serious; our current circumstances are not a joke. A light countenance is good and puts others at ease but we should always be sensitive to the situation. Washington was known to be a serious person and showed great respect to his peers and superiors. He had a sense of humor but was careful to weigh each situation before reacting. This is a useful lesson as we balance the seriousness of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the importance of taking time to de-stress and relax. Remember that there’s a time and a place for everything; be serious when it’s called for and exercise good humor when you can.
We all now live in communities that have individuals taking precautions and demonstrating symptoms of infectious illnesses. If someone is wearing protective masks or gloves, is sick, or is showing symptoms, know that it may be scarier for them than for you. Take care to keep them in your thoughts and provide support to them in safe and practical ways. Do not treat them with disrespect or disdain for protecting themselves or harboring illness. We are all in the same boat and if you become ill, you would surely want to be treated with respect.
It is human nature to sometimes feel relief or satisfaction when someone we dislike or someone who has hurt us suffers misfortune. However, it is neither justified nor wise to wish ill upon a person or delight in their unhappiness. Negative feelings beget more negative feelings. George Washington knew how to fight wars, and he likely would have wanted all Americans to focus their energy on the fight against COVID-19, rather than wasting energy and effort on wishing bad things for others. Better to wish for strength, healing, and forgiveness for all as we unite to fight this virus.
Washington conducted a lot of business. He wrote or received over 140,000 letters in his lifetime. He knew that in managing economic affairs, it helped to be direct, clear, and informed. At this time many are juggling a lot. Sometimes work projects must be done more quickly and efficiently than in the past. When conducting business, we should have all the information we need then quickly move on to the next thing. Similarly, when sending emails, it helps to be straight and to the point. Because of physical distancing, more email is being sent and your recipient may have many more messages.
George Washington and others in the 18th century knew that pain and human suffering was a part of life, just like it is today. As we get news of people in pain and getting sick, we must give them sympathy and support. Our role in helping them heal can be to not express joy in their illness. This will only defeat their spirit and make it harder to get better. Instead express joy in what you like about them to alleviate, not aggravate their misery.
Judging from portraits in existence and written accounts of Washington’s appearance, he was meticulous in his dress and enjoyed a good look. He had high regard for cleanliness and probably would have loved present-day access to clean living. That aspect of the General’s advice pertains today: wash your hands and wear clean clothes to limit the spread of disease. In addition, wearing clean and snazzy clothes can help you maintain a sense of routine and normalcy in a world basically turned upside down.
In the 18th century there were strict class divisions that defined society, but today, this advice applies to anyone you encounter. If you meet someone you don’t know or don’t know well, initiate communication with kindness. We should make moral choices and act with integrity when we encounter new people. In this uncertain time, we want to always treat encounters with others as someone who can potentially help us and support us. Why start out with an insult?
Washington practiced perfect manners as a gentleman in Colonial America. The mere fact that he copied down a set of rules by which to conduct himself tells us everything we need to know. He learned early on never to spit, cough, or blow his nose while at a table or near another person. These may seem simply common-sense rules, but in our current precarious situation, it bears repeating. What Washington might have thought merely distasteful, today can be considered dangerous. We should follow his example and not make it easy for the virus to spread.
Describing a fine meal with the Washingtons evokes images of fine china and silver inside beautiful rooms at Mount Vernon. Guests of the Washingtons would surely have been looked on with reproach if, after they had enjoyed a great piece of cherry pie, someone were to spit the pits out in a common dish or on the floor for enslaved individuals to clean up. Since COVID-19 is spread through water droplets from our mouths, we need to take special care to manage and safely throw away food waste and refuse from our meals.
It cannot be said enough at this time. Keep your clothes clean; keep your fingers clean; keep your entire person clean; keep your space clean. Do everything you can to keep the virus from spreading. Washington would have done no less. In fact, he would have been on the front lines fighting the virus. Such was the nature of the man.
Yes, we need to wash our hands. Yes, we need to keep our nails clean, our teeth brushed, and our faces washed - but we should do these in private. No need to make everyone view your cleaning routine.
What is conscience? An inner feeling that guides the rightness or wrongness of our actions. It is fitting that this the last Rule of Civility because underlying each rule is the belief that we are guided by our hearts, and therefore, our motives should be pure. If our motives are less than righteous, we need to look inside to see what has gone awry. The General would have wanted us to fight this virus with all the goodness and mercy that we all have in our hearts. Right makes might.