One of my little pet subjects is etiquette. Miss Manners is one of my idols (and not only because she is Excruciatingly Correct. I think she’s funny, wise, and a heck of a good writer). Observing basic mannerly behavior makes going outside into the chaotic world so much easier and more pleasant for all of us. Really, it has nothing to do with what fork you use at dinner — I think of stuff like that as social mores.
Anyway! When I was in Indianapolis at the Conference for College Composition and Communication I saw P.M. Forni’s Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct at one of the publisher’s tables, and was intrigued. I promised myself I would read it as soon as I got a moment — and the moment is now! My local library had a copy and I scooped it up.
The Rules are worth listing here. I think they make for a rather nice way to be in the world:
Think the best
Don’t speak ill
Accept and give praise
Respect even a subtle “no”
Respect others’ opinions
Mind your body
Keep it down (and rediscover silence)
Respect other people’s time
Respect other people’s space
Avoid personal questions
Care for your guests
Be a considerate guest
Think twice before asking for favors
Refrain from idle complaints
Accept and give constructive criticism
Respect the environment and be gentle to animals
Don’t shift responsibility and blame
Forni’s musings and explanations are very much worth reading, though, for the deep understanding he brings. Once of the things I loved most about the book was that he went into the etymology of many of the words we use to think about this subject (civility, courtesy, politeness, manners) and wove quotes and ideas from authors and philosophers on civility in with his own, modern thoughts. This is very much a thinking, reading person’s etiquette book!
My absolute favorite quote from the book? My heart flipped when I saw he included Forester’s words from Two Cheers from Democracy:
I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.
Tears! The entire thing is so worth reading. But I digress. The Big Question — how does one measure up? I can say that I’m not half bad at living the concepts in the list but for one: I’m a complainer, and I know it! I rarely complain at home or to my friends, but I am such a complainer at work. I have to improve this! This is not about voicing your concern and trying to bring about change (that’s good! That’s being assertive), but rather the “rarr rarr rarr this is unfair! I can’t believe rarr rarr rarr!” things. I agree — it brings others down and is exactly what Forni calls it: “a futile exercise in negativism.” How can I improve? Forni suggests making a list of all the things you regularly complain about over and over again like a broken record without ever making a solution for change. Choose one per month to “expunge from your repertoire.” When you are tempted to go on one of your rants, stop. Instead, “refocus on problem solving. What can you do about it? What are the reasons for the problem?”
Wow. This is actually pretty incredible. Instead of me ranting negatively about how the students don’t care, and making everyone around me spiral into a complaint-fest, I can think of a few strategies to try and engage the students so they do care. I can also realize that there are so many reasons for this that are completely out of my control, and I could just let it go. I do believe I feel 50 pounds lighter! I need to write in really huge letters on my desk WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT? WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR THIS PROBLEM? so I can be reminded to problem solve and refocus instead of making my tiny violin screech “wah wah wah!” THANK YOU DR. FORNI!
So yes! I think this is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it if you, too, have a little pet interest in etiquette (and perhaps especially if you don’t!). This book will make you think about your own behavior in productive ways, and truly has the ability to make the world a better place.