George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”

Inescapable witness to recent political paroxysms, I’ve been wishing (along with so many of us) for a totally honest, compassionate, intelligent, polite leader to show up.  Where is he or she?  Where is a universally respected expert to help us foist ourselves out of the mud?  So, while I usually read material with more intrigue than—yawn—manners, I was smitten with a list of social prescriptions our first president copied (from French Jesuits) when he was only 16.  In these “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” some concepts remain basic, and some are so long anachronistic they just seem silly.  But the employment of most is so remote from our lives today, that I had to wonder how the bulk of “Civility and Decent Behavior” went so otherwhere.  Of course, this little trove can’t, on its own, lift us beyond where we can only take ourselves, but it is insightful to look at the self-control and self-responsibility concepts that surely contributed to George Washington’s undeniable greatness…and the germinal understructure of our (still awesome) country.

As far as I can see, civility and decent behavior have largely evacuated quite a few arenas:  politics, media, culture, commerce, education, religion.  But it does us no good to point fingers: the lack of “civil and decent” conduct just shows up in each of these outlets as consequence, not cause.  For example, disregarding recommendation #49, to “Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile,” is not the reason nobody’s respectful in politics now, nor is such ignorance the grounds for random mass shootings.  Most of us have simply forgotten to pay attention to—or even consciously come up with—our own list of how we should treat ourselves and each other.  And in losing our focus, we forgot the Truth about ourselves (we aren’t born mean or nasty!)

Probably because of the looming election, I’m tempted to say our Truth-nesia drops anchor most deeply in political waters.  With that in mind, consider President Washington’s first two “Rules:”

1.     Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present. (Translation:  Be respectful to others.)

2.     When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.  (Translation:  Keep your hands off your privates in public and—this is pure interpolation on my part—off anyone else’s, as well.)

These turn out to be two rather helpful hints while participating in this election (and life).  Though George didn’t face an opponent,[1] can any of us fathom the father of our country treating his political peers to incendiary scowls, ardent interruptions, or flagrantly rude, 1780’s Tweet-equivalents?  My imagination just isn’t that creative.  And even if the spiel about the cherry tree didn’t quite pass history’s fact-check department, George’s reputation for telling the truth stands solid in numerous other instances.  He was meticulous in his attention to civility and decent behavior (I mean, there he was, a teenager, scribing ways to improve!)

Of course, politics is not the only field where just being nice proves just too much.  What we call culture has also sloughed off civility in plenty of formats, particularly music.  My youngest son is a break dancer/hip hop ace, so we discuss lyrics, and more importantly, lyric meanings a lot—which is how, at age ten, he came to know the definition of “misogynistic.”  For example, in “Rock My Chain,” Fetty Wap sings the same word that appropriately thrust Trump into a murky and indecorous spotlight.  Somehow, though, it’s not only ok, but lucrative, if it’s art.  We listen to it, admire it, buy it, sing it, and then we wonder why women don’t enjoy across-the-board equality.  Or more basically still, respect. 

Then there is our clear obsession with all things material.  In Washington’s 52nd rule, he advises, “In your Apparel be Modest and endeavor to accommodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration.”  Magazines, songs, movies, advertising—they are all more or less paeans to expensive stuff, from shoes, jeans, “raris,” sex, and drugs, etc.  None of that aligns with us trying not to “procure Adimiration.”  Isn’t the admiration of others the reason we spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of sneakers?  And while I’m not saying any of these things is bad—pretty stuff is fun!—I do believe (and I’m confident George would back me up on this one) our obsession with them doesn’t serve us.  It adds neither to our cultural civility nor our decent behavior.

“Celebrities” exist center stage in a way most of us will never endure, but if we are part of this society, and continue to do nothing but act disgusted and Tweet/complain about the bad stuff going on “out there,” then we are very surely contributors to the problem.  I suggest we try, as George did, to think about (and perhaps, radically, write down) our own list of how to behave, and then follow it.  We must intentionally change our common path.  For me that includes choosing to see the best in people (including politicians and musicians who employ words I don’t love); helping more in my community; being the most loving family member and friend I can be; and spending more time in silence (AKA meditation/prayer), where I can remember the Truth about me (and everyone else).

And, I just might glance through President Washington’s suggestions a few more times.  I’m not sure that #95, advising us not to “Spit forth the Stones of any fruit Pie upon a Dish,” will help me reach a higher level of civility, but his last point, #110, which admonishes, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience,” will surely compel and propel me (and all of us?) in the right direction.


Kelly Corbet is an author, mother, meditator, and mindfulness teacher, whose greatest wish is to invite more Love into the world.  Her latest book, Already Here: the matter of Love, was published earlier this year.


[1] He remains, in fact, the ONLY president backed 100% by the entire Electoral College.  Twice.