The word ‘civility’ brings to mind a bygone era of dressing for dinner, respect for one’s elders and the use of terms such as “gentleman” and “lady” when referring to peers. This is not to suggest that we should start dressing for dinner…most people barely have time for dinner at all. But it is a good example of the state of mind our society has bred and cultivated over the last fifty years or so years. Civility, like dressing for dinner, is an antiquated idea that no longer fits into out daily lives and yet when we suffer from another’s incivility, we wonder why this occurs.
Stephen Carter’s book Civility begins by explaining what civility is and how it is to be used.
“Civility is often translated as politeness, but it means something more. It suggests an approach to life, a way of carrying one’s self and of relating to others- in short, living in a way that is civilized…to be civilized is to understand that we live in society as in a household, and that within that household, if we are to be moral people, our relationships with other people are governed by standards of behavior that limit our freedom.
” (Carter 15)
Many teenagers today have never heard the word civility in conjunction with our daily lives, much less contemplated its use and meaning, and yet these teenagers are our future. We hear this all the time but it is a scary future, both for us and the future adults. It is an everyday occurrence to hear news stories of school shooting, violence over clothing and untimely deaths over real or imagined slights. Teenagers reading Civility will be amazed at the way a small slight or perceived attitude can spread like ripples on a pond, effecting not only the initial participants, but
people who have no other connection to them than they are on the receiving end of the incivility wave.
One of the best examples of today’s society and the domino effect of incivility is given in the book by Carter. “…and now your blood is boiling, so you pull out of the station a little too fast, narrowly missing another motorist, who raises his middle finger and shouts and obscenity at you…you swing into a fast food joint for a quick bite and you wait in line behind two bickering kids, continuing in their loudest and most irritating whine…you jump two inches into the air because someone has knocked over a display and walks out the door without picking it up… now it is your turn at the counter but there are no words of welcome, just a glassy, empty stare from a teenager who would rather be doing anything else right now…” (Carter 8)
This example goes on to explain how the order was incorrect, the teen argues it was your fault, you return to your car, there is nothing but bad news on the radio and then you head to work where you are expected to be polite. It shows how each small item in the situation adds into the stress of the whole picture and how each person contributes to the incivility. This is something that most teenagers can relate to since they are under constant scrutiny for behavior.
This ongoing effect permeates our schools, sports programs and teenage peer groups. Some teenagers are treated with distain of they are not in the right clique or play the right sport. They can be isolated by other teens for various reasons and made to feel outcasts or freaks. There has been a longstanding argument regarding the teaching of religion in our schools but what of civility? How can we worry about teaching our teens about God when we cannot teach them simple courtesies? Perhaps even scarier is the knowledge that few teenagers notice anything wrong with the way they interact with others.
This is not to suggest that all teenagers are rude, callous heathens with no sense of propriety. They are wonderful, inventive, adventurous people blossoming into their own but like all the teen before them, they are learning the adult rules of the world and how to associate with others in daily life. It is here that Civility can be a powerful tool to not only help them understand how their actions effect others both directly and indirectly but how certain ways of handling people can help them as adults.
Few of us, as Carter points out, stop to think what is behind the surly attitude of the waitress or the abrupt conversation with someone normally quite friendly. We tend to react to the treatment rather than investigate and this, in turn, creates more friction and stress. Teenagers are under a great deal of stress just being teens. The world tells them they are not children, so don’t act childish but they are not adults so don’t act independent either. They are testing their boundaries and making the mistakes that will teach them skills to navigate through life. One of these skills should be civility. Just as it takes one angry person to affect a number of people’s day, it can take as little as one to brighten many others.
One of the lessons we must learn while growing up is the consequences of our actions. Unfortunately, we have given the impression that this is mainly a result of a physical action and not necessarily a thoughtless gesture or comment. Civility should be required reading in junior highs and high schools along with the classics. It would be interesting to discover, after reading the book, how many had changed their perceptions regarding certain situations or in general.
Many high school boys might think better of the way they treat high school girls and women in general after reading this book. They may discover that kindness is not, in fact, weakness but a
strength all its own. High school girls may discover that they get more respect by giving respect themselves.
Civility will not break up the cliques or stop all the behaviors that teenagers suffer through, but it can give a new perspective on the way teens look at a situation and possibly change the outcome on some of it. We, as adults, have not set the best example for our teens. We too have let civility fall by the wayside as the worlds pace gets faster and faster. We have no time to stop and consider our actions and this is the legacy we are leaving.
Carter makes a good point about civility and disagreements that teenagers can use to resolve issues that might otherwise escalate to verbal altercations or even violence. “Civility assumes we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.” (132)
Teenagers have long told parents “You don’t listen to me!” and this is probably true, we tend to talk at teenagers rather than to them. This teaches them that to be understood they must emulate us and talk first, listen later. Civility stresses the importance of listening attentively in a conversation before taking our turn to speak. This can be an important tool for teenagers and parents alike and can help teens to resolve issues that might be due to misunderstandings or hearsay.
Civility stresses that the family unit is the place to begin bringing civility back into our culture. “Teaching civility, by word and example, is an obligation of the family. The state must not interfere with the family’s effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children.” (Carter 230)
Manners and morality are learned and it must be taught at the family level to permeate the teenage world. Teenagers who practice civility will come to realize that they get further with
parents and make stronger friendships using these skills. This book is a good way to start and a guide to the practice of civility. As stated previously, if one person can start a bad mood, then another can start a good mood. Either of these will have the same ripple effect on others thorough out the day.
It may be hard for teenagers to understand why reading this book could be important to their future but having read they will find at least a few things in it that relate to them and their current lives. If they put the skills in Civility to use they will find that the world is a much better place to be and they are better people as well.
Perhaps by starting with our future, we can correct our past. Teenagers today hold the future leadership positions of tomorrow and it is what they learn from us and books like Civility that will determine what type of leaders they will become.
Carter, S. (1998) Civility. New York: Basic Books
Cite this Civility as Civilized Conduct
Civility as Civilized Conduct. (2016, Sep 30). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/civility-essay/