Monday, April 12, 2010

A Manifesto for Civility

Most people have heard of the social contract by John Locke. It's a fairly simple concept that when people live in a society, they are willing to let go of certain freedoms in exchange for the security and benefits of living within a society where people look out for each other, protect each other and help each other in times of need. This is the premise on which civilization can work, otherwise, most of society would be comprised of savages and outlaws, taking whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, preying on the poor, the weak and old.

Civilization has come a long way and people manage to live with each other fairly well. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement. People are abiding by the social contract well, but life within society is not always what you would call pleasant. So if we want to move beyond that basic social contract and move to real civility, allow me to suggest a few simple things that people could do that would make life a lot more pleasant.

Respect for Others

I think that we need a refresher on the very basics, the stuff that mom and dad are supposed to have covered early on, but doesn't always happen. Please, thank you, excuse me. We should all be making better use of these expressions, particularly when we run into people (this is a rude thing to do, even if it's by accident), when we ask for something (could I have that please?) and when people do nice things for us (thank you.)

These rules also extend to our behaviour with technology. The computer, our video games, our cell phones, our ipods, etc. It is not acceptable to be locked into any of these things when we have people over or when we're hosting people at our home. It's definitely not acceptable to use any of these on a date.

It seems foolish to have to even say these things, because they seem so obvious, but people have proven time and time again that they need to be reminded. Case in point, think about the last date or party that you've been at. Did the person take a call on their cell while you were out, or did the host of the party take some quick time out to check their email while you were over? There's a good chance that the answer at some point was yes and that it annoyed you, even if only for a minute.

Another case in point: the basic rules of the road. Your parents have been telling you this for years: Look both ways before you cross the street. You didn't have to get hit by a car to know that this was a good idea. And yet, recently in the news, the city of Toronto has been ticketing pedestrians for jaywalking like mad. Apparently, there have been 13 deaths in one month of people just not bothering to look as they cross the street, so busy and important, that they don't have time to bother with traffic signs or lights. 13 deaths in one month is about the same amount of deaths that have occurred in one year! The increase seems to be due to the fact that people just don't want to wait anymore for anything. So here's another basic: Wait your turn.


Part of having respect for others stems from having respect for ourselves. If we care about how we appear to other people, in both our appearance and our behaviour, it reflects well on other people and often inspires them to do the same.

It's not necessary for us to walk out the door looking like supermodels, but we should, at the very least, shower every day and take care of our basic hygiene. Brush our teeth, brush our hair, roll on deodorant or spray. It's those little touches which show that we're not savages, particularly if we take public transportation.

Another indication of civility? Table manners. Eating together is one of the most sociable activities that people can undertake and every effort should be made to keep it this way. Eat with your mouth closed. Don't reach over other people. Don't eat off someone else's plate. Don't take more food than you can handle and don't take the best of a given dish before other people have had a chance to serve themselves.

Showing courtesy is an easy thing to do every day. Opening doors, offering seats on the bus, helping others, obeying traffic rules, showing etiquette when it comes to technology, waiting our turn for things, being courteous when people provide services for us, practicing good hygiene. All of these little things make life that much more pleasant and society bearable. If we all tried to be more civil in little ways like this, we'd live in a better place.

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