The Importance of Civility

One of my personal bugbears is the way people order one another around without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. I know it is a minor matter compared with world peace or climate change, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of consequences. I tell myself that a subjunctive is meant or that I have misheard or misinterpreted, but it won’t wash. We say ‘I want’ or ‘Get me’ or ‘Pray for’ or whatever without troubling ourselves about the small courtesies of life. Indeed, daring to say they matter marks one out as an old fuddy-duddy. I think that issuing an order instead of making a request implies a misplaced sense of entitlement. Civility and civilisation are intimately connected.* The loss of the one is not very good for the other.

In the monastery what I call the small courtesies of life are ritualised. That doesn’t mean, as some would like to assert, that they are stripped of meaning. On the contrary, they become charged with meaning that goes beyond the quotidian. The reverence shown to those older in the habit, the ritual exchange of greeting and blessing, the very body language we use, standing in the presence of our seniors, bowing in acknowledgment of small services or simply in passing, the fact that we follow the Rule and never address one another by the bare name alone but always prefix it with the customary monastic ‘Dame’ or ‘Sister’, these all imply a thoughtfulness about life that as a society I fear we have abandoned. The Rule of St Benedict envisions everyone in community, from the youngest to the oldest, being valued, having a place, being respected and loved — especially when most vulnerable. Our task is to incarnate these values not de haut en bas but horizontally, as it were. This is sometimes mistakenly identified with being democratic. A monastery is not a democracy but it is, or should be, a very civilized society.

Can those outside the monastery derive any benefit from this? I hope so. We have all had the joy of knowing people who seem to have an instinctive grasp of the importance of treating others with respect and kindness. They tend to be more selfless than the rest of us, less concerned about what others think of them, and careful to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They are gracious in the true sense of that word. They are our best hope of remaining civilized, for they know the meaning of, and practise, civility.

*Latin civilitas, of or pertaining to being citizens. Later the word acquired associations with politeness as we understand it today.

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9 thoughts on “The Importance of Civility”

  1. I think that how people act in the small ‘civilities’ is a fairly accurate indication of how they will act in the big things of life..

  2. Well said, Sister! I have to admit that, when saying the Hail Mary by myself, I add a ‘please’ – Holy Mary, Mother of God, please pray for us sinners….’ – because it sounds rude not to. I also love how Mother Julian adds ‘of your goodness’ to her plea to God (“God, of your goodness, give me yourself..”).
    Blessings to all at Holy Trinity xx

  3. Sisters, I do agree with you it’s the little things that we forget in life to the please and thank you , I love you and I wish you were here . I feel we have lost respect for each other sometimes . Thank you for the reminders, if we can’t do the little acts of kindness and civility how do we then can the big issues be addressed?

  4. I suspect that most of our younger generations (those under 30) might find this difficult. Even in school over familiarity with teachers is event, when they are addressed by their Christian (or Forename).

    In a disciplined environment like the Army, respect is accorded to those senior in rank by addressing them by their rank or appointment or if of Warrant or Commissioned Rank, as Sir or Ma’am. In the same way, NCO’s upwards are taught to respect the dignity and integrity of their j juniors by using their Rank Title and Surname, when addressing them.

    It is required by the disciplinary provisions of the Armed Forces Act, and failure to do so will either result in sanctions due to insubordination – it’s a well understood system and in a fighting force, important to maintain discipline and making it clear where responsibilities lay,.

    Formal Command systems are in place and have been for thousands of years – because, you might be ordering a man or woman into doing something that will endanger their lives, or those you serve alongside.

    An informal sense of that might be subordinates addressing their superior as ‘Boss’ short form for Sir and all that it implies, certainly, those who I had the privilege to command adopted that, as it eased the pressure a little and I was happy to accept it. But such informality switched off when the chips were down.

    How this translates to life outside the Armed Forces means that, as I worked alongside civilians in later years of service and also many of them worked in my team, meant that the formal arrangements for military staff necessarily needed to be much more informal. But only with the permission of each individual. I was necessary to retain some formality ie, addressing people as Mr or Mrs or Miss as appropriate if they were uncomfortable with familiarity. It made sense to do so on a one to one basis, as we worked alongside each other for years at a time. And standing on ceremony hampered the working environment and social niceties that make the atmosphere more congenial and pleasant place to work.

    I find for instance that when people take liberties and automatically assume that they can use my Christian name that it’s not okay, to do so without asking. Probably due to my being an old fuddy duddy, I find such presumption to be impertinent.

    • Is it just me or is posting replies as long as the blog posting itself a little impertinent?

      As if it’s a forum rather than a blog.

  5. Thank you so much for this, Dame Catherine. A number of years ago on passing through a small town I happened to call into the local bakery. There was an orderly queue and when the shop assistant called out “who’s next and what would you be wanting?” The elderly gentleman in front of me proclaimed “service and civility is what I want!”

  6. Thank you for a wonderfully insightful post – I know in the world people, at least at first, are so rushed they “forget” the simple courtesies and pleasantries, which then becomes a “habit of forgetfulness”, which, of course, leads to coarseness, crassness, and incivility as a normal course of action. Sadly, I do fall intot his trap, and it is wonderful to be reminded every so often to, um, “cool my jets” as my mom used to say!

    Of course, there is the opposite, where people use the “pray for me, forgive me a sinner” to cover for their deliberate anti-civil and inhumane (sometimes deliberately antagonistic or hurtful) commentary… as if saying “pray for me” gives one a pass to be rude, mean, or worse, degrading or derogatory towards another… fortunately this is rare here, but I have been victim to this type of “If I say pardon my bullet I can still shoot you” mentality in other groups…

    regardless, THANK YOU, sister, for your beautiful post!!

    Susanne, Obl Cam OSB

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