Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior
in company and conversation”
I heard of this book of George Washington’s from some earlier reading I did on the man: his intent being for acceptance as a proper gentleman – even from his young teenage years, when he compiled this list of 110 rules.
People of our day might scoff at the notion of rules for civil behavior, as manners have gone out of form, and ‘freedom’ has been twisted into a concept of anyone being able to do whatever desired, whenever and however deemed best, thus instilling a society absent any standards, with the absurd belief standards rob people of their freedom.
In Washington’s time, however, standards were the norm; propriety was pronounced; and the vulgar and the obscene were looked down upon and shunned. For any young man of ambition, knowing how to conduct himself in society was an absolute essential, thus: “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”.
Many of these rules, people would view today as antiquated, pertaining merely to the colonial times in which Washington lived. The 10th rule, for example, addresses the proper way to sit, “When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, without putting one on the other or crossing them.” I am an unfortunate flagrant abuser of this rule, finding it more comfortable sitting with one leg lying across the other. Yet, when considering such a way of sitting from within environments I would perceive as proper and dignified, would such a relaxed, comfortable appearance be an affront to those people about me? And if so, is that comfortable manner of sitting something I should abandon within all environments?
Some of these rules are clearly of Washington’s time, and difficult to conceive how, or even why, they could be applied to today. The 55th rule states one should “Eat not in the streets nor in the house out of season.” With the traditional meal time being increasingly lessened, and people eating whenever and wherever they so desire, this rule probably has no place to apply. And yet, as in the case of the 10th rule, if it had a place to apply, perhaps the culture in which we lived would actually be capable of adopting a structure where such ideas made sense.
Other rules are clearer. People can read what George Washington applied to himself and see how he was made a better man, simply on the basis of a few rules for conduct.
The 98th rule states, “Drink not, nor talk with your mouth full; neither gaze about while you are drinking.”
Even in our own time, who cares to witness the visible signs of chewed food, sloshing about within the mouth of a table companion?
The 39th rule instructs, “In writing or speaking, give every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place.”
No matter where a person is, if they are speaking with a person who has attained a certain status, and they fail to reference that status when addressing them, it is a clear insult, denying the person the respect due from the work fulfilled. In other words, for a soldier to call George Washington by his given name George, would be an affront, denying his status of general and Commander-in-Chief of the Colonial forces.
The 2nd rule declares a prohibition only the truly vulgar would mockingly argue against, “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.”
The 38th rule warns against the all-knowing friend being a comfort to the sick when it says, “In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.”
This rule specifically addresses the condition of illness, but I believe it could equally be applied to the busybody who always knows the answer to every question, the solution to every problem – and especially to those quandaries not inquired of. Let those who truly know, who carry some measure of expertise, deal with the matter. You, hold your tongue.
I acquired this little book during a visit to the Washington D.C. area in December 2010; and while it took me near three years to open its pages for study to what levels of propriety the Father of the Country followed, the small amount of time spent has certainly proven quite profitable – as I hope my comments have shown. All of us, as we ford the waters of life, need a bit of guidance along the road, a few suggestions on how to avoid pitfalls, some prudent wisdom from those who preceded us on this journey. While these 110 rules can never encompass the totality of the man George Washington was, his name attached, with the high level of character the man left behind, offer credence to their value today. If more people took the short amount of time to consider them, perhaps more George Washingtons would wander the land today.