• Suzanne Matthiessen

Civility is a Choice

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

Whether it's been about spiritual etiquette, mindfulness, or Ethical Intelligence, at the very heart of all I've taught and written about over the past couple decades is about doing our absolute best to live an ethical, honorable, virtuous, humane, and civil life as a form of service to our fellow imperfect human beings and the planet we all call Home, to help inspire soul-driven right-use-of-self as opposed to ego-driven self-righteousness. I know that no matter what happens to and around us, even if it is out of our control, we are at choice as to how we respond to it.

Whatever you think, do and say is infused with the consciousness - and the unconsciousness - you bring to it. Some believe that leadership is reserved for people in "higher" positions - and not just "average" folks. This is entirely incorrect. The fact is, we all lead by the example we extend via our thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors within whatever field of influence we have in any given situation or interaction in any given moment - and there are no unimportant situations, interactions or moments.

To lead by ethical,, honorable, virtuous, humane, and civil example requires daily radically honest self-reflection upon the impact we have upon everyone our lives come into contact with - and the ripple effect of influencing people we don't even know. In 2002, I came across a small, lovely book titled Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct written by Dr. P. M. Forni, a professor at John Hopkins University, and cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. (The JHCP has since been reformed as The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins, which Dr. Forni now directs.) The book is a collection of Forni's own exploration on the topic of human kindness, and in it he lists the two-dozen-plus "rules" he feels constitute civil behavior toward one another.

With uncivil behavior sadly increasing over the past couple years in the U.S. and many parts of the world, I am revisiting the two-part piece I wrote in August 2009 about mindful civility and Dr. Forni's book, and I hope it brings you as much inspiration to choose civility as it has for me.

(Note: because the original piece was comprised in two parts, this post is longer than usual, but I didn't want to break it apart. Please read it its entirety, and share if you feel so inclined. Thank you.)

Dr. Forni's journey began one semester when he was lecturing about Dante's Divine Comedy at the University, when he looked at his students and realized he wanted them "to be kind human beings more than I wanted them to know about Dante. I told them that if they knew everything about Dante and then they went out and treated an elderly lady on the bus unkindly, I'd feel that I failed as a teacher."

Forni's words had an immediate and powerful effect upon me, as they brought forth what a former teacher of mine had once said to us back in the mid-80s; that all the spiritual books we'd read and all the lofty knowledge we may pride ourselves in being able to parrot back perfectly, if we treated the waitress, or the person working at the gas station without kindness and with any degree of superiority whatsoever, we had not learned one darned thing. I passionately adopted his decree that spiritual etiquette (very basically, The Golden Rule) was paramount in our journey of personal innerevolution, and that there was not much wiggle room for egoic indulgences in denial, justification, blame, and "good" excuses for not embracing an ethically intelligent, honorable, virtuous, humane, and civil way to respectfully co-exist with one another – even when other people don't return your desire to do so.

Treating one another with kindness, dignity and respect – the way it seems most human beings wish to be treated – sounds so easy, practical and logical. But as I once wrote on a former site I had with the same name, when describing spiritual etiquette, as simple as The Golden Rule may sound, we humans make it difficult. There is something in our collective makeup that seems to prevent global harmony from being actualized, right here, right now. Some blame it on their belief that most of the planet consists of fairly unevolved individuals who still act upon base impulses that perpetually foster separation and discord.

Whether or not that may be true is irrelevant however, as the only thing we have control over is how we show up in the world 24/7, and whether or not the example we are leading by via our thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors is authentically civil and consistently "more evolved." I also fully agree that treating people the way we wish to be treated is a conscious choice we make, in every moment and in every situation we are facing. Although it is not expected that each of us will become "perfectly" civil, we can all certainly make an intentionally conscious choice to become increasingly better at it, and to take 100% ownership for the times we make a mis-step by acknowledging when we've stumbled, and to stand tall and begin again.

Dr. Forni wrote:

"Courtesy, politeness, manners and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of awareness. But it is not just an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals; it also entails an active interest in the well-being of the planet on which we live."

Paying Attention

Paying deliberate attention is the cornerstone of conscious awareness, and it's no surprise to me it ranks as number one on Dr. Forni's list of attributes of civil, considerate conduct.

He wrote in the section on Paying Attention:

"Without attention, no meaningful interaction is possible. Our first responsibility, when we are with others, is to pay attention, to attend to. Etymology tells us that attention has to do with 'turning toward,' 'extending toward,' 'stretching.' Thus attention is a tension connecting us to the world around us. Only after we notice the world can we begin to care for it. Every act of kindness is, first of all, an act of attention.
"When we relate to the world as if we were on automatic pilot, we can hardly be our best at our encounters with our fellow human beings. When we pay attention, when we are alert to the world, we improve substantially the quality of our responses and therefore the quality of lives of those who touch ours.
"Attention looks two ways: outward and inward. As it checks the world, it checks our souls. It is up to us to put to good use its inexhaustible wealth of information."


Active listening is an essential component of conscious communication with others.

Dr. Forni wrote in this section of the book:

"We are ineffective listeners when we let our past experiences interfere with the attention we should give to our present moments. For instance, we often let what we already know – or believe we know – of others alter our perception of what they are telling us at this very moment, in this unique set of circumstances.
"Oftentimes it is not the past but the future that makes us poor listeners. When we listen with the future in mind, we are focused not on the speaker but rather on the outcome of our verbal exchange … I am saying that as listeners we have an obligation to concentrate on just listening before doing anything else."

Speaking with kindness

Metta is the mindful art of extending compassionate loving-kindness in all our communications with others – even when we need to be brave, firm, assertive and extend "tough love."

Dr. Forni wrote in this section of the book:

"Speaking with consideration and kindness is at the heart of civil behavior. To speak kindly you need to be aware constantly that you are speaking to living, breathing, vulnerable human beings. Don't discount the power of your words.
"Always think before speaking. That your words are kind rather than unkind and that they will be perceived as such should be one of your paramount concerns. With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for a much-needed respite. If you manage to make this way of speaking to others part of what you are, the quality of your relationships will substantially increase and with it the overall quality of your everyday life."

Don't Speak Ill

In addition to speaking with kindness Dr. Forni then asks us to not speak ill of others. Malicious gossip, petty name-calling, telling outright lies, and mean-spirited ripping-up of other human beings in order to elevate ourselves, create complicity with someone else who also feels self-righteously "wronged," and/or is done so with destructive, hateful, vengeful intent because we refuse to take responsibility for the impact of our own negative and harmful actions and behaviors is both uncivil and immature. The internet has made this cowardly, inconsiderate behavior even more contagious, as people find it easy to put down and hurt others when they don't have to do so face-to-face.

What is also extremely unfortunate is that mainstream media and popular culture glorifies this sort of behavior in both scripted and "reality" TV shows where cattiness, bitchiness, back stabbing, ruthless lying and talking disparagingly behind people's backs is considered "entertaining" – and people then copy it in their own lives. If you find pleasure in watching this dreck (and worse, adopting it), you are indulging the dark side of your being.

(Note, we all know this has gotten worse since I wrote the above back in 2009).

Dr. Forni made these comments in this section of the book:

"Our disparaging remarks against X can be taken by some as an authorization to unleash abuse against X.
"Our speaking unkindly of others may be severely judged by those who are listening to us. When we threaten someone else's reputation we put our own at risk as well.
"Our disparaging words against X can prompt X to retaliate, and not only verbally. The possibility of things spiraling out of control is always present. We know for a fact that many acts of violence have their origin in acts of incivility."

Keep It Down (and Rediscover Silence)

Dr. Forni began this section of his book with a quote by Judith Martin, aka "Miss Manners":

"Many people believe that constant noise is normal."

He then practically pleads his readers to be sensitive and considerate toward other people regarding noise from the TV, computer, CD players, telephone and cell phone calls, vehicles, construction and lawn care equipment, and the volume of both your voice as well as that of any children who are in your company in any environment, private or public.

"In an age when background noises are virtually consistent, we are slowly becoming inured to noise," he writes in this section.
"At the same time, many of us are ready to reacquaint ourselves with silence. We are beginning to realize that silence is not a void waiting to be filled, just as an immaculate church wall is not there to be defaced by paint. Instead, it can be the refreshing result of a choice. We often surround ourselves with chatter and sundry sounds because we don't want to be alone with our thoughts. While noise takes us away from ourselves, through silence we build bridges to our own souls."

Respect Other People's Time

If you are constantly late, it is quite possibly because you don't value and respect other people's time and energy enough to do what it takes to be punctual. If you are consistently on time, that generally means you are not totally self-involved in your own little world and are considerate of others' time and energy. These are not harsh judgments - they are logical and fair deductions.

Dr. Forni wrote:

"Punctuality is nonnegotiable. Arriving on time is a fundamental rule of considerate behavior. When you happen to be more than five minutes late, call. It is not civil to schedule your day's appointments knowing in advance that you will be late for one or maybe all of them. To cancel a lunch date – or any other kind of appointment – at the last moment is also rude. These actions show that you are more willing to inconvenience others when this best suits your plans."

He goes on to discuss respecting people's time when making phone calls to be mindful that person may be busy or it may be inconvenient to speak – and to ask upfront. He also states that demanding immediate attention at a store or office is uncivil and ineffective, and to calmly wait your turn unless you realize are being totally ignored. He adds to never hold your friends hostage by taking advantage of their time incessantly seeking their advice and attention while simultaneously ignoring their friend's own needs.

On the other hand, he wrote:

"Always give others the amount of time that they can rightfully expect from you. Don't cut short a scheduled meeting on a whim or just because it's convenient for you. … Cutting the meeting short for our own self-serving purposes may cause disappointment, irritation and frustration."

Respect Other People's Space

I've written many times about the importance of respecting people's space in regard to mindful interaction and communication. Dr. Forni has some excellent comments to add, and due to a need for brevity I will bullet point a few of them.

• Respect the distance you stand from a person, and to honor cultural norms.

• Be aware that touching someone you don't know is best kept at a minimum until you know what they feel comfortable with.

• Be mindful of what anyone considers their territory, both at work and at home, and that many people don't like people showing up unexpected at their office or front door, sitting at their table uninvited, or being tailgated.

• At home with family, understand that both adults and kids need space of their own, and that children over five should be taught to respect their parents' bedroom and always ask permission to enter, even if the door is open. Also be mindful of the impact of friends and visitors upon everyone else in the household.

• At work, respect people's space and privacy, and keep your noise levels to a low level when others are working close by. Don't read other people's emails, faxes, etc.

• Respect people in restaurants with your noise levels, including using your cell phone. Keep kids from wandering over to other diner's tables, and don't insinuate yourself into the conversations of strangers, or hover at the table of people you do know.

Apologize Earnestly and Thoughtfully

We are all imperfect human beings, and on occasion we all commit errors that wind up hurting others. Saying you are sorry when you have made a mistake or harmed another by your actions is one of the most powerful acts you can take – but only if it is done earnestly and thoughtfully as well as authentically and unselfishly; you do your best to make tangible amends; and great care is taken to ensure whatever you said or did that was harmful does not happen again.

Dr. Forni wrote:

"When we apologize, we acknowledge we did something wrong and work at repairing the damage. Apologies should be thoughtfully conceived, clearly stated, and heartfelt. They need not be long and elaborate but should convey that we know exactly what we did that was wrong, that we understand the effects of our actions, and that we are not looking for excuses.
"Apologizing is one thing; exculpating yourself is quite another: don't mix the two. … How many times do we hear pseudo-apologies such as: 'I'm sorry I yelled at you on the phone, but I am under a lot of stress these days'? This is how a real apology sounds: 'I want to apologize for yelling at you. There is no excuse for that. I can only say it won't happen again.' Sometimes those who accept your apology will provide an excuse for you: 'Apology accepted. I appreciate you saying that. We are all under a lot of stress these days.' But they don't have to let you off the hook and you shouldn't expect that they will.
"A final word of caution. Don't assume that your apology will always be well and immediately received. … Consider, then, that those you hurt may find it just as difficult to accept your apology. Your acknowledgment of your wrongdoing does not automatically erase their hurt."

Give Constructive Criticism

It is so easy for people to react and attack instead of offering calm, valuable input and insights about other people's offensive or clueless actions and behaviors. Even so, strong egos make feedback intended to be helpful hard to receive and consider, as it is difficult for many people to hear something not glowing about themselves – including us. Still, as I say all the time, one of the kindest, most compassionate things we can do for a fellow human being is to not enable their darkness in whatever form it may take, and doing our best to offer criticism with sensitivity - and to receive it with the same spirit it is given - is an art we must take care to constantly refine.

Dr. Forni wrote:

"To criticize is a serious business and sometime an awesome responsibility. Before you speak make sure that your intention is to help with a problem and not to humiliate, manipulate, or exact revenge. Are you sure there is a problem and that you have a sound sense of what it is? Is this the right moment to address it?"

He suggests when offering constructive criticism:

• Identify an issue, rather than launching an attack on the person.

• Describe what you have observed rather than uttering accusations or engaging in name-calling.

• Show that you understand how the other person may feel.

• Suggest a solution if you feel this is the right time to do so.

• Remain calm, kind, and empathetic throughout your exchange with the person. End on a positive note.

When we receive criticism, Dr. Forni extols the potential value therein and suggests:

"Rather than thinking of your critic as the enemy, try to be as open-minded as possible. If you are not too busy building your defenses, you will be able at least to listen."

Respect the Environment and Be Gentle to Animals

This one may surprise some of you, as your initial impulses regarding living with conscious awareness and ethical intelligence is in relation to yourself and your fellow human beings. However, we share planet Earth with all other living beings, as well as a delicate ecosystem that is in danger, and to act as though it is of lesser importance than us is mindlessly arrogant.

As the son of a veterinarian, Dr. Forni wrote,

"Among the civilizing lessons we want to impress upon the next generation is that the way we treat animals is a measure of our civility."

He offered simple suggestions in this section on considerate regard to the environment and animals, including:

• Don't litter.

• Don't use products that have been proven harmful to the environment.

• Take time to recycle.

• Conserve water, electricity and fuel, and use alternate sources of energy.

• Never neglect animals.

• Don't give or accept animals as gifts unthinkingly.

• Keep your animals safe.

• Be kind not only to your animals but to those of others as well.

My only addition to what Dr. Forni says in this section is to extend considerate behavior to all beings in the animal kingdom as best as we can. This is not to suggest we all must be vegans, but to treat all we consume with a sense of reverence and gratitude, and an informed awareness about the conditions wherein meat, poultry, fish and sea creatures are raised and brought to market to feed us, and to reject those raised in unclean, cruel, toxic and indecent environments as much as possible.

Assert Yourself

Many people confuse loving-kindness/metta with always living to please, serve and submissively fulfill the wants, needs and desires of others, even if it means compromising our own wants, needs, and desires - and even our own integrity, especially if we decide any type of abuse is OK for any reason. Approval addiction only leads to pain, frustration and anger. Being bravely and compassionately assertive, and establishing and enforcing strong personal boundaries (including your personal space), as well as saying "no" when appropriate should not be viewed as a selfish act, as giving everyone what they want all the time can turn them into selfish, spoiled, entitlement-oriented and even abusive people – and doing so is neither loving or kind. You are only treated with respect if you hold steady with courageous, unwavering assertiveness and enforcement of the important rules, needs and boundaries you've set – and that includes self-respect.

Dr. Forni wrote in this section:

"When we believe we are antagonizing or rejecting others we feel guilty toward them and apprehensive of the consequences we might endure. Will they still think that we like them? Will they still like us? Fearful and unsettled, instead of asserting ourselves we stumble, we mumble, we hesitate, we obfuscate, and we give in, needlessly adding frustration to our lives.
"The good news is that if you are serious about reprogramming yourself for assertiveness, in the end you will usually succeed. When you manage to say a good, solid, 'Yes,' to something you want or an equally powerful, 'No,' to something you don't, you experience a small (sometimes not so small) swell of elation. This comes from having identified what is right for you and bravely and successfully reached for it."

Don't Shift Responsibility and Blame

Dr. Forni saved this ultra-important rule for last. Sometimes the lack of personal accountability and responsibility feels like it has hit epidemic levels. Even criminally culpable parties cry "not guilty" and hope to avoid punishment for offenses they know they committed.

Then there are the crimes against fellow human beings in both personal and professional interactions that so many people have no problem committing on a daily basis, and instead of owning up with dignity, grace and maturity, they blame, deny, excuse, justify and defend – even to the extent of shifting the fault over to the completely innocent and wronged person in a bizarre type of mental and emotional manipulation. If you have fallen into this negatively contagious behavior, you can choose to act differently and discover the power of radical self-honesty. If you are on the receiving end, you can do your best to maintain your poise without compromising yourself; however, this may be one of the greatest challenges you will face.

In this section, Dr. Forni does not offer much discourse on this negative behavior, just examples of four uncivil exchanges and alternative, more considerate, honest and accountable solutions. He does make it clear however, that when asked about what the civil response to a situation when we are dealing with someone we don't respect or who does something we believe to be wrong should be:

"…let's not lose sight of our own standards of behavior, of our own rules of engagement. It is possible to be civil and true to one's beliefs at the same time. The issue is not whether to stand firm or compromise but how to express our firmness. When we express it with poise rather than rudeness, not only are we true to our better selves, but we infuse our dissent with a power that it wouldn't have otherwise. To brawl is human. To be civil works."

In humble opinion, Dr. Forni's Choosing Civility is more relevant now than ever.

© 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.

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