Written almost 20 years ago – before the word ‘blog’ had entered our vocabulary – this essay by the late Robert Stewart, editor of the Royal Bank Letter is singularly appropriate to the tragic events in France of the past days.

Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another; it is the lubricant that keeps a society running smoothly. So vital is it, in fact, that some philosophers say that we have a duty to act civilly – especially here in Canada, where we must live with diversity… Royal Bank Letter May/June 1995

The Royal Bank of Canada Monthly Letter was published from 1920 until 2008 (under the name RBC Letter). In December 1943, it was transformed into a general interest letter, still known as the Royal Bank Monthly Letter. The Letter became an essay series that “tried to help people understand the world around them, and better understand their own lives.”  The Duty of Civility is  possibly one of the most timeless of the essays published,  as valid today as in 1995.

On first examination, a person would never guess how important civility is to human affairs. One dictionary writes it off as mere good manners. Another says that the word refers especially to cold and formal politeness. Yet another suggests that it is little more than acting in a way that is not outrightly rude.

By these standards, one might conclude that civility is best exemplified by the polished hypocrisy of a diplomat in an unfriendly capital or the supercilious correctness of a waiter in a pricey Paris restaurant. But when you consider it in practice, you realize that the lexicographers have settled for woefully incomplete definitions. It is as though they had wrestled long and hard with the immense scope and weight of the concept, and given up in their efforts to pin it down.

Instead of exploring the crucial role of civility in social and political life, the lexicographers have concentrated on how it carries less personal warmth than other social graces. So it often does: but if civil men and women tend to be reserved, it is because they scrupulously avoid intruding into or interfering with other people’s business. Another factor that tends to render their manner less than familiar is that civility is usually directed towards people one hardly knows or does not know at all.

As we can see from looking at the first part of the word, civility is a form of public, as opposed to private, behaviour. The adjective “civil” refers to citizenship, so that civility, or the lack of it, governs the approach of one citizen to the rest of the citizenry. Its presence or absence has a profound effect on the character of any society. It goes a long way towards making the difference between a pleasant and a not-so-pleasant place to live.

The difficulty in bringing it into focus seems to lie in thinking of it as a single personal quality like politeness, whereas it is actually an amalgam of several such qualities. True, it begins with the inculcation and exercise of good manners, but not just any kind of manners, certainly not the snobbish kind designed to shut people out of one’s own circle or to assert one’s presumed superiority. The best manners, it has been said, are tailored to the occasion and the recipients. The key to civility is in trying to make everyone you encounter day-by-day feel at ease.

In any case, manners are only the most visible manifestation of what is less of a code of conduct than a spirit. That spirit encompasses consideration, tact, good humour, and respect for others’ feelings and rights. Perhaps the one word that comes closest to summing it up is “obliging.” It is a variation on the golden rule, urging that you treat everyone as decently and considerately as you would like to be treated yourself.

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