If there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s how to live with uncertainty. For people who prefer predictable lives, kids in school, holidays booked a year in advance – this ‘new normal’ can feel like chaos. Throw in a few encounters with anti-maskers and a bunch of insensitive comments on social media, and society can feel like a powder keg.
When the world feels out of control, civility can make a difference. Good manners, polite words, random acts of kindness – these might seem inconsequential during a tumultuous time, yet they demonstrate awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others and can radically affect how a situation evolves.
In 2016, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote about the importance of civility in Town & Country magazine, “To treat people civilly is to recognize first and foremost that they are just as much people as you are, with egos and sensitivities as strong, or as fine, as your own. Civility is, in this reading, very close to empathy.”
Dorothea Johnson, a world-renowned etiquette expert, who collaborated with her granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler, on a book called Modern Manners: Tools to Take you to the Top. Liv writes, “I noticed that the way my grandmother treated people had a sort of chain reaction, and in turn, people treated her with the utmost respect and kindness. It was as if her behaviour was bringing out the best in them. She would often tell me, ‘Livvy, always take the high road, because the low road is so crowded.’”
The high road means recognizing that we are all busy and in a hurry and yet we can all make life easier for one another. It means allowing that driver into your lane; returning a shopping cart to the store instead of letting it roll around a parking lot; wearing a mask in a public situation to make others feels safer. Thoughtful acts can relieve the tension in an otherwise fraught world.
Courtesy, of course, starts at home. It’s easier to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, if you are, at root, treating your own self with dignity. At a time when an office commute means strolling from the bedroom to the dining room, when ‘athleisure wear’ is the new uniform and you’re trying to Zoom call your head office while a child is climbing on your head, upholding a framework of self-respect is sometimes easier said than done.
Yet, as with any show of civility, small acts can be hugely significant. Pay your future self with a contribution to your savings out of every paycheque. Make charitable donations to causes close to your heart. Buy local to support your community. Invest in yourself by taking a course to upgrade your skills or pursue a dream career path. Take your vitamins.
Liv Tyler writes, “When joined by a friend, even in the most casual setting, like a bar or restaurant, I always try to stand up to say hello and greet him or her with a hug or a handshake. This makes someone feel comfortable and welcomed into the group.” While we might hold off on the hugs and handshakes during these Covid-times, the advice to stand up for each other is sound. Let’s also remember to stand up for ourselves.