Civility or courtesy?

There are diverse approaches to defining civility. Some choose to describe what civil behavior looks like as opposed to how someone might define the word itself. Based on the belief that “the world could be a bit more polite, a bit kinder and a bit friendlier,” John Sweeney and his colleagues at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre collaborated to produce Return to Civility: A Speed of Laughter Project. The work contains 365 very down-to-earth, common-courtesy suggestions to help create a more civilized world, in an attempt to “reclaim the appreciation once displayed for our fellow human beings, ourselves, and our planet.”

Motivated by his experience at a concert during which a Grammy-award-winning musician stopped her set in order to ask the audience to quiet down, Sweeney inspired his fellow comedians to think of daily suggestions for one to lead a more considerate and considered life. According to Sweeney, the suggestions are not focused on changing others, “but rather, are a list of ways we can alter our own actions and behaviors.”[1]

In contrast, Sara Hacala, protocol consultant and author of Saving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude & Attitude for a Polite Planet, chooses to explain civility by describing the behavior arising from its absence. She begins with common and seemingly minor annoyances like interrupting when someone is talking and progresses to more serious infractions such as a failure to express gratitude, and finally to the tragic realities of polarization and self-absorption. She then laments the scourge of cyber-bullying, pointing out its power to “leave teenagers so distraught that they believe their only recourse is to take their own lives.”[2]

Having worked with teenagers for over twenty years, Hacala’s observation about bullying hit a sensitive spot for me. I’ve sat for hours with these young souls, listening to them convey the harsh, hostile, and hateful things said and done to them by peers and parents. The shocking reality of teen suicides connected to cyber- bullying is finally giving this issue the attention it deserves.[3]

Civility is often understood less through direct definition or expression and more through words like courtesy, manners, etiquette, and politeness. These are helpful to arrive at a better understanding of civility’s significance to the world. As civility professor P.M. Forni observes, “Whatever civility might be, it has something to do with courtesy, politeness, and good manners.”[4]  However, while these common concepts are similar, they’re not the same.

First, courtesy is linked to the image of a royal court with its elegance and formality. Imagine the experience of preparing to meet the Queen of England, or more popular these days, the Royal Baby. There are numerous behavioral do’s and don’ts, all of which are intended to ensure your actions are consistent with the role of a courtier, or one who is in attendance at the royal court.[5]  Even the official website for the British Monarchy calls for guests meeting Her Majesty to “practice courtesy.”[6]  From its classical definition, courtesy is an exercise in bestowing respect by paying close attention to one’s interaction with a person of superior status. In a modern context, we would replace the monarch with someone to whom we are accountable. Our boss, our parents, a judge, or someone else holding a position of honor and authority.

It’s on a personal and informal level that I believe we can take make the best application. Courtesy is an expression of humble deference to another. In this way, we promote civil expression by putting the needs of others ahead of our own.

Imagine that!

Next week we’ll compare and contrast civility and politeness. You might be surprised at how deep incivility can masquerade as “polite” behavior.


[1] John Sweeney, “Return to Civility,” Return to Civility, January 2008,

[2] Sara Hacala, Saving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude, & Attitude for a Polite Planet (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2011), 3.

[3] Laird, Sam. “Cyberbullying: Scourge of the Internet [INFOGRAPHIC].” Last modified July 8, 2012. Accessed October 28, 2016.

[4] P.M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 2008), 9.

[5] Gwendolen Fairfax, “Hello Your Majesty: Rules for Meeting the Royal Family.”, accessed July 21, 2013,

[6] “Meeting The Queen,” The British Monarchy, accessed July 21, 2013,


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