Civility, Polish, and Grace

Last week’s post on civility compared and contrasted it with the virtue of courtesy. This week, we’ll look at how civility is related to the notion of being polite and practicing manners. Finally, a personal story to apply what we’ve learned so far and to prepare us for what’s to come.

The Light and Dark Side of Being Polite

The act of polishing brass, silver, or fine leather are images lending significance and meaning to the word, polite. The abrasive act clears away what obscures the object’s brilliant beauty. Polishing must be repeated, for left unattended, the polished object’s beauty will become obscured once again. In the same way, politeness takes constant work. Forni observes that polite people “have put some effort into bettering themselves.”[1] While the French civilite’ is often translated as politeness, Yale law professor Stephen Carter asserts that the word means more than merely being polite. It calls for a way of living that relates to others in a manner that promote the advancement of civilization. “In short,” writes Carter, “living in a way that is civilized.”[2]

However, something can be polished in order to disguise its flaws or imperfections. Some polishes can work to cover up areas of weakness and deficiency, such as applying stain and polyurethane to rotten wood. Politeness has such a downside. For example,under the sheen of politeness, conflicts can be addressed in a passive-aggressive manner. A co-worker may offer a “polite” reply, under which anger boils. For various reasons, one tells a “polite” lie when asked for advice on an important decision. A less than stellar business presentation garners, at best, “polite” applause, or what comedians call “sympathy applause.” Each of these glossed over responses “connect politeness to hypocrisy.”[3]      Carter goes on to recount sinister actions that have been carried out through a twisted application of politeness. Segregation required black passengers to ride in the Jim Crow car and to use separate drinking fountains and restrooms. Women were forbidden to walk along the street alone or to vote: All as “simple matters of politesse.”[4] In its purest meaning, however, politeness remains such only as long as it does not become a tool of manipulation.

Getting a Handle on Manners

Many of us recall being told to get our elbows off the table, to wait until our guests are seated before we sit down, and to use our “inside voice,” when talking. (In my household, we’re still trying to help our son with the concept of utensils and saving his words until after he swallows his food.) We were reminded, begged, warned, and in my case often bribed to practice good manners as kids. Basic to good manners are offers of “please” and “thank you.”

Like the previous words, manners are practiced out of regard and sensitivity to others, but the origin of the word encompasses far more than simply chewing with your mouth closed.  Manner is derived from the Latin manus, meaning “hand.” Manners are related to the use of one’s hands, or in a more connotative sense, the manner by which something is handled. Forni again provides an observation, using the image of the hand:

“Thus manners came to refer to behavior in social interaction – the way we handle the encounter between Self and the Other. We have good manners when we use our hands well – when we handle others with care. When we rediscover the connection between manner and hand, the hand that, depending on our will and sensitivity, can strike or lift, hurt or soothe, destroy or heal, we understand the importance – for children and adults alike – of having good manners.”[5]

Finally, while civility is incomplete without its connection to courtesy, politeness, and manners, it is superior to each of them. Civility is the proverbial glue that binds together a communal framework within which each of us interprets and interacts with others. Unless motivated by civility, there is little initiative to behave courteously, engage politely, and practice good manners. In a previous paragraph, Carter argued that civilite’ is more than politeness. He goes on to explain the word “suggests an approach to life, a way of carrying one’s self and relating to others – in short, living in a way that is civilized.”[6]

Civility finds its origin in both the French civilite’, and the Latin civilitas and civilis, each expressing a life lived in relation to citizens.  In the earliest records of its use, the term was connected to an idea of citizenship that included “good behavior, for the good of the community.”[7] Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, confirms and expands the idea of civility as a vital component of social interaction. His thoughts contain the elements of politeness, manners, and courtesy; yet he also includes important essentials of fellowship and hospitality. These two are necessary for the relational aspect of civilized living. It’s possible to practice politeness, good manners, and courtesy, yet remains detached, disconnected, and uninvolved in the life of the civilization. Mouw writes,

“In the past civility was understood in much richer terms. To be civil was to genuinely care about the larger society. It required a heartfelt commitment to your fellow citizens. It was a willingness to promote the well-being of people who were very different, including people who seriously disagreed with you on important matters. Civility wasn’t merely an external show, it included an inner side as well.”[8]

A commitment to the well-being of others also forms the heart of Aristotle’s contribution to civility’s development. Aristotle’s idea of human beings as “political animals” is derived from the Greek word polis, pertaining to the city. Aristotle believed we realize our humanity only to the extent we function as good citizens of the polis.       

Themes of hospitality and fellowship also emerge in Aristotle’s view. He believed good citizens would live in relationships that moved beyond the parameters of familiarity and intimacy. In other words, we learn to live by extending courtesy to someone not because we are familiar them, but because we see them as fellow human beings, seeing them the way we see ourselves, and treating them accordingly. Aristotle believed that when we express our citizenship in this manner, “we have truly begun to flourish in our humanness.”[9]

There is an important sacrificial foundation to civility. It is “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”[10] By treating others civilly, we subject ourselves to each other and to the principles of humanity that underlie a common life together.

Sacrifice for the sake of others. Sounds a lot like what Jesus did for the world. It’s something I learned from a girl we’ll call “Grace”.

Grace was new to our middle school. She didn’t fit the “cool” profile in our tightly knit cliques. She was very quiet, and only spoke to me one time. Out of my own insecurity, I verbally bullied her without mercy. My friends thought it was hilarious. None of us knew her. She never said a word.

This went on for a few months. Then one Sunday night at church, my youth director said he wanted me to meet a new young lady. See, at church I was a leader in our youth group and I was supposed to help welcome new people. The new young lady was Grace. She looked at me and quickly looked at the floor. My youth pastor said to her cheerfully, “Kevin is one of our ambassadors, and I thought you’d like to get to know him since you are in the same grade.” Grace looked in my eyes, and I heard her speak for the first time, “I know Kevin, he’s the first person at school that spoke to me. Nice to see you, Kevin.” Then she held out her hand. After an awkward pause, I took it and looked at the floor. I’ve never forgotten that moment. She had every right to lash out at me. She would have been justified to tell my youth pastor how I’d treated her, to yell at me in front of the youth group, or respond in some other way to pay me back. But Grace was the bigger person. She was polite, she was courteous, and she was meek. She absorbed my incivility and opened her hand in an expression of all that makes civility both beautiful and essential. In doing so she exposed how ugly and destructive my incivility had been.

She and her family moved shortly after her visit to the church and I never saw her again. I’ve thought a lot about Grace while writing this blog and I’ve often wondered how many others like her have been the targets of uncivil, insecure, big-mouth bullies like me. I’m convinced there are too many.

Perhaps this is why displays of incivility, manifested in rude rhetoric, either/or propositions, vilification, or even inhumane violence has attracted the attention of so many. The shared sense of shock and dismay I and others experienced that fateful day in the parking lot of a Tampa gas station awakened the motivation for this invitation. In many areas of life, that same sense of dismay is an underlying reality in the face of an overwhelming problem of incivility present in our communities, our families, our corporations, on our highways, among our elected officials, and sadly, even in our churches.

Next week: “Incivility in Real-Time”


[1] P. M. Forni, Choosing Civility the Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), 10.

[2] Stephen L. Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 14.

[3] Forni, Choosing Civility, 10.

[4] Carter, Civility, 16

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Hacala, Saving Civility, 8.

[8] Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 14.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] Ibid., 11.


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