I wrote about P. M. Forni's book Choosing Civility about a month ago, and I have been meaning to come back to it. In that post I introduced the book:
The first part of the book is a brief reflection on the importance of civility in human relationships both brief and lasting; the middle of the book is the "twenty-five rules of considerate conduct" mentioned in the title; and the last bit appears to be a few meditations on rudeness. The chapters are quite short, almost meditations; each rule is discussed over maybe six pages.
Then I blogged a little bit about the first two rules, "Pay Attention" and "Acknowledge Others."
Today I am going to continue with the next two rules (three if I have time). They are
- (3) Think the best
- (4) Listen
- (5) Be inclusive.
A little foreshadowing: If you are the sort who is already getting riled up with snark in anticipation that number (5) is going to be about diversity, tolerance, gender-neutral language, and multiculturalism, don't have a heart attack. It is much simpler than that. And while you are at it, consider numbers (3) and (4).
Ahem. Let's go on.
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Rule 3 is Think the Best.
Think the best of your fellow humans and act accordingly.... Thinking the best of others is a decent thing to do and a way of keeping a source of healthful innocence in our lives.... In my role as a teacher, my drive and enthusiasm in the classroom owe much to my assumption that all of my students are essentially good human beings, interested in the pursuit of knowledge, and willing to work hard. Believing that they are good, I want to be good for them...
Even outside the classroom I expect that everyone I meet will turn out to be good rather than bad... What I find exciting in a new acquaintance is the thought: Maybe I'm making a discovery here; maybe someone is entering my life who is nice. ...Of course I am aware that not all those I meet can be paragons of goodness. Still, my bet with myself is that they will be nice to me. I think of my goodwill as an unspoken challenge to them...
I like the notion, for those who are unused to giving strangers and interlocutors the benefit of the doubt, of a "bet" with oneself, an "unspoken challenge" to the stranger. It seems to harness -- and make benign -- the energy of a habit of confrontation.
I do not find it too difficult to keep an attitude of good will and expectation of reasonableness towards, for example, political opponents I encounter on the Internet and strangers I encounter on the street (well, except for the occasional apparently-reckless driver -- that always takes me a moment of recollection, and did just now as I had to go back and add the "apparently"). I think this is because of a political belief of my own: I count it essential to the functioning of a polity of diverse people -- essential that we assume good will in our opponents, that we all seek ends that are apparent goods, and that we can appreciate that common striving even as we argue about the rightness and efficacy of various means. I am committed to a sort of political ecumenism, and like all ecumenisms it is impossible without an assumption of good will and reasonableness.
As a parent/teacher it can sometimes be really difficult in the moment. A child misbehaves, or doesn't follow directions, and (especially after some repetition) it can be really easy to jump straight to "This kid is just trying to spite me." And that is not a good thing to jump to. Not that deliberate disobedience doesn't happen ever, but that if you think for ten minutes about it, kids don't have "disappoint and anger my parents and teachers" as an end. Much more likely they hope to get away with whatever they are trying to do without the inconvenience of facing our disappointment and anger! And often not even that. They want a thing and they go about what seems to them a direct way of getting it. And they don't see with the same eyes that we do.
Similarly, and this is something I have to work really, really hard to remember: The child is not making that awful noise -- the one that drives me up the wall -- because he wants to drive me up the wall. The simplest and kindest set of answers to why he has not stopped making the noise is that he doesn't realize he is doing it, doesn't realize I can hear it, or doesn't realize that it is making me crazy. And how hard is it just to ask, "Please, would you stop making that noise, at least here where I can hear it?"
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Rule 4 is Listen.
What prevents us from doing a good job of listening is that instead of focusing on other people, we focus on ourselves and our own needs. This is what we do, for instance, when we interrupt. We just can't sit still—and silent—as someone else speaks, for we feel the urge to seize the limelight for ourselves. Thus we will rudely push others offstage...
Sudden redirections of attention are interruptions as well. Although your interlocutor has completed his or her sentence, this gives you no license to leave it unacknowledged as you rush to utter one of your own. Unfortunately "disregard and proceed" is one of the most common patterns in verbal exchanges, even among friends...[and] very common in the workplace, especially among competitive people.
Ouch. This one hits home. I mean, especially the calling-out of interruptions and disregard-and-proceed as refusals to listen and therefore violations of civility. I have always known myself to be prone to these, but I have often excused myself as being (1) socially awkward (2) impenetrable to socialization in accord with conventionally "feminine" conversational behavior (3) totally unable to prevent my reactions from being readable on my face if I keep my mouth shut.
All of these are true and maybe explain a lot about me, but none of them are excuses for not trying. I mean, just to take the middle example, interrupting and redirecting attention to oneself may be rewarded more often when males do it and punished more often when females do it, but it's uncivil regardless.
Forni very usefully gives three basic components of good listening, which makes it sound almost like a skill that I could intentionally develop:
- Plan your listening. "Make the conscious effort of making listening your goal... Silence is, of course, your tool of choice... Rediscover the power and allure of [your] silence... Eliminate sources of distraction."
- Show that you are listening. "Establish eye contact" [I would add "if you can" -- I find keeping eye contact to be rather difficult and I know many others have it worse than I do]...nod...interject brief expressions...restate briefly what [you] have heard."
- Be a cooperative listener. Forni suggests not rushing to agree or to disagree, but to try to understand, to invite the speaker to focus, to "separate what is important from what is not", and to ask open-ended questions -- not with the goal to satisfy your own curiosity [ouch again], but to help the speaker "achieve a higher level of clarity."
- "Although you may be forming your opinions on what is being said, voice them only if you have a clear sense that that is what your interlocutor expects...and if you are comfortable doing so. The same rule applies to giving advice."
I have certainly been guilty of the assumption that people would not tell me about their problems if they didn't expect me to try to solve them. These components of good listening will serve me well, I think, if I can keep them in mind.
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Rule 5 is Be inclusive.
Part of our identity is shaped by and within groups; within our groups we find shelter, meaning, and direction. Thus attitudes and words that exclude rather than include are rarely funny. In most cases they hurt.
Shouldn't we be allowed to draw boundaries as we go through our everyday lives? Of course we should... become good at defining and protecting our own spaces. But we should be careful never to engage in self-serving, unfair, and mean-spirited strategies of exclusion.
Being inclusive means applying the principle of respect for all persons TO all persons. When it comes time to show respect and consideration to others, we do not pick and choose. Selectively conferred respect is a commonly used weapon in the power games played by men and women of all ages.
I emphasize the last bit in order to show how very simple this rule to "be inclusive" means. In order to be merely civil, inclusivity does not have to get bogged down in certain details. It simply means that everyone gets respect and consideration because they are persons, and for no other reason at all.
There is a certain sort of man who never holds the door open for a woman, insisting it is because he can never tell whether a woman will be pleased or offended, and since you cannot win, then why try? Unfortunately, the end result is often either that the man in question holds the door open for nobody at all (signifying general thoughtlessness), or that he holds the door for women only while verbalizing his discontent with the situation (signifying quite clearly that he thinks of said woman as not just an "other," but an especially unpredictable and unreasonable sort of other), or makes a point of not holding it for women (the same, and also letting the door slam in someone's face).
Me? I'm for holding the door for anyone whose hands are full, who has difficulty opening the door, or who is following closely behind you as you reach the door. But I'm also for assuming good will in the person who has held the door for me (see Rule 3).
There are at present differing philosophies regarding whether we ought to show equal respect to all persons, or whether we ought to show extra respect to certain persons who merit them by birth or by action, or whether we ought to show respect for certain offices through acts that pay visible obsequies to the persons holding them. Some of us may hold our particular philosophy with a strong conviction that the others are not just wrong but harmful and should be argued against. Others of us may hold our own philosophy of respect-of-persons with a strong conviction of live-and-let-live.
I would just like to suggest that, should you be of the former persuasion, the time for arguing against it is not while someone is holding the door.
And that, even if special respect is not due a particular person, no person is exempt from respect and consideration.
The whole book, of course, argues this in general: respect and consider others. The "be inclusive" rule is just there to remind us that humans often do decline to do so on basis of group membership in particular. So: don't do that.