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Minding Manners

Civility Project compiles rules using Washington’s model

In an age of road rage, Internet flaming and cell phone prattling, civility might seem as outdated as a tip of the cap or a curtsy. Indeed, lack of respect and courtesy constitute a serious national problem, according to a study conducted in 2002, and most people interviewed saw the problem as getting worse.

An effort at UVA is combating that trend. Using George Washington’s famed “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation” as a model, the UVA Civility Project is compiling its own list of 110 rules. They combine timeless considerations of fundamental respect with nods to modern concerns such as beeping phones and tasteless tweets.

“I believe social behavior has deviated too far from a basic level of general respect for others, and I hope this project will give voice to those with similar concerns,” says Erica Mitchell, a fourth-year history major who is the project’s student leader.

Similar concerns have been voiced for years by one partner in the effort—Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. She attended the launch in March and returned to Grounds in September to talk about civility—or the lack thereof.

“Civility is no longer a humorous or ridiculous or snobbish word,” Martin said. “It’s something that people long for, almost to the extent of being willing to behave civilly themselves. Not quite, but almost.”

The Papers of George Washington, a project based at UVA’s Alderman Library, is providing guidance for the effort, formally titled “The Civility Project: Where George Washington Meets the 21st Century.” Washington was 16 when he copied the rules, which date to a 17th-century Jesuit college in France. Entries ranged from enduring—“Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present”—to practical—“Being Set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there’s a Necessity for it.”

Now, students, faculty, staff and others are offering suggestions through a Web site, and Mitchell says more than 1,000 have been received. The final 110 rules will be unveiled in a ceremony Dec. 3 in the Rotunda Dome Room.

Some suggestions have raised eyebrows. “A gentleman emulates the dress and wit of Cary Grant,” one student volunteered.

Some echo Washington’s concerns. His advice to “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust” finds a companion sentiment in one student’s words: “If you would not say something to someone’s face, do not say it over the Internet.”

Washington isn’t the only model for decorum. Thomas Jefferson helped draw up rules of order for the Continental Congress of 1776, and in 1801 he wrote A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, portions of which are still in use in Congress.

The Civility Project’s rules will be published in a pamphlet that will include an introduction by Martin and an essay by Theodore Crackel, editor in chief of The Papers of George Washington. The bottom line of the effort might be best summed up by the final entry in Washington’s list, which is Mitchell’s favorite: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Ce[les]tial fire Called Conscience.”