Civility Lessons from Washington

Civility seems to be on everyone’s mind lately – at least it has to the audiences I have been speaking to about building inclusive, productive workplaces. As we mark Presidents’ Day this month, it hit me where to look for a role model whose guiding principles we can all follow to better communicate and relate to our colleagues and coworkers.
Let’s start by recognizing that human beings have flaws. That’s true of our Presidents who, at times, are all too human. In this month of commemoration, let’s get guidance from a President of the United States, flawed and imperfect just like the rest of us. Did he assume office in challenging, disruptive and, it’s fair to say, revolutionary times? Yes. Did he spend his career establishing his reputation in the political realm? No.  He came from a different world where he could fairly be called a man of action.
In fact, before he ever assumed the most powerful office in the land, he was accomplished, skilled and made his mark.  No one can doubt he’s worthy of respect and we should give what he says careful consideration. His achievements and office demand it.
So when we celebrate Presidents’ Day, George Washington’s enduring thoughts are worth remembering. Here are principles he studied and copied to improve his penmanship. Historians note these Rules shaped Washington’s behavior throughout his career. His handwritten copy of the Rules of Civility now nearly 270 years old, prescribes:

  • Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
  • Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  • Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile.
  • Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.

Surely, our first President lived in times at least as fraught with danger and division as our own.  As we work to resolve issues that divide us so we can move forward, the Rules George Washington studied and lived by are worth guiding us as we honor him and his successors this Presidents’ Day.
My thanks to Joan Hinde Stewart, the former president of Hamilton College, my Alma Mater, who directed me to George Washington’s Rules of Civility when she learned I had finished, my book, Civility Rules!

1 Comment
  • Ellen Talisman says:

    President Washington was certainly a very wise man.In my opinion anyone that undertakes the daunting job of president would be judicious to weigh their words as our speech can have tremendously negative and possibly life threatening repercussions. The power of language and the words of a president are crucial in diplomacy and the governing of our country. A president needs to be prudent at all times about
    what he says. Words can be very destructive.

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