George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. To modern ears many of these rules may seem quaint and moralistic, overly aristocratic and deferential. But though they are primarily rules of a bygone formality, good manners are most often an outward expression of respect toward others and there is a timeless wisdom in many of them. One of the prevailing undercurrents here at Afterall.net is a desire to be competent at speaking in love what one takes to be true and not trivial. The first article I wrote here was “Recipe for Conversation“, borne out of frustration with my own failure in many cases to speak with as much kindness as conviction. It is not easy to disagree without being disagreeable. Fortunately, to our great benefit, there is a long conversation in Anglo-American discourse about this subject of “civility” or “civil discourse”. Indeed, the American Experiment is in large measure an attempt to live well with differences. To that end, Washington’s rules with respect to civil conversation are worth considering. If nothing else, they are a glimpse into another time. Not surprisingly, incessant talkers and interrupters, not to mention gabbing with a mouth full of food, were as gauche then as they are now. As an aside, I’ve also added a new category, Civility & Rhetoric, to begin to gather books, quotes, and papers on this subject in one place. ~ Nate
About the Rules
In George Washinton’s Rules of Civility: Traced to Their Sources and Restored, Moncure Daniel Conway introduces the rules as follows:
Among the manuscript books of George Washington, preserved in the State Archives at Washington City, the earliest bears the date, written in it by himself, 1745. Washington was born February 11, 1731 O.S., so that while writing in this book he was either near the close of his fourteenth, or in his fifteenth, year. It is entitled “Forms of Writing,” has thirty folio pages, and the contents, all in his boyish handwriting, are sufficiently curious. Amid copied forms of exchange, bonds, receipts, sales, and similar exercises, occasionally, in ornate penmanship, there are poetic selections, among them lines of a religious tone on “True Happiness.” But the great interest of the book centres in the pages headed: “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” The book had been gnawed at the bottom by Mount Vernon mice, before it reached the State Archives, and nine of the 110 Rules have thus suffered, the
sense of several being lost.
… Dr. Toner says: “Having searched in vain to find these rules in print, I feel justified, considering all the circumstances, in assuming that they were compiled by George Washington himself when a schoolboy. But while making this claim it is proper to state, that nearly all the principles incorporated and injunctions given in these 110 maxims had been enunciated over and over again in the various works on good behaviour and manners prior to this compilation and for centuries observed in polite society. …”
The Rules of Civility
Original errors in numbering have been corrected; original spelling is unchanged. I have bolded those rules with particular relevance to the art of civil conversation, and a few others for my own reasons.
- Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present
- When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.
- Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.
- In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.
- If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkercheif or Hand before your face and turn aside.
- Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.
- Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.
- At Play and at Fire its Good manners to Give Place to the last Commer, and affect not to Speak Louder than Ordinary.
- Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.
- When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and Even, without putting one on the other or Crossing them.
- Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.
- Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak.
- Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.
- Turn not your Back to others especially in Speaking, Jog not the Table or Desk on which Another reads or writes, lean not upon any one.
- Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Shewing any great Concern for them.
- Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close.
- Be no Flatterer, neither Play with any that delights not to be Play’d Withal.
- Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unask’d also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter.
- let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave.
- The Gestures of the Body must be Suited to the discourse you are upon.
- Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.
- Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
- When you see a Crime punished, you may be inwardly Pleased; but always shew Pity to the Suffering Offender.
- Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Publick Spectacle.
- Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremonie are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be Neglected.
- In Pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen &c make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred, and Quality of the Person. Amongst your equals expect not always that they Should begin with you first, but to Pull off the Hat when there is no need is Affectation, in the Manner of Saluting and resulting in words keep to the most usual Custom.
- Tis ill manners to bid one more eminent than yourself be covered as well as not to do it to whom it’s due Likewise he that makes too much haste to Put on his hat does not well, yet he ought to Put it on at the first, or at most the Second time of being ask’d; now what is herein Spoken, of Qualification in behaviour in Saluting, ought also to be observed in taking of Place, and Sitting down for ceremonies without Bounds is troublesome.
- If any one come to Speak to you while you are are Sitting Stand up tho he be your Inferiour, and when you Present Seats let it be to every one according to his Degree.
- When you meet with one of Greater Quality than yourself, Stop, and retire especially if it be at a Door or any Straight place to give way for him to Pass.
- In walking the highest Place in most Countrys Seems to be on the right hand therefore Place yourself on the left of him whom you desire to Honour: but if three walk together the middest Place is the most Honourable the wall is
usually given to the most worthy if two walk together.
- If any one far Surpassess others, either in age, Estate, or Merit yet would give Place to a meaner than himself in his own lodging or elsewhere the one ought not to except it, So he on the other part should not use much earnestness nor offer it above once or twice.
- To one that is your equal, or not much inferior you are to give the cheif Place in your Lodging and he to who ’tis offered ought at the first to refuse it but at the Second to accept though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness.
- They that are in Dignity or in office have in all places Preceedency but whilst they are Young they ought to respect those that are their equals in Birth or other Qualitys, though they have no Publick charge.
- It is good Manners to prefer them to whom we Speak before ourselves especially if they be above us with whom in no Sort we ought to begin.
- Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.
- Artificers & Persons of low Degree ought not to use many ceremonies to Lords, or Others of high Degree but Respect and highly Honour them, and those of high Degree ought to treat them with affibility & Courtesie, without Arrogancy.
- In Speaking to men of Quality do not lean nor Look them full in the Face, nor approach too near them at lest Keep a full Pace from them.
- In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.
- In writing or Speaking, give to every Person his due Title According to his Degree & the Custom of the Place.
- Strive not with your Superiers in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.
- Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Proffesses; it Savours of arrogancy.
- Let thy ceremonies in Courtesie be proper to the Dignity of his place with whom thou conversest for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and a Prince.
- Do not express Joy before one sick or in pain for that contrary Passion will aggravate his Misery.
- When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.
- Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in publick or in Private; presently, or at Some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving Shew no Sign of Cholar but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.
- Take all Admonitions thankfully in what Time or Place Soever given but afterwards not being culpable take a Time & Place convenient to let him him know it that gave them.
- Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasent abstain from Laughing there at yourself.
- Wherein wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example
is more prevalent than Precepts
- Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.
- Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.
- Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty but See they be Brush’d once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness.
- In your Apparel be Modest and endeavour to accomodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration keep to the Fashion of your equals Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places.
- Run not in the Streets, neither go too slowly nor with Mouth open go not Shaking yr Arms kick not the earth with yr feet, go not upon the Toes, nor in a Dancing fashion.
- Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stokings sit neatly, and Cloths
- Eat not in the Streets, nor in the House, out of Season.
- Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
- In walking up and Down in a House, only with One in Company if he be Greater than yourself, at the first give him the Right hand and Stop not till he does and be not the first that turns, and when you do turn let it be with your face towards him, if he be a Man of Great Quality, walk not with him Cheek by Joul but Somewhat behind him; but yet in Such a Manner that he may easily Speak to you.
- Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ’tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.
- Never express anything unbecoming, nor Act agst the Rules Moral before your inferiours.
- Be not immodest in urging your Freinds to Discover a Secret.
- Utter not base and frivilous things amongst grave and Learn’d Men nor very Difficult Questians or Subjects, among the Ignorant or things hard to be believed, Stuff not your Discourse with Sentences amongst your Betters nor Equals.
- Speak not of doleful Things in a Time of Mirth or at the Table; Speak not of Melancholy Things as Death and Wounds, and if others Mention them Change if you can the Discourse tell not your Dreams, but to your intimate Friend.
- A Man ought not to value himself of his Atchievements, or rare Qualities of wit; much less of his riches Virtue or Kindred.
- Break not a Jest where none take pleasure in mirth Laugh not aloud, nor at all without Occasion, deride no mans Misfortune, tho’ there Seem to be Some cause.
- Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.
- Be not forward but friendly and Courteous; the first to Salute hear and answer & be not Pensive when it’s a time to Converse.
- Detract not from others neither be excessive in Commanding.
- Go not thither, where you know not, whether you Shall be Welcome or not.
Give not Advice without being Ask’d & when desired do it briefly.
- If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained; and
be not obstinate in your own Opinion, in Things indiferent be of the Major Side.
- Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to Parents
Masters and Superiours.
- Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of Others and ask not how they came. What you may Speak in Secret to your Friend deliver not before others.
- Speak not in an unknown Tongue in Company but in your own Language and that as those of Quality do and not as the Vulgar; Sublime matters treat Seriously.
- Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.
- When Another Speaks be attentive your Self and disturb not the Audience if any hesitate in his Words help him not nor Prompt him without desired, Interrupt him not, nor Answer him till his Speech be ended.
- In the midst of Discourse ask not of what one treateth but if you Perceive any Stop because of your coming you may well intreat him gently to Proceed: If a Person of Quality comes in while your Conversing it’s handsome to Repeat what was said before.
- While you are talking, Point not with your Finger at him of Whom you Discourse nor Approach too near him to whom you talk especially to his face.
- Treat with men at fit Times about Business & Whisper not in the
Company of Others.
- Make no Comparisons and if any of the Company be Commended for any brave act of Vertue, commend not another for the Same.
- Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. In Discoursing of things you Have heard Name not your Author always A Secret Discover not.
- Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.
- Be not Curious to Know the Affairs of Others neither approach those that Speak in Private.
- undertake not what you cannot perform but be carefull to keep your promise.
- when you deliver a matter do it without passion & with discretion, however mean the person be you do it too
- When your Superiours talk to any Body hearken not neither Speak nor
- In Company of these of Higher Quality than yourself Speak not til you are ask’d a Question then Stand upright put of your Hat & Answer in few words.
- In Disputes, be not So Desireous to Overcome as not to give Liberty to each one to deliver his Opinion and Submit to the Judgment of the Major Part especially if they are Judges of the Dispute.
- Let thy carriage be such as becomes a Man Grave Settled and attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others Say.
- Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many Digressigns, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse.
- Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
- Being Set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there’s a Necessity for it.
- Make no Shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table neither find
fault with what you Eat.
- Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy.
- Entertaining any one at table it is decent to present him wt. meat, Undertake not to help others undesired by the Master.
- If you Soak bread in the Sauce let it be no more than what you put in your Mouth at a time and blow not your broth at Table but Stay till Cools of it Self.
- Put not your meat to your Mouth with your Knife in your hand neither Spit forth the Stones of any fruit Pye upon a Dish nor Cast anything under the table.
- It’s unbecoming to Stoop much to ones Meat Keep your Fingers clean & when foul wipe them on a Corner of your Table Napkin.
- Put not another bit into your Mouth til the former be Swallowed let not your Morsels be too big for the Gowls.
- Drink not nor talk with your mouth full neither Gaze about you while you are a Drinking.
- Drink not too leisurely nor yet too hastily. Before and after Drinking wipe your Lips breath not then or Ever with too Great a Noise, for its uncivil.
- Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done wt. a Pick Tooth.
- Rince not your Mouth in the Presence of Others.
- It is out of use to call upon the Company often to Eat nor need you Drink to others every Time you Drink.
- In Company of your Betters be not longer in eating than they are lay not your Arm but only your hand upon the table.
- It belongs to the Chiefest in Company to unfold his Napkin and fall to Meat first, But he ought then to Begin in time & to Dispatch with Dexterity that the Slowest may have time allowed him.
- Be not Angry at Table whatever happens & if you have reason to be so, Shew it not but on a Chearfull Countenance especially if there be Strangers for Good Humour makes one Dish of Meat a Feast.
- Set not yourself at the upper of the Table but if it Be your Due or that the Master of the house will have it So, Contend not, least you Should Trouble the Company.
- If others talk at Table be attentive but talk not with Meat in your Mouth.
- When you Speak of God or his Atributes, let it be Seriously & wt. Reverence. Honour & Obey your Natural Parents altho they be Poor.
- Let your Recreations be Manfull not Sinfull.
- Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.