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Civility 101

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | January 17, 2011

In the last few weeks, “civility” has gone from a word rarely encountered to perhaps the most frequent noun in American public discourse. Everyone agrees: there is too little of it, our public servants need to display more of it toward one another. But – perhaps since we have until now used it only infrequently, many of us may not be sure just what kind of behavior we are referring to when we urge people to be “civil.”

What does a contemporary American mean by invoking civility as the new virtue? My American Heritage Dictionary lists a number of synonyms (under the much more familiar polite), and usefully differentiates among them: polite, mannerly, civil, courteous, and genteel. As is typical, these synonyms cover the same general semantic territory, but have nuanced differences in their meanings and connotations.

Polite and mannerly differ from civil in that they are positive in outlook – they imply ways to speak and behave where civil suggests ways not to. Being polite is displaying concern for your interlocutor, attempting to avoid dangerous confrontation or conflict, as is essential for social animals like ourselves. It involves displaying tact, showing interest in what the other person is doing or thinking (to a degree – you don’t want to get too “personal”), and expressing camaraderie.  You can be polite across a wide spectrum of social relationships: to superiors and subordinates, to friends and family, to casual acquaintances. Politeness is most likely to be manifested one-on-one or in small groups, not to large gatherings where recipients are likely to be anonymous and invisible, and with whom the speaker does not have a genuine relationship.

On the other end of the scale, courtesy and gentility imply going out of one’s way to demonstrate a delicate concern for the proprieties, and are perhaps more concerned with looking right than in showing any empathy. Both of these words etymologically imply a high class status: courtesy is the behavior expected at the royal court, and gentility is the behavior that goes with being a gentleman, in the old sense of the word – someone with enough inherited wealth not to need to work for a living.

Also etymologically, polite is closely related to polished, just as its antonym rude originally meant rough or unpolished. So polite really looks at a kind of behavior from an individual or personal point of view, one of its principal distinctions from civil, which sees the same sorts of behaviors from the perspective of how they affect a society or group as a whole.

Civil is derived from the Latin civis, “citizen,” and thus related to civic, city, and civilization.” It is about how to behave towards others in your own political sphere – people connected to you politically but not intimately. You are not supposed to behave (merely) civilly toward friends and family – you can often be polite to them, but not necessarily. What counts as rudeness (or incivility) toward a casual acquaintance can (under appropriate conditions) be received by a close friend or family member as a sign of intimacy – that you don’t need to “stand on ceremony.”

Going further back in history, civil is ultimately derived from an Indo-European root, *kei-, meaning “lie,” “bed,” or “beloved.” One shared a bed (literal or figurative) with such a person, threw in his lot with him, and thus trusted and loved him. A fellow citizen, civis, is one you can trust because of the shared bond of citizenship in a city-state. Your behavior shows that the trust is justified: all who share the relationship can be counted on to protect one another from indignities.

So civility is demonstrated by what you don’t do or say – you are not blatantly insulting, you keep your distance, you do not intrude. In another place, at another time, someone who had crossed the invisible line might be warned (usually by a superior) to “keep a civil tongue in your head,” not a “polite” or “courteous” tongue, which would go beyond bare necessities. A civil person is one who can be counted on to behave so as to keep society functioning, someone who observes the mores of the community, no more and no less.

So when we ask for civility from our politicians, we are really asking for a recognition that they see themselves, along with us, as members of a cohesive and functional society. It would seem to be the least we can expect from them.

Comments to “Civility 101

  1. Thank you for finally taking the time to reflect on the actual meaning of this word. We use it, admire it and encourage it, but put it into practice? Not quite. The reason? We don’t really know what it means! Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion but to bash the ideas of others in a way that is hurtful and disrespectful–this is not something we should be encouraging. Take the project Live Civilly, a tiny non-profit founded by three sisters, ages 2, 4, and 6, from New Jersey. The whole idea is to get people to care about their neighbors who may not have a home or food. Their story is being profiled in University of Michigan scholar Dr. Wayne Baker’s online magazine today, as Baker takes this week to address what civility in our culture really means. Check it out at:

  2. So, according to the rules of civility…one must never speak against the standards of their day, irregardless of what their own personal beliefs are! Sounds to me as if civility is incompatible with free speech then!

  3. Thank you! It’s wonderful that someone is considering the root of the words we use, especially now, as we attempt to move forward. When we know what our words actually mean, we understand how much more powerful our use of them can be. When we don’t understand the true meaning of our words, we are more apt to say the wrong thing, cause ourselves embarrassment, & eventually, the common use of the word changes meaning a different thing to different generations. Communication breakdowns occur, feelings get hurt, you see how it all digresses. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking blog. As I’m sure you know, by age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation. They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The first rule is: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” I agree with you that civility is demonstrated by what you don’t do or say – you are not blatantly insulting, you keep your distance, you do not intrude. Increasingly, today, some writers and bloggers lament the lost art of civility as evidenced by rude behavior, disrespectful comments, and personal attacks. No doubt this illustrates rude behavior or, as you say, incivility.

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