Looking closely at our small actions can help us move closer to who we want to be.
Have you ever walked into Starbucks, entered an airport waiting area, or boarded a public vehicle, sat down, and spread out your belongings to discourage someone from sitting next to you? Most of us have done this at one point or another, not because we are antisocial but because we sometimes just want to be left alone. We know we’re placing a hurdle in front of anyone wishing to use the space, but if someone really wants it, the person will ask us, politely or not, to move, and we will fulfill our duty to make it available. What’s wrong with that?
But here’s the question: Why put someone through that? Isn’t it just good manners to act a little more invitingly? Manners strike many as archaic social conventions, as alien to modern-day social freedoms as reasonable expectation is to duty. But if you think this way, you’re falling for the illusion of inconsequence. Just recall how angry, wronged, or hurt you’ve felt when total strangers dash your expectations of respectful behavior. If at least a portion of those reactions are reasonable, it tends to prove that even strangers have duties to one another. We’re going to call this the duty of civility.
Imagine a world without civility! Actually, we don’t have to imagine it. We experience such a world every day: not just common tactlessness like expressing extreme political views at a dinner party, forgetting to turn your cell phone off at a concert, or indulging in road rage, but premeditated and serious acts like politicians conducting demeaning political campaigns, companies outsourcing customer service to robotic English speakers overseas, airlines letting people linger for hours without accurate information about delays, product sponsors bombarding us with obnoxious commercials, and so forth.
The reason these things seem outrageous is that we have reasonable expectations of other people to act civilly. The expectation is based on an implied promise by each of us to interact with others in a way that promotes, rather than undermines, mutual well-being. Civility is a duty because it arises from that reasonable expectation, even of strangers.
Spreading your belongings across a table at Starbucks is not simply an expression of a private wish to be alone; it’s an act calculated to deter others from coming near you. Ask yourself, “Is this an act to assure my safety, or to display my aversion to others?” A woman sitting in a bar, knowing from experience that a protective space can shield her from unwanted attention, is a lot different from you making it difficult for someone else to use an available seat because you just don’t want someone near you. If it’s the latter, then you might as well put up a sign saying, Stop. Don’t sit down. I don’t want to deal with you. Chances are, if you look at things this way, the breach of the duty of civility will no longer appear so small.
Adapted from The Law of Small Things: Creating Habits of Integrity in a World of Mistrust, by Stuart H. Brody. Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.