Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

A Little Book All Businesspeople Should Read

with 3 comments

This week I read Paul Johnson’s slim biography of George Washington. It was inexpensive, so I picked it up at the bookstore a few weeks ago and found it a worthy way to spend a couple of hours. Reading it also prompted me to revisit Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which I have read several times before.

The Rules of Civility are 110 rules that George Washington copied and learned as a boy. Some have lost their relevance. For example, Rule 13, “Kill no vermin as fleas, lice, ticks &c in the sight of others”; although, should you have such afflictions, I would hope you do kill them alone.

However, the Rules remain remarkably relevant and useful. Rule 1 encapsulates them all: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” All rules, books and guidelines of etiquette really have this simple maxim at their heart. In like manner, all books of ethics have Rules 56 and 110 as their focus. Rule 56: “Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” Rule 110 “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little celestial fire called conscience.” Really, what could be better reminders as we go forth to our business each day?

Indeed, the little volume contains numerous good reminders for us all. Rule 28: “If anyone come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up, though he be your inferior.” Rule 58: “Let your conversation be without malice or envy.” Rule 74: “When another speaks be attentive yourself and disturb not the audience.”

As I read, I also found myself chastised in a couple instances. Earlier that day, I had discussed several contentious issues with my manager. At times, I recall, my passion got the better of me and my tone became sharp. That, of course, hampered both the transmission and understanding of my message. Rule 40 could have guided my points better: “Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”

Reflecting on this vignette made me realize the true power of these Rules. Adhering to them surely would make anyone a better person: more ethical, graceful, elegant and pleasant. But they would also make anyone more effective at what they do, in pleasure or business. Recalling Rule 40, my communications with my manager would have come from me more clearly, which would have allowed her to understand my point better. How many of us have violated Rule 50 and regretted it: “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.”

Almost every Rule contains similarly sage, ethical and useful advice, through which we would more effectively undertake our daily lives. Do yourself a favor: take 30 minutes to read it soon.


Written by Russell S.

February 6, 2010 at 6:04 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Pretty wise advice.

    Raymond G. Smith

    March 13, 2010 at 3:04 pm

  2. there is still a place for manners in the world, I’m sure I’m not the only one with a copy of Emily Post on the bookshelf! I’m looking forward to reading Washington’s list. and no doubt will form a view of what his modern day list will include. in addition to standing up when someone speaks to you, take off your sunglasses! and, perhaps not killing vermin, but taking cell phone calls is another thing you wouldn’t do in company…

    Diane Knox

    March 17, 2010 at 11:26 pm

  3. […] Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation – George […]

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