It’s a nice old-fashioned word, isn’t it? The Young Foundation, as I’m sure you’ll have seen, has chosen it to describe the quality people seem most to value in their community. To quote from the summary on their website:
“[The report argues that] civility is the largely invisible ‘glue' that holds communities together and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and has a bigger impact of people's sense of social health than crime statistics. Perhaps most significantly it shows that civility operates on a reciprocal basis and that it is ‘contagious'.” It goes on, though, to warn that “… people, while quick to see incivility in others, seem far less aware of how their own behaviour can offend.”
At the risk of sounding cynical (moi?), I think there’s a third dimension lurking in there, which is the risk of one’s well-intentioned civil behaviour inadvertently causing, at least, irritation. Just this morning, I spent half an hour circling an inadequate multi-storey car park in search of a space. Many other drivers were doing the same. This car park has clear ‘give way’ markings, which unfortunately give precedence to incoming traffic, an obvious design flaw. So some new arrivals, recognising that I had a kind of moral precedence, would pause and wave me through. Very decent of them; but by the time we’d resolved the conflict between their desire to be civil and my wariness at breaking the rules, between us we’d probably added several minutes to the process of deciding it was all a waste of time and heading off back home.
There are many other permutations of how the principle of civility can result in discomfiture. Just one example: you are walking along a country path. In the distance you see someone approaching. Civility requires that you acknowledge each other with a smile and perhaps a word of greeting. But at what point do you do this? Too soon and it’ll be missed, and they’ll think you’ve blanked them; leave it too late and they’ll think the same. It can be very stressful. I could go on (I said “well done” to a small child who’d succeeded in balancing all the way along the top of a garden wall, and the mother rather obviously thought I was a pervert); the point is, being civil can be more complicated than just being rude.
I leave you with a literary illustration, from ‘The Virginian’ (Owen Wister, 1902):
‘Trampas spoke. "Your bet, you son-of-a --.” The Virginian's pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: "When you call me that, smile."’