Tuesday, 11 October 2011


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."’


  1. Civility can verge on control freakery. When a man approaches a lady on pavement the old-fashioned rule is that the man moves to the outside. When two old buffers approach each other I've witnessed them both virtually in the middle of the road trying to "control" the situation.

  2. Just for a change I opened the passenger door of the car for Mrs Soaring the other evening, on departing the Sloop at Bantham. I have to say she wondered what I was after or what misdemeanour I had occasioned. Remote unlocking is one of the causes of loss of manners. We were saying only the other week that it (loss of manners) is a major cause of the downfall of society.
    The passing on the path event has more potential for civility issues when behind a wheel on roads with passing places. Examples are hardly needed.

    PS Young Foundation is one of your verbiage factories.

  3. I think you've made my point, Rog - 'I am more courteous than thou.' Mind you, baby buggies, especially twin ones, confer a whole different set of priorities. *Fantasises about two pairs of buffers, four twin buggies, and the depth of civility ...*

    I think it's meant to apply primarily to strangers rather than spouses (?spice?), Soaring. I've always found your locals to be very adept at lane discipline. And am far too polite to speak ill of the grockles.

  4. As a happy-faced, red-cheeked middle-aged cyclist, I receive a cheery greeting from almost everyone, and when I pull over rather than block the way, I always receive an appreciative wave from a driver. At least, I think it's appreciative. How many fingers are polite to hold up?

    I was reduced to tears a couple of years ago on the stairs to the Central line at Liverpool Street station when a young woman on the 'up' side of the barrier noticed I was struggling, went to the top and back down again so that she could carry my suitcase to the bottom. I could hardly thank her. Civil didn't cover her kindness.

    I do like that quotation at the end.

  5. Z, I obviously feel strongly about this notion, because I'm watching out for comments even more than usual. I think that thinktank might just have hit a nerve, and I'm going to download the full report tomorrow (and 'save as...' ha ha.)
    Just a passing thought - you remembered that incident at Liverpool Street - would you have if it hadn't been so unusual? Just sayin', as they say.
    Right, off to find June Tabor and the Oysterband on Spotify, if I can.

  6. It wasn't unusual. although it was exceptional. I limped for a while and I never had to carry a bag or stand on public transport in London during that time. People were lovely and always helped, without my ever having to ask.

  7. Trampas - was that Clint Eastwood playing that?

  8. Z - well, what more can I say? I hope that even when everyone does that, it won't get diluted; and I do love your positivity (?sp?)

    AQ - can't verify that. imdb doesn't confirm. Would've been a good role for him though, as I recall it.

  9. Yes, I've downloaded it (Charm Offensive) & am halfway through - interesting if predictable.

    I found this interesting also: deprivation map
    Click on your ward.