Minding Manners: Civility in Public Spaces

My mom always told me to behave myself whenever I went anywhere. Not because I was an unruly child but because everyone sometimes needs a reminder to practice good manners. She has always stressed the importance of good manners even when others misbehave. We are told at some point that our behavior is improper and that we should behave ourselves. Some comply, and many don’t. It begins in childhood and continues until late in life. This is not meant to sound judgemental but rather an acknowledgment of the reality in which we all live.

Every culture, subculture, etc., has an established, often unstated set of social rules which dictates how members of these groups should behave in public spaces. We’ve all witnessed the lack of civility of others in the news for decades, but recently the lack of decent manners seems to have increased. To be very clear, I am not referring to anyone in particular.

This subject has been studied extensively and has become a prominent theme during the pandemic. According to a chapter of “Recovering Civility during COVID-19”, civility has two dimensions. The first is politeness, and the second is public-mindedness. Being polite is basic decency, but public-mindedness is more about awareness of how your behavior affects others and taking steps to ensure positive actions and words are used. In the British Journal of Political Science, civility as politeness is defined as:

“Civility is often understood as a virtue associated with etiquette and good manners. For instance, according to Edyvane (2017, 345), ‘civility is bound up with the idea of what it means to be civilized, to be well-mannered or polite; its focus is on standards of behaviour in our dealings with others in everyday life.’ Some authors refer to this kind of civility as ‘ethical civility’ (Edyvane Reference Edyvane 2017, 345) or as a ‘moral virtue’ (Calhoun Reference Calhoun 2000, 273). However, politeness is a more accurate and clearer way to define this first kind of civility, since one can be polite towards others and respect the rules of etiquette for non-moral reasons, without acknowledging the moral worth of others.”

This analysis shows us how intricate the fabric of our public civility truly is. It’s especially true in library settings where numerous people of highly diverse backgrounds converge in one area. There are bound to be some anxieties about how to interact best (if at all).

Libraries have taken the initiative to combat this battle of manners and ill behavior by encouraging civility within their communities. One such project called “Choose Civility” was implemented by the Howard County Library System in Maryland. Their description of the project in 2018 was:

“In this era of divisiveness and partisanship, the Choose Civility initiative plays a critical role in bringing people together to build community. Through events like The Human Library and The Longest Table, people from all backgrounds engage in radical exchanges of empathy through face-to-face and one-on-one conversations. Such exchanges increase understanding, promote inclusion, foster civil discourse, and bridge divides. Choose Civility strengthens libraries’ roles as community leaders and change agents.”

The results from this project were widespread and included four public libraries, which became Choose Civility Chapters, 14 public libraries that became Choose Civility Affiliates, and approximately 40 Choose Civility classes. Events took place, including five Human Libraries and four Longest Tables. In an earlier post, we discussed the Human Libraries project and how many barriers it was helping overcome.

Since the world has become increasingly volatile lately, librarians have found themselves at the forefront of challenging battles with the public. This is nothing new, but the lack of civility from one person to another contrasts sharply with past behaviors. What remains true of situations from then and now is that most people want to be heard and understood.

An article posted by PRsay discusses the reality (based on survey results) that a sincere apology from the company representative (or librarian) can go a long way in diffusing a situation. Another article published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management addresses incivility by customers also:

“Customer incivility is often looked at as a part of the job (Han et al., 2016), but the consequences cannot simply be ignored as part of service employment. Customer incivility is defined as treating the employee in an uncivil manner, such as being rude, disrespectful, or insulting (Van Jaarsveld et al., 2010). Incivility is associated with deviant behavior that includes rude and discourteous behavior (Hershcovis, 2011) or condescending and ostracizing acts that violate workplace norms….”

Since librarians often are also in the customer service industry, these articles and ones like them certainly apply. Dealing with uncivil patrons takes its toll on librarians, and they, like anyone else, need the public to realize how vital even basic civility is. A polite tone, please, thank you, and not screaming in their face ensures everyone has a better day.