Manners are just as important today as they were in George Washington’s day. Are you guilty of breaking George’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior?”
University studies and etiquette mavens alike cite an increase in recent years of rudeness, inappropriate behavior and bad language in the office, and an overall failure of workers to demonstrate an adequate regard for others.
But the truth of the matter is that every generation seems to feel that the one following it is less civilized and doesn’t measure up to their higher standards of decorum.
In fact, a look back at history shows that even George Washington felt compelled to comment on manners. His book, George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, shows that many of the incivilities that plague our offices today are virtually identical to those that plagued Washington’s countrymen in the 1740’s.
Most of the rules he espouses are just as relevant now as they were more than two centuries ago. Take a look at some of these rules, their modern-day applications, and check to see if you yourself are guilty of any of these uncivil office behaviors. Keep in mind the original spelling is unchanged:
Overall Office Decorum
Rule 1. “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”
Modern Application: Treat everyone with respect and dignity, from the business owner to the file clerk. Say good morning, thank you, please, and good night. Be polite, friendly and helpful. Don’t just focus on yourself and your own needs and problems; think of coworkers’ needs as well.
Noise and Distractions
Rule 4. “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.
Modern Application: It’s rude to drum your fingers on the desk even if you’re impatient or annoyed at an individual or other people in the room.
Rule 8. “ … affect not to Speak Louder than Ordinary.”
Modern Application: Don’t speak in a loud or belligerent manner. Don’t leave your personal cell phone on during business hours; use the vibrating feature if needed. Keep your radio low or use a headset. Avoid personal calls at your workstation; your coworker need not know that your spouse needs to pick up a pound of ham. Be especially quiet in areas where coworkers are on business calls or in conversations with other coworkers.
Rule 52. “In your Apparel be Modest and endeavour to accommodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration keep to the Fashion of your equal Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places.”
Modern Application: Dress professionally, or in the manner expected at your particular work site. Do not wear ultra-casual, provocative or evening attire.
Rule 15. Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Shewing any great Concern for them.
Modern Application: Hair, hands, nails and clothing should always be clean and neat. Shower or bathe regularly. Perfume or cologne should be used sparingly or not at all. Clothes should be pressed and fit properly, with no lint or missing buttons. Make sure the heels on your shoes are not worn down.
Rule 18. “ … come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unask’d also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter.”
Modern Application: Be sensitive to others’ need for privacy. Don’t read someone else’s faxes, emails, mail or computer screens. Only share personal things at work that you wouldn’t mind reading in next week’s newspaper.
Praise and Criticism
Rule 25. “Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremonie are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be Neglected.”
Rule 45. “Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in publick or in Private; presently, or at Some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving Shew no Sign of Cholar but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.
Modern Application: Praise in public; criticize in private. Praise should be given whenever it is deserved; unrecognized accomplishments breed complacency. Avoid using harsh criticisms; instead, be constructive in pointing out mistakes without devaluing the individual. Take responsibility for your mistakes.
Rule 26. “In Pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen & make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred, and Quality of the Person.”
Modern Application: Never fail to greet or introduce someone. Introduce “down;” i.e., “Mr. President, this is your new chef.” Offer a firm handshake.
Rule 49. “Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.”
Modern Application: Do not use profanity in the workplace. Although it’s not uncommon today to hear a coworker spouting obscenities, it is nasty, should be avoided, and can lead to sexual harassment complaints.
Rule 58. “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ’tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature.”
Modern Application: Limit your comments about coworkers to positive ones only. Office grapevines can be faster than the speed of lightning; anything negative you say will get around and may reflect poorly on you, or possibly label you as the company gossip.
Eating and Drinking at the Office
Rule 55. “Eat not in the Streets, nor in the House, out of Season.”
Rule 98. “Drink not nor talk with your mouth full … .”
Modern Application: Whether you eat in an employee kitchen, cafeteria or at your desk, do not talk with your mouth full, belch, or put your elbows on tables. Never eat someone else’s food from the company fridge without permission. When eating at your desk, avoid the noisy crunchy stuff or foods that have strong or pungent odors. Do not overindulge with food or alcohol. If you take the last cup of coffee, make the next pot.
Rule 2. “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.”
Modern Application: Keep a “comfort” space between you and your colleagues; extreme physical closeness during a conversation will make the other person feel uncomfortable. As far as touching, keep in mind that it’s better to be safe than sued. Aside from the business handshake, touching in the office is best avoided.
Most individuals believe they’re the model of civility in the workplace. Part of this comes from having differing views of what is and is not acceptable and courteous behavior. Whether or not intentional, we’re all guilty of an occasional infraction. Overlook the minor faults of your coworkers and focus instead on their good qualities and attributes. You just may be afforded the same consideration.
For a complete list of George Washington’s 110 rules of civility, go to your local library, bookstore or visit