It was an odd subject to arise when one was, such as I was, languishing in a swimming pool in a meadow beneath a blazing sun from an azure sky amid overwhelming radiant heat above 32°C. The subject? Civility – that recognizably sublime word for formal politeness and courtesy.  Parenthetically I emphasize “formal” because I recall the quip that, “Manners are only required when the going gets rough!” or words to that effect.

Late Middle English: from Old French civilite, from Latin civilitas, from civilis ‘relating to citizens’ (see civil). In early use, the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. The sense ‘politeness’ arose in the mid-16th century.

Developmental model

Adolf G. Gundersen and Suzanne Goodney Lea have developed a civility model grounded in empirical data that “stresses the notion that civility is a sequence, not a single thing or set of things”. The model conceives of civility as a continuum or scale consisting of increasingly demanding traits ranging from “indifference” to “commentary”, “conversation”, “co-exploration” and, from there, to “habituation”. According to the authors, such a developmental model has several distinct advantages, not least of which is that it allows civility to be viewed as something everyone can get better at.

Apparently there is no end of material about the subject. Nonetheless in spite of its already expansive enlargement it remains a theme to which any one of us readily responds for the hopeful submission of our own two cents worth. Not that we have until then formulated the correct or indeed any opinion at all regarding the matter, but the instant it is mentioned we weigh in upon the subject like a voracious animal. It attracts immediate appeal  – regrettably because it invariably involves the private examination of someone whom we know. Gossip I suppose is the popular word I’m looking for, the putative critical analysis of a topic with the hidden view for the occasion of personal slight or at the very least sharp comment. That is the marketable collateral of this innocuous mantle called civility.

The word is from Old English godsibb, from god and sibb, the term for the godparents of one’s child or the parents of one’s godchild, generally very close friends. In the 16th century, the word assumed the meaning of a person, mostly a woman, one who delights in idle talk, a newsmonger, a tattler. In the early 19th century, the term was extended from the talker to the conversation of such persons. The verb to gossip, meaning “to be a gossip”, first appears in Shakespeare.

Allow me to back up. My erstwhile family physician had telephoned earlier this morning and invited us to his country seat for a refreshing swim. What would normally have been a casual and predominantly uneventful convention precipitously descended to an acute analysis of this keen yet strangely ambiguous topic of civility. What caused this sudden transition of aquatic idleness to heated scrutiny? Strangely the answer is self-criticism. When it comes to talking about the inadequacies of others, nothing propels the assault more handily than personal comparison. Like it or not we see in others what we see in ourselves. There is a very strong likelihood that our evocative unraveling will have nothing whatever to do with the object of our initial complaint. By the time we’ve advanced to the process of drawing swords to eviscerate the carcass before our eyes we’ve long ago abandoned the superlative of proof. No, at this juncture of dissection the clinical details are entirely personal and utterly empirical.

it is naturally this oddity that makes gossip so riveting. It derives its strength from the inimitable legitimacy of its tonic. Make no mistake we know nothing about what makes other people tick and even less about what over the past several decades or more has specifically contributed or not to the evolution of whatever it is that others have become in the meantime. Any so-called conjecture is amateur supposition at best, the result not of penetrating insight but rather idle triviality. It is a feeble offensive made only mildly sustainable for its lack of retort. What does however warrant palpable credit is the self-reflective element of the gossip.

The gap between what others do and what we think about why they do it is so grievously wide as to taint any projection; yet what lingers is the undeniable authenticity arising from the insight. The characterization of civility as within the domain of propriety only hints at the true colour of what is behind its meaning. The reason for the social reserve is the protection of ourselves not others. The moment we undertake the task of imposing civility upon the actions of others we instantly diminish our own. We may as well undress in public such is the extent of unwitting disclosure – a decidedly uncivilized conduct!