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Opinion

Mind your civility footprint

Ever measured your impact on the "ethosphere"?

By / April 4, 2008



Castine, Maine

Being a good citizen these days, we're told, means striving to reduce our carbon footprint – to walk in a way that reduces our detrimental impact on the planet's biosphere. A "footprint" is a good metaphor for our individual impact on the social or natural environment. It's personal, tactile, organic, and immediately comprehensible. It's elementary. We're bipeds; we all walk and leave tracks. At my school, the students in sixth-grade science class can calculate the size of their carbon footprint with an online tool – based on heating fuel, car type and annual mileage, electricity use, and other factors.

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This is, no doubt, a valuable component of citizenship. But there's another footprint we ought to consider, too – one that has every bit as much to do with the quality of life here in the biosphere as fossil fuel emissions or ozone depletion, if not more. I'm thinking of our "civility footprint." It's not a physical emission, but, just as with our carbon footprint, civility has a huge effect. In this case, the benefits go up as the size of the footprint increases.

And what is that benefit? I used to think that civility just meant "be nice," as mom used to say. Now I realize there's a lot more to it – a more global consideration of being nice, attentive, focused, generous, humble, and thoughtful. The trick is measuring the footprint.

I recently discovered "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct," by Piero Massimo Forni. (Mr. Forni is the cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and a professor of Italian literature.) His rules of civility begin with "Pay attention."

The rules are an interesting blend of considerations. They include the very concrete and the very abstract; the interplay of respect, responsibility, and compassion; ways to think outward, as well as inward; global and local mindfulness; hope, resiliency, and aspiration; individual and group safety, manners, and kindnesses. They could be the charter for any community, school, or family. And so many of the concepts relate directly to learning – such as "pay attention." They are a stance for growth in knowledge, inspiration, and imagination.

So, are civility emissions as measurable as carbon emissions? Can we measure a civility footprint as we would a carbon footprint? Well, did you "keep it down, and rediscover silence" today? "Refrain from idle complaints?" Were you "inclusive" today? It's not hard to add up. So far, there's no online calculator to determine the size of our civility footprint. But feelings are pretty accurate indicators. And wherever our own feelings may fall short as guidance, Forni's concrete rules add clarity: "Avoid personal questions." "Mind your body." "Accept and give praise." "Don't speak ill." We want as large a footprint as possible. They're big shoes to fill – but we all have big shoes because we each know what we want our "ethosphere" to feel like.

The students at my school tested themselves recently by making a civility index. Everyone in grades 3 to 8 filled in a chart. Then we each took a piece of yarn and tied it on a 10-foot-long pipe at the spot in the 100-point continuum where we honestly thought we belonged. Now there's a colorful tapestry showing our individual civility footprints. We're doing pretty well on "apologizing earnestly," and trying to "be a considerate guest." We need to work on "Refrain from idle complaints," and "Be inclusive." And I don't think we'll ever "Keep it down and rediscover silence!"

Got too big a carbon footprint? You can always purchase offsets to compensate the planet. But civility offsets? You'd be offsetting your own health and progress. I hope it never becomes possible to procure civility offsets.

Yet I fear it's already a tacit mindset at work in our culture. There's a sense that civility is situational, tradable, an act for certain situations rather than a uniform approach to life; something for the other guy to do better at. "I'll be good over here; to her; to them, but not to those people." Such offsets would be missing the personal benefit to civility. "Good manners ... are also something we do for our own sake," Forni explained in a recent Monitor interview. "They are good for us because they help us manage our relationships, which are crucial to our health."

There's really no excuse for not having a big civility footprint. It's not necessarily the size of your foot, but where you step, how frequently, and how hard. It's the tracks we make as individuals and a community – and your neighbors around the world are counting on you to leave your mark.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine, Maine, and writes a column for teachers.net.

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