The Difference Between
Civility and Etiquette

Students Looking at a Tablet

In our daily interactions, navigating social graces can sometimes feel like a complex dance.  Two terms that often come up are civility and etiquette, but what exactly separates them?  While they both contribute to a smooth social experience, civility and etiquette serve different purposes.

Civility: The Foundation of Respect

Civility is the bedrock of respectful interaction.  It's the recognition of others as fellow human beings deserving of basic consideration.  It goes beyond politeness and stems from a genuine regard for human dignity.

  • Empathy is key: Civility requires us to see the world from another's perspective and understand how our actions might affect them.  It means treating others with kindness and courtesy, even in disagreement.
  • Not about rules: Civility isn't a rigid set of rules.  It's a flexible approach that adapts to different situations.
  • More than manners: Good manners, like saying "please" and "thank you," are expressions of civility, but civility goes deeper.  It's about actively considering how our behavior impacts other people.

Etiquette: The Rules of the Game

Etiquette, on the other hand, is a specific set of social rules and customs that guide behavior in particular situations.  Think of it as the "how-to" manual for various social settings.

  • Context matters: Etiquette varies depending on the context.  Formal dinners have different expectations than casual gatherings with friends. Introducing someone to your parents is procedurally different than introducing that same person to another friend.
  • Cultural variations: Etiquette can also differ across cultures.  A simple gesture like a bow might be a sign of respect in one culture but seem awkward in another.

The Interplay Between Civility and Etiquette

Civility is the underlying principle, the "why" behind our actions.  Etiquette provides the "how," the specific ways to express civility in different situations.

Imagine a traffic stop.  Civility would mean treating the officer with respect, even if you disagree with the ticket.  Etiquette might involve using polite language, keeping your hands visible, and avoiding sudden movements.

Part of being in civil society requires us to know what is current in terms of being etiquette-ful in various situations.  However, the practices of courtesy never change regarding valuing civility as a personal virtue.  Paying attention to the needs of others never goes out of style.

Actions that are always etiquette-ful and civil:

  • Acknowledge that another person is in your presence.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Use honest, necessary, and kind words.
  • Demonstrate body language that is open.
  • Avoid unkind gestures and body language such as eye rolling, sighing, huffing or standing with arms crossed when speaking with someone.
  • Stay aware of your surroundings and what you are doing. (Not talking on your phone in a waiting area, for example.)
  • Use the always kind words of “Please,” “Thank you,” and “You are welcome.”

Being civil and demonstrating polite behavior means acting in earnest to discover and be what is recognizably respectful in the situation at hand.

The Universal Language of Civility

While etiquette can be specific, civility transcends cultures and situations.  Being civil means treating others with basic dignity and consideration, regardless of the setting.  In today's increasingly diverse world, civility acts as a universal language, fostering understanding and connection.  Let’s join together in demonstrating consistent behavior that is polite, civil, and just plain nice.

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