Tips from George Washington's Self-Help Manual

Image credit: 

Every action in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.

With that mild but firm assertion begins a little book of self-improvement that George Washington copied down as a teenager. There followed 109 rules, and by the time Washington had written them all into his notebook "“- in what was probably the equivalent of a homework assignment -- he had taken them to heart, and he attempted to follow them for the rest of his life.

The pamphlet was called "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation" "“- a shorter title than many of today's self-help guides. It was composed by French Jesuits in 1595, and later rendered into English. It's unclear how the publication reached America, but its effect on Washington's character and behavior were profound, according to historian Richard Brookhiser, who published an annotated edition of "Rules of Civility."

brookhiser_GW.jpg Our age is not unique in its hunger for self-improvement. "Eighteenth-century Americans were eager for good advice, especially advice concerning their conduct," Brookhiser wrote in the introduction.

But you'll find none of the self-affirming "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" among Washington's 110 precepts. Instead, there are reminders to respect the personal space of others, and that one should take pains not to embarrass another. The rules spell out the delicate dance of how to be a well-mannered guest and host and, in the class-conscious society of Washington's day, how properly to behave in the presence of one's superiors and inferiors.

The value of many of the rules is still obvious. Others are amusing because conditions of life are so changed. All are worth considering. So, with concern for your self-improvement on this Presidents' Day Weekend, here are 14 more:

1. Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.

2. Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it.

3. Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks etc., in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it, if it be upon the clothes of your companions put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes return thanks to him who puts it off.

4. Read no letters, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.

5. Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.

6. Shew not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

7. To one that is your equal, or not much inferior, you are to give the chief place in your lodging, and he who "˜tis offered ought at the first to refuse it, but at the second to accept though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness.

8. Mock not nor jest at anything of importance, break no jests that are sharp, biting, and if you deliver any thing witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.

9. Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for "˜tis a sign of tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.

10. Speak not of doleful things in a time of mirth or at the table; speak not of melancholy things as death and wounds, and if others mention them, change if you can the discourse. Tell not your dreams, but to your intimate friend.

11. Be apt not to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things you have heard name not your author. Always a secret discover not.

12. In company of those of higher quality than you, speak not till you are ask'd a question, then stand upright, put off your hat, and answer in few words.

13. Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.

14. Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals. Feed not with greediness. Eat your bread with a knife (i.e. cut it into small pieces), lean not on the table, neither find fault with what you eat.

David Holzel
, editor of The Jewish Angle ezine, is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

February 17, 2008 - 12:03pm
webby
submit to reddit