George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation

As a teenager, George Washington transcribed 110 rules of etiquette originally created by French Jesuits.  Many of these principles, although dating from the XVI century, prove to be useful and valid today, and with some adaptation, may be applied in spite of all technological advances and the time exigencies of modern life.   That is because they are based on respect for others, in all our dealings.  Acting as to not disturb others is a sign of elegance and consideration; making people you meet or host feel at ease is what etiquette is about, regardless of how informal an occasion may be.

These rules are even highlighted at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia, as an exercise that helped shaped his character and leadership skills.

Some of the rules, now published in a charming little book, are highly relatable – Rule 6 says: “Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.”  Basic – do not interrupt others; do not talk during a movie, play or lecture; follow your companion’s pace; stand up to greet people; don’t volunteer unsolicited opinion or advice!

Other rules go beyond etiquette and speak to work ethic and leadership, like Rule 82: “Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.”  That precept may be applied to our relations with family, friends, coworkers and clients!  If we agree or promise to do something for someone, we should follow through, right?!  We should also be keenly aware of our competencies and limitations, so as to not sell something which we could not deliver.

It may sound funny, but some of the advice contained in these rules will ensure a pleasant and professional demeanor.  Playing with one’s hair, biting one’s nails or fidgeting are definitely not desirable behaviors – they are distracting and make one come across as silly, not focused.  Rule 11: “Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.

Performing bodily functions in public is highly bothersome and thus inappropriate, so excusing oneself is always the best strategy when grooming is of the essence.  Using headsets whenever listening to music at a public place; treating people of all ranks with dignity; not eating with your mouth open – it’s all there!  In older verbiage, but all there: principles which would be hard to memorize but are easy to follow if our actions are guided by respect.


By Viviane Vicente