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ILLUSTRATION BY KAREN SHANGGUAN

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Civility is perhaps a tad too intimidating and precious a word to describe something that affects us so pervasively in our daily interactions. It’s better to think of it as common courtesy or politeness, or just plain being nice.

In the winter you can be walking down a city street, snow-covered, unshovelled, and opposite you someone is walking your way. There’s only room enough for one to walk the path decently, and the path, what there is of it, is not much anyway. The homeowner adjacent to the path has been slovenly and there is no trace of a shovel. What path there is has been roughly made passable by the feet of a dozen or so walkers. So, what to do? Who’s going to give? Who’s going to step into the snowbank or on to the road?

This is precisely where the possibility of civility raises its beautiful head. It’s not enough to curse the slovenly homeowner. No one inside the house is there to hear it anyway. So, what to do? Step boldly into the snowbank. That’s the true mark of civility. Perhaps you notice that the person plodding toward you doesn’t even look up and acknowledge your act. So be it. You know what you’ve done and that’s enough. The torch of civil society, polite society, burns brightly and you’ve done it. You’ve kept the torch burning.

It is not easy to be civil. Just think about it. You’re just as good as the next person. So why in the world should you stand aside while the other plods on through. Because a trivial act can define a person and why shouldn’t that person be you: defined by a simple act of kindness. The choice is yours. It matters more than ever.

Growing up in small-town Canada, such as my hometown of Schumacher, in northern Ontario, certainly helps to cultivate and facilitate an attitude of civility. In small towns people generally know each other. You can’t really get away with bad behaviour. But the true test of civility is with strangers, where you may not see the person again. That’s where it truly matters.

For each of us, it takes a conscious choice to do the right thing. It’s about a respectful approach to the countless human interactions that we encounter. They may seem small or trivial and perhaps they are just that but they make an immense difference in the overall scheme of things, and in the quality of our civilization.

It’s one thing to have an idea in your head. It’s quite another to take that idea onto the streets and see how it fares. In this a person is like an amphibian, a frog. Sitting at home in your slippers and favourite chair and thinking about all the good that can be done in the world is one thing. It’s another to meet rudeness in the street head-on.

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The writer Bill Bryson commented that we used to build civilizations – now we build shopping malls. True, but even in shopping malls there are civilizing opportunities. And these can be for the good or the bad. I’ve seen it happening in mall vestibules. A door opens and two people try to enter and leave at the same time. A bit of a tight squeeze, but they manage it. But I’ve also seen better interactions. One of the people involved will hold the door open. It costs nothing and the stale air is suddenly graced with smiles. That’s the kind of civilization I want to live in. People make a civilization even in malls.

Public transit offers opportunities aplenty for good or bad. A woman approaches another woman sitting in a bus shelter. The sitting woman has a small bag lying on the one seat next to her. Instead of asking the seated woman to please remove her bag, the standing woman berates the other using foul, terrible language. All of a sudden, like the flaring of a sulphur match, all hell breaks out in a vituperative and escalating exchange of insults, bordering on violence. It didn’t have to be that way.

The situations and contexts for human interaction change, but what remains is the civility that can be exercised. One person, or both, can choose to defuse a potentially explosive situation and make it into a polite and civil gesture that will be appreciated.

It’s the equivalent, if you think about it, of Sir Walter Raleigh famously throwing down his cloak over muddy ground so a queen would not have to soil her shoes and dress. It’s kind of nice to do something kind and courteous, even chivalrous. It’s not always easy, and it’s ongoing, something that must happen every day.

Civility, the exercising of it, is not just because you’re pregnant or a senior citizen or disabled or physically weaker or whatever. It’s not that at all. It’s readiness followed by action: It’s holding a door open or allowing someone to pass ahead of you or giving up a seat that marks the difference between a successful civilization and a failed one.

A person can be standing quietly when an empty grocery cart rolls down an incline toward him. He stops it and goes about his business. No problem. However, if a person happened to be pushing the cart and it was on a collision course, anger would likely flare up and an escalating situation could arise out of nothing. In one situation, an empty cart caused no problem. In another, because a person was there behind the cart, difficulties arise.

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Perhaps it’s the small kindnesses and gestures between strangers, between citizens, that mark a civilization as benign and make it as salubrious, in its own way, as clean air. Politeness goes a long way.

Frank Buchar lives in Hamilton, Ont.

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