September 28, 2009 — It was the summer of our discontent. Rancorous town hall meetings over health care. A tennis champ's threat when a line judge made a call she didn't like. A shouted challenge to the president's veracity during a joint session of Congress.
All in a day's work for Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column. "People love drama," she said last week during a visit to the University of Virginia.
Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:
Martin returned to U.Va. at the invitation of the Civility Project, a student-led effort, which she helped launch, to create 21st-century rules of behavior. The project is based on George Washington's 110 rules for behavior and conversation. As a young man, Washington was concerned enough with matters of propriety that he copied the rules for his own use – and seems to have lived by them.
Recent examples of bad manners make Americans yearn for civility, Martin said. "Civility is no longer a humorous or ridiculous or snobbish word," she said. "It's something that people long for, almost to the extent of being willing to behave civilly themselves.
"Not quite, but almost."
"The Civility Project: Where George Washington Meets the 21st Century" began in March under the guidance of the Papers of George Washington. A Web site and events around Grounds have collected ideas for the updated rules not only from U.Va. students but also from students around the country.
Project leader Erica Mitchell, a fourth-year student majoring in history, said that the effort has so far attracted 600 submissions, including this oddity regarding road kill: "If you run over an animal, you should stop and pick it up and dispose of it properly."
That one may not make the cut.
Mitchell and Theodore J. Crackel, editor of the Papers of George Washington, invited Miss Manners to a recent Civility Project committee meeting to provide the students with some inspiration and suggestions.
The students, Mitchell said, are struggling with staying true to Washington's rules while incorporating students' views.
"He was trying to create a persona that was respectable," Mitchell said during the meeting. "Are we trying to create a new ethos or just help people get through the day?"
"Both," Martin said, adding that the goal is to teach people "how can I get along with people and how can I have people think well of me?"
Crackel said Washington used the rules to control his emotions and anger and to help him accomplish what he needed to accomplish. "If you're shouting at everyone, you don't get to be father of your country," Crackel said.
Helen Ye, a fourth-year student majoring in economics, said she worried that the students involved in the project don't represent diverse enough backgrounds to reflect different cultures in the rules.
American manners are fed by many cultures, Martin said. "People of all backgrounds and ages respond to the idea of having a certain standard of behavior," she said. "Some standards of behavior are better than others, and you're saying which ones. What you're doing is education."
Mitchell said the rules will be completed in time for a planned Dec. 4 unveiling in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.