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The Colonel Chronicle

The Colonel Chronicle

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Excuse Me, But How Polite Should We Be?

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Always thank someone for coming over to your house. Always thank your host for having you.

Don’t talk behind people’s backs.

We all grow up with rules of conduct drilled into us, whether consciously or not. Maybe our parents were constantly reminding us of how to act, and maybe we just picked things up from watching those around us. Regardless, we all agree that there are both polite and impolite ways to act in front of other people.

In Rules of Civility, Amor Towles explores these guidelines through the seemingly glamorous lives of his characters, including Kate, Tinker, and Anne, who live in New York in the 1930s. They dine and go to parties in extravagant homes and apartments, schmoozing, networking, and dating as they go. From the outside, their lives might seem untouchable. 

But everyone is putting on a face, Towles says, in order to become the person they want. 

And everyone can do that—if they follow the Rules of Civility. Anyone can blend in, achieve their dreams, make their own life in the Big Apple. Just follow the rules.

And the rules aren’t figurative. Towles’ character, Tinker, follows the actual “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” a list of rules that George Washington had, which were based on rules created by 16th century French monks.

Do the rules really hold up to modern life? Are they really a guide for how to conduct yourself?

Listed in the back of the book (all 110 of them!), some of them definitely rang true to me.

Number 1 is a strong start: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be done with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present,” it reads.

I agree. In fact, I actually think it’s a good reminder. Often, we get caught up in our thoughts and feelings—maybe we don’t particularly like someone, or we’re distracted and thinking of something else—and we forget to just be nice to people around us. So let’s treat other people well.

There are other rules in the list that I think are similarly important. 

Don’t show happiness “at the Misfortune of another,” says rule 22, even if you don’t like that person. Yes, compassion is always good—bad luck can happen just as easily to anyone. 

Rule 89 says, “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” This translates well into a modern maxim—don’t talk behind people’s backs. Like this one, many of the rules of civility are still in use today, still valued by our society.

I think it’s important that we have rules like this. They remind us to be nice to those around us, to keep in mind our common humanity. You don’t have to like someone to treat them well.

However, can these rules really get you everywhere

In the book, Tinker’s character has more flaws than first appear. Sometimes he is too civil, too accommodating of others’ desires. And it turns out that he has become successful primarily by doing what other people want. For years, he has had a secret relationship with an older woman, Anne Grandyn, and her money pays for his apartment and luxuries. He is reliant on her, indebted to her.

This information comes as an unwelcome shock to the other characters in the book and Tinker’s life changes. Breaking off his relationship with Anne, he falls from glory and begins a more invisible life, renting a room in a not-so-nice part of town and working at the docks. But in a way, Tinker seems happier, freed from rules of civility that make him feel bound to societal obligations.

And indeed, there are rules in the list that are stiff and reek of hierarchy. 

Do not “speak nor laugh” when your “superiors” talk, says rule 84.

If you are eating in the company of your “Betters,” reads rule 103, do not eat for any longer than they do.

Maybe these rules are polite and submissive, but that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes it’s important to stand up for yourself, to take control of your actions. None of the rules in the list recommend self-advocacy; all of them are about serving the people around you, instead. According to the rules, you are at your best when you do not think of yourself.

We need to think of ourselves, though, in order to take care of ourselves. Sometimes, when we want to laugh, we need to just laugh. When we’re still hungry, we need to eat. Tinker’s life becomes more self-serving—in a good way, because he is finally acknowledging what he wants and needs.

By only serving others, like Tinker did, we hurt ourselves. We aren’t happy, aren’t honest. Civility only goes so far.

And this makes the final rule (number 110) all the more poignant.

“Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of celestial fire Called Conscience,” it says. 

Conscience. Be mindful of how you treat others. But be mindful of how you treat yourself, too.

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About the Contributor
Anya Geist
Anya Geist, Editor-In-Chief
I am very happy to be the co-Editor-In-Chief of the Colonel Chronicle. I have always loved writing and connecting with my community, and journalism allows me to do both of those things. In addition to working for the Colonel Chronicle, I am the co-Editor-in-Chief of the Apricot Journal (South's literary magazine), and I swim and play tennis for South. Outside of school, I love reading, traveling, being outside, and spending time with family and friends. Here's my email: [email protected]
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