What is a Civil Society (Civility)?

Jack Krupansky
15 min readMay 18, 2017

The term civil society is ambiguous, sometimes referring simply to civility in society and sometimes referring to organizations outside of government and business, such as NGOs and so-called civil society organizations and civil society actors.

More detail on that latter usage will be explored in an upcoming informal paper entitled What is Civil Society? [UPDATE: That paper is now available: What is Civil Society?], as well as a recent paper entitled What is an NGO (nongovernmental organization)?.

This informal paper focuses on what makes a society civil — civility.

What is civility?

Although the traditional dictionary definition of civility rests simply on politeness and courtesy, civility is generally interpreted very broadly, covering the interactions and relationships of all individuals, groups, and organizations in society, including government and business.

At the simple and most basic level, civility governs direct interactions between two individuals, whether they are related, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers who may or may not have anything in common.

At the larger and more comprehensive level, civility governs our attitudes towards all other members of society, especially those with whom we have no direct interactions or much in the way of common interests, as well as interactions between individuals and groups, organizations, institutions, and all levels of government and business as well.

This paper takes the position that civility includes both the superficial behavior associated with etiquette, politeness, manners, etc. as well as the personality qualities that are driving or motivating behavior. What is excluded is the substance or content of behavior and expression.

Granted, a lot of the more complex interactions involving organizations are best explored in the context of the upcoming paper on civil society, but the basic interactions between individual members of society with each other and with officials and staff of government and business are covered here.

All of these interactions with and within government, business, and society as a whole are explored more broadly and abstractly in the papers Elements of Government and Elements of Society. This paper focuses on the detail of civility.

This paper will also explore the difficulties and challenges of pursuing civility.

Civic responsibility vs. civility

Civility relates not to the substance of our public actions, but their surface appearance and perception, how we feel about interactions, rather than the goals of those interactions.

In contrast, civic responsibility concerns the obligations and duties of citizens, including laws and rules, such as getting an ID or license to drive, jury duty, parking permits and restrictions, recycling requirements, reporting crimes, court appearances, voting, military service, running for office, etc.

Civility is also warranted for all of those civic responsibilities as well.

There may be some degree of overlap between civic responsibilities and civility.

More on civic responsibilities can be found in the Elements of Society paper.

Minimal civility

Although this paper takes the position that civility should be viewed in a very broad and fairly deep sense, it still makes sense to acknowledge that there is some minimal level of civility for even those situations where the broader and deeper sense of civility cannot be achieved or be justified or is desired.

It seems to make sense to define that minimum civility as the willingness to respectfully acknowledge the existence of each other, as well as a willingness to let each other pursue our own interests without harassment or interference.

Outright cheerfulness is probably beyond the minimum, but simple acknowledgement, superficial politeness, and respect for personal space, personal affairs, and privacy are surely the minimal.

Minimal civility has no real depth, no real sense of caring or responsibility. It is rather shallow and superficial.

The goal is not to minimize civility, but to assure that some level of civility is possible and common even when there are deep differences.

Common characteristics of civility

A multitude of qualities combine to make a society civil. This list may not be complete, but should probably cover at least 90% of what would constitute a comprehensive and complete list. This list of characteristics of civility is not presented in any particular order:

  1. Mutual respect
  2. Respect for the rights of others
  3. Recognizing and respecting the dignity of others
  4. Dignity and dignified behavior
  5. Belief in the inherent good of all people
  6. Giving others the benefit of the doubt
  7. Respect for privacy
  8. Respect for right to be left alone
  9. Right to pursue personal affairs and interests without harassment
  10. Acknowledgment
  11. Courtesy
  12. Chivalry or special courtesy to women
  13. Holding a door
  14. Picking up something someone dropped
  15. Returning something someone lost
  16. Politeness
  17. Manners
  18. Etiquette
  19. Friendliness
  20. Cheerfulness
  21. Compassion
  22. Sincerity
  23. Expressing empathy
  24. Generosity
  25. Altruism
  26. Benevolence
  27. Seeking common ground whenever possible
  28. Disagreeing without being disagreeable
  29. Caring
  30. Responsibility
  31. Being a good neighbor
  32. Allowing others their own space
  33. Respecting personal space
  34. Philosophy of live and let live
  35. Welcoming and celebrating diversity
  36. Tolerance for differences
  37. Welcoming strangers
  38. Welcoming visitors
  39. Welcoming those with whom we disagree or even find offensive
  40. Hospitality
  41. Sharing power gracefully
  42. Forgive and forget without grudges
  43. Willingness and enthusiasm to give people a second chance
  44. Accepting that occasional slights are to be accepted, gracefully
  45. Accepting that even the most egregious offenses must be forgiven, without resentment
  46. Reconciliation
  47. Willing to apologize for offenses
  48. Respect for authority
  49. Respect for law
  50. Sense of responsibility and obligation
  51. Opportunity to participate in governance
  52. Opportunity to run for public office
  53. Significant degree of transparency, including or especially government and business practices
  54. Public officials and businesses actively seek engagement with citizens, seeking input before taking action
  55. Substantial methods of seeking redress of grievances
  56. A fair, equitable, and unbiased justice system
  57. Businesses treat customers as if they were family
  58. Individuals and organizations alike ask permission and seek input before taking actions that have any kind of impact on individuals, their families, and their communities
  59. Being considerate
  60. Peaceful intentions
  61. Kind words
  62. Kindness
  63. Telling the truth
  64. Willingness to hear people out
  65. Respectful discourse
  66. Respectful dissent
  67. Integrity
  68. Honesty
  69. Decency
  70. Ethical standards and behavior
  71. Thoughtful dialogue
  72. Welcoming alternative points of view
  73. Sensibility
  74. Sensitivity
  75. Honor
  76. Distinction
  77. Encouragement
  78. Affirmation
  79. Praise
  80. Recognition
  81. Giving credit
  82. Thankfulness
  83. Gratefulness
  84. Taking an interest in others
  85. Sense of community
  86. Positive attitude
  87. Desire to build and sustain relationships
  88. Inclusion
  89. Willingness to admit mistakes
  90. Informed
  91. Active
  92. Interest in growth
  93. Reflection
  94. Self-awareness
  95. Freedom and encouragement to experiment and take risks
  96. Responsible experimentation and risk-taking
  97. Respect for the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you
  98. Mature behavior
  99. Refraining from blowing up molehills into mountains
  100. Patience
  101. Perseverance
  102. Striving to be a good example to others
  103. Leading by example
  104. Maintaining confidences and trust
  105. Trusting others
  106. Loyalty
  107. Behaving as a gentleman
  108. Behaving as a professional
  109. Respect for professionals
  110. Respect for officials
  111. Sympathy for the misfortune of others
  112. Special respect for the young, the elderly, the ill, and the misfortunate
  113. Positive or reassuring hand gestures and facial expressions
  114. Smiling
  115. Nodding
  116. Handshakes, pats, hugs, kisses, and other positive forms of casual physical contact
  117. Playful (but respectful) physical contact
  118. Clapping
  119. Appropriate attire
  120. Personal hygiene
  121. Respectful eating habits
  122. Restraint from unnecessary body noises
  123. Respect for the religious practices of others
  124. Respect for the disabilities of others
  125. Joking and teasing, within respectful limits
  126. Use of playful or complimentary nicknames that work to someone’s credit
  127. Accepting and respecting that others may not share our beliefs
  128. Accepting good and not demanding perfection
  129. Deference
  130. Concerned about implications and consequences before speaking or taking action
  131. Standing in an orderly line without complaint
  132. Not complaining about every perceived slight
  133. Social drinking in moderation
  134. Helpful
  135. Help when someone has fallen
  136. Pick things up when they have been dropped
  137. Warn people of risks and danger

In short, no matter where a citizen turns they will encounter respect and be treated fairly, by fellow citizens, groups, organizations, businesses, and all levels of government.

Characteristics which reduce the civility of society

These characteristics of uncivil behavior are not presented in any particular order:

  1. Disrespect
  2. Unfairness
  3. Selfishness
  4. Hatred
  5. Anger
  6. Angry words
  7. Rage
  8. Violence
  9. Threatening violence
  10. Fighting
  11. Quarreling
  12. Arguing
  13. Incitement
  14. Unrestrained fury
  15. Disruption
  16. Rioting
  17. Suspicion
  18. Gossip
  19. Secrecy
  20. Deception
  21. Narrow-mindedness
  22. Intolerance
  23. Isolation
  24. Unfriendliness
  25. Intrusion
  26. Insincerity
  27. Greed
  28. Envy
  29. Jealousy
  30. Resentment
  31. Irresponsibility
  32. Thoughtlessness
  33. Bias
  34. Prejudice
  35. Inequality
  36. Inequity
  37. Injustice
  38. Illmannered
  39. Impolite
  40. Discourteous
  41. Disrespect for the rights of others
  42. Interference in the interests or affairs of others
  43. Imposition and attempting to impose one’s will on another
  44. Immoderate, harsh, coarse, crude, and foul language
  45. Trash talk
  46. Name-calling
  47. Calling someone a liar
  48. Calling someone an idiot
  49. Mocking
  50. Maligning
  51. Disparaging
  52. Crude gestures and expressions
  53. Giving someone the finger
  54. Obscene gestures
  55. Invective
  56. Immoderate behavior
  57. Combative
  58. Lying and misleading
  59. Spite
  60. Nastiness
  61. Meanness, mean-spiritedness
  62. Ignoring people
  63. Willful ignorance
  64. Unwillingness to hear people out
  65. Dishonesty
  66. Indecency
  67. Cruelty
  68. Bitterness
  69. Vitriol
  70. Disregard for ethical standards
  71. Discouraging alternative points of view
  72. Bullying
  73. Belittling
  74. Demeaning
  75. Intimidation
  76. Insensitivity
  77. Cheating
  78. Unthankfulness
  79. Ungratefulness
  80. Contempt
  81. Scorn
  82. Disdain
  83. Derision
  84. Ridicule
  85. Discredit
  86. Undermine
  87. Non-peaceful protest
  88. Mob-like behavior
  89. Shouting
  90. Yelling
  91. Screaming
  92. Hypocrisy
  93. Heckling
  94. Jeering
  95. Death threats
  96. Polarization and accepting or promoting division
  97. Divided and seeking difference rather than common ground
  98. Lack of a sense of community
  99. Culture wars
  100. Negative attitude
  101. Disregard for building or sustaining relationships
  102. Lack of inclusion
  103. Exclusionary
  104. Insularity
  105. Disinterest in inclusion
  106. Cliques
  107. Unwillingness to admit mistakes
  108. Ill-informed
  109. Irresponsible experimentation and risk-taking
  110. Lack of dignity and dignified behavior
  111. Insults and insulting behavior
  112. Personal attacks
  113. Disrespect for the golden rule
  114. Immature behavior
  115. Immoderate behavior
  116. Stepping on toes
  117. Bruising egos
  118. Running roughshod over others
  119. Short-tempered
  120. Easily angered
  121. Blowing up molehills into mountains
  122. Impatience
  123. Being a bad example
  124. Do as I say, not as I do
  125. Shaming
  126. Being inconsiderate
  127. Betraying confidence
  128. Betraying trust
  129. Betrayal
  130. Treachery
  131. Behaving badly
  132. Violating, invading, or encroaching on personal space
  133. Spying on someone
  134. Expressing glee at the misfortune of others
  135. Lack of respect for youth, the elderly, the ill, and the misfortunate
  136. Negative or disparaging hand gestures and facial expressions
  137. Scowl
  138. Snarl
  139. Glare
  140. Hitting, slapping, poking, pushing, shoving, or any other negative forms of physical contact
  141. Slow clap
  142. Inappropriate attire
  143. Poor personal hygiene
  144. Disrespectful eating habits
  145. Lack of restraint from unnecessary body noises
  146. Disrespect for the religious practices of others
  147. Disrespect for the disabilities of others
  148. Unwilling to apologize for offenses
  149. Fake or insincere apologies
  150. Fake civility — going through the motions to manipulate or gain advantage but without sincerity
  151. Pressure
  152. Harassment
  153. Sexual harassment
  154. Cold shoulder
  155. Pick on
  156. Torment
  157. Hound
  158. Tease in an unfriendly manner
  159. Taunt
  160. Use of fighting words
  161. Rejecting good and demanding perfection
  162. Fear
  163. Unconcerned about implications and consequences
  164. Intentionally mispronouncing someone’s name
  165. Use of disparaging nicknames
  166. Being a bad or indifferent neighbor
  167. Indifference or callous disregard for community
  168. Refusal to respect orderly lines
  169. Complaining about every perceived slight
  170. Immoderate consumption of alcohol

Violence in language

In a separate paper, Violence in Language, I explore the many words we use in language that connote violence and run the risk of using language as a bridge from speech to disruptive or even outright violent but certainly uncivil action.

Balancing free speech and civility

We all have the right to free speech, but with that right comes the obligation to respect the rights of others.

Civility is not an absolute obligation, so it is very possible for free speech to have the effect of uncivil treatment of others.

The point is not that free speech should be limited or that civility must take a back seat to speech, but simply that each of us is tasked with finding the right balance between pursuing our own interests and being respectful of others.

End, means, and civility

Even if the end might justify the means, where does that leave civility? All too often, civility is thrown under the bus in the name of expediency or even sometimes desperation.

Does the end really justify a lax attitude towards civility? Most commonly not, but there could be exceptional circumstances.

There is the issue of short-term ends vs. longer-term ends as well. All too often, short-term ends are themselves discarded as progress is eventually made towards longer-term ends, so the validity of a lax attitude towards civility for any immediate end is dubious at best.

In short, the end rarely justifies incivility, although in the extreme there may be special cases where civility is not the most urgent priority.

But a too-willing over-eagerness to discard civility in favor of expediency is not a good sign.

Civility and morality

Civility doesn’t usually rise to the level of a moral imperative. Similarly, morality doesn’t typically require or demand civility per se.

Morality is commonly seen as high-minded principle to be defended at all costs, while civility is typically relegated to the role of a nicety rather than an essential necessity.

That said, people commonly seem to cherish civility as much as if not more than many aspects of morality.

Nicety or necessity?

The evidence of public life seems to suggest that powerful people engaged in political, social, and economic struggles regard civility as more of an optional nicety rather than a mandatory necessity. That said, civility does seem to be the rule rather than the exception for most people in most situations. The difficulty is that those rare exceptions get quickly blown up out of proportion and poison the well far beyond their immediate significance.

A civility crisis?

Media and social media coverage of the exceptions to civility certainly do make it seem that there is an all-out civility crisis, but at the same time civility still seems alive and well in most corners of the world.

In short, the media, including the Internet, tends to act as a magnifying or amplifying device rather than an accurate ruler. So, any suggestion of a crisis should be taken with a large grain of salt.


Whether civility is an ethical matter seems open to debate. Some groups or organizations may strongly recommend but not require it, others may not even bother to recommend it per se, and others may make it a mandatory requirement that is grounds for penalty or even expulsion.

At a personal level, civility seems to be more of a social norm than a high-minded moral or ethical standard. More a matter of common sense.

Still, at heart, good behavior is inherently an ethical matter.


In addition to being an ethical matter, civility is also practical. It is easier for people to get along and easier to work with and between groups, organizations, governments, and businesses when people are behaving in a civil manner.

Advantage of incivility

It certainly does seem that individuals and groups can gain at least a short-term advantage and power by selectively acting in an uncivil manner. Frequently that is merely an illusion, but a very powerful illusion it can be.

The ugly reality is that uncivil behavior can sometimes work, or at least appear to work, at least in the short-term.

Of course, acting uncivilly can mere invite a symmetric response, retaliation. Somehow, the chickens commonly come home to roost.

I would put incivility in the same category as making a pact with the devil — you get some short-term gain, but in the long run it just doesn’t end well.

Still, the lure of short-term advantage is very compelling. Just as drugs can be.

About all we can do is urge people to focus more on the longer term as well as the medium-term costs of incurring the downside risks of incivility.

Optional and voluntary

As valuable and important as civility is, it does seem that it really is still only optional, and strictly voluntary, except in limited contexts as noted above. Be that as it may, maybe that actually makes civility more valuable, showing that those who engage in civility value it rather than feeling merely forced or involuntarily obligated to it.

On the other hand, there probably is a fair amount of insincere civility, where the individual, group, or organization acts civilly for motives that are not strictly altruistic, possibly out of fear, possibly to maximize personal gain, or a desire to manipulate for gain.

Value and virtue

It seems safe to say that civility is seen as a value by most people, groups, and organizations.

And the practice of civility seems to be considered a virtue of individuals, groups, and organizations who practice it.

Granted, some may see civility as a sign of weakness, but that doesn’t in any way take away from its overall value to society as a whole and to individuals alike.


When confronted with the exigencies of daily life, a lot of pressure can be put to bear in favor of being lax with civility. The question then arises where the priority is when civility interferes or slows things down, such as when the pressure is intense to take shortcuts that may lead to toes being stepped on and bruising of egos.

What exactly is the priority of civility?

Is civility only a priority when things are easy and time is not of the essence?

Is civility no longer the priority when things get tense, urgent, and messy?

The only good answer may be that civility is always a balancing act, but with a thumb placed firmly on the scale in favor of civility.

Balancing act

Civility is not always free. Sometimes it takes a non-trivial amount of time, energy, attention, diligence, and perseverance that may be in very short supply.

But the difficulty of marshalling whatever is needed to achieve civility only serves to emphasize the need for careful and attentive balancing.

Generally, the balance should favor civility, even if on rare occasions the balance favors expediency.

The real point is that if incivility begins to occur with a significant frequency, it may very likely mean that the balance has gotten out of whack. The solution is then to step back, take a breath, and more consciously, thoughtfully, and mindfully consider what the best balance really should be. And to give a higher priority to civility.

Is incivility a right?

Consistent with civility being strictly optional and voluntary, it is implied that an individual has an inherent right to be uncivil. Not that incivility is a good thing, but society is all the better when all that is good flows from free will rather than being forced or obligated.

In other words, civility gains much of its value from sincerity, that the superficial behavior reflects a willful and heartfelt respect for others.

Is civility an obligation?

This gets tricky. First off, it is super-great when people act in a civil manner. No question about that. Yeah, and I guess it’s true that most of us would prefer that everybody else should feel at least some semblance of needing to generally behave in a civil manner. But, once you cross the line and insist that civility is an inviolate obligation, you slide down the slippery slope that strips away the humanity and great social value of voluntary choice, free will, that would otherwise make superficial behavior sincere and meaningful.

In short, yes, you SHOULD behave in a civil manner, but that should be because of heartfelt sincerity, not because you feel some externally forced obligation.

Civility may be obligated in some contexts, more in the sense of decorum and professional conduct, such as in a religious service, a courtroom, or an office.

Civility can be more obligated in confined spaces, such as planes, trains, buses, waiting rooms, smaller parks, sidewalks, and entranceways.

What to do when civility fails

What can you do when you feel overwhelmed by incivility? Civility provides the answer: persevere and lead by example. Civility is the best answer to incivility.

Civility is the best answer to incivility

That bears repeating. Endlessly.

Limits of civility

Is it possible to be too civil? Are there situations where civility is unwarranted?

Generally speaking, civility is always warranted and virtually always the best policy.

Of course, as with any general rule, there will always be exceptions.

If an individual indicates either directly or indirectly that they do not wish to interact civilly or even at all, there is no point pursuing civility beyond superficial politeness and so-called minimal civility, respecting their privacy and right to be left alone. The point is not to respond by being uncivil, but to assure that a minimal level of civility is maintained.

Is incivility ever warranted?

Yes, there are quite a few situations where civility simply isn’t effective or even appropriate, such as:

  • War. Although even there, civility is the rule for most interactions. Only in the heat of battle does civility lose its value.
  • Revolution. Constant struggle. Occasional opportunities for civility, but not the norm.
  • Self defense when physically assaulted or threatened with grave bodily harm.
  • Law enforcement when a threat is perceived. Short of a perceived threat, civility should be the norm.
  • Disasters or emergencies when there simply isn’t time for formalities as potential harm is imminent.
  • Formal ceremonies or procedures when stricter rules of behavior override more casual civility.

There is the old saying that all’s fair in love and war. That’s actually an overstatement, but the general sentiment holds even if there remains a strong admonition to engage in civility to the extent that it is humanly possible.

Protest and peaceful assembly

As a general proposition, peaceful assembly is normally expected to occur with the utmost regard to civility and respectful of the rights of others. That’s the ideal, but too commonly civility falls victim to a combination of expediency and passion.

Protest is nominally intended to be peaceful assembly, but that ideal is frequently not the case.

There is an ethical split among protesters — some insist on civility as a matter of principle while others feel it would be unreasonable to constrain their resistance to civil behavior.

Civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is a longstanding social tradition, but not technically a recognized or protected right. Technically, by definition, it is against the law — it wouldn’t be called civil disobedience if no law were broken.

Civil disobedience tends to be marked by a significant sense of civility as a matter of tradition, although that generality of civility is belied by frequent exceptions.

Professional civility and decorum

Each profession will have its own customized rules for civility or decorum.

For example, a doctor, attorney, or clerk will generally interact with a patient, client, customer, or colleague with a form of decorum that is more formal than if two friends or two strangers were interacting. A form of professional friendliness may also be pursued, even though there is no non-professional friendship outside of the professional relationship.

In any case, it is especially important for a professional to act with a robust level of civility towards patients, clients, customers, colleagues, and management.

Worker civility and decorum

Similar to professionals, the relationships between non-professional workers, managers, and customers are expected to exhibit a robust level of decorum and civility that is more formal than the more casual civility of friends and strangers.

Civility of relatives

Technically, relatives should exhibit civility at all times, but the reality is commonly far from such an ideal. Why that is so is beyond the scope of this informal paper.

That said, a significant degree of civility is very common between relatives and certainly to be both recommended and expected, even if the exceptions can appear rather overwhelming at times.

Civility is the best policy

As a general proposition, it feels safe to conclude that civility is generally the best policy.

Individuals, groups, organizations, government, and business should always strive to provide the time, space, and energy for civility.

That said, there are always exceptions to every rule. Part of civility is accepting that you won’t always be treated as civilly as you would like and not always have the time, space, and energy to act as civilly as you would like.