April 7, 2013    /    by

What if George Washington's rules of decency were adapted for social media?

Recently, my family was discussing lesser known facts about our first President, George Washington. The intriguing conversation centered on George Washingtons 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. How can we apply these rules to online decency today?

Recently, my family was discussing lesser known facts about our first President, George Washington.  The intriguing conversation centered on George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

If you’re not familiar with this important corner of history, here’s a brief excerpt from the introduction to George Washington’s rules, drawn from Foundations Magazine online:

These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem. 

Richard Brookhiser, in his book on Washington wrote that “all modern manners in the western world were originally aristocratic. Courtesy meant behavior appropriate to a court; chivalry comes from chevalier – a knight. Yet Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court’s control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals. When the company for whom the decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the nation, Washington was ready. Parson Weems got this right, when he wrote that it was ‘no wonder everybody honored him who honored everybody.’” 

 What can we learn from George Washington’s rules today? That was our family’s discussion around the dinner table. What was the most fun, however, was adapting these rules for Internet use. How can these apply to modern life and social media today? We picked our top ten and attempted to translate (with a few laughs along the way). Here they are:

1.    1st & 65th Rules – “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest scoff at none although they give occasion.” (Translation for Internet - Be nice online. Written words and posted pics may never go away in cyberspace.)

2.    2nd & 7th Rules - “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered. Put not off your cloths in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.” (Translation for Internet – No sexting allowed, or plucking hairs or scratching body parts while on Facetime or Skype.)

3.    5th & 6th Rules – “If you cough, sneeze, sigh, or yawn, do it not loud but privately; and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside. Sleep not when others speak, Sit not when others stand. Speak not when you should hold your peace. Walk not on when others stop.” (Translation for Internet Stop and think before you connect. Or, get an avatar to represent you.)

 4. 17th Rule - Be no flatterer, neither play with any that delights not to be play'd withal. (Translation for Internet – Stop sending spam. Be careful when “the deal” online looks too good to be true.  

 5. 18th Rule - Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unask'd. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter. (Translation for Internet – No reading your email or surfing in meetings. Leave the room if you get an emergency call.

 6. 22nd Rule – “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.” (Translation for Internet – Stop the boasting, mean comments or mean-spirited  ranting on Facebook, sports sites or blog posts. Ask: How will the other people feel after the “fun” ends?  

 7. 25th Rule - Superfluous complements and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected (Translation for Internet - Don’t forget to post ‘Happy Birthday’ on Facebook for friends. But be careful not to overdo office celebrations. On the contrary, don’t neglect meaning accomplishments or milestones.

 8. 38th Rule - In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein. (Translation for Internet – Become a trusted source online. Stop the fraud or misrepresentation. Don’t be something you’re not online or present your resume, expertise or online profile in an exaggerated way. Others will see it and label you as someone without integrity. 

 9. 50th & 89th Rules - Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust. (Translation for Internet – Stop believing urban legends or spreading false gossip or slander. Go to to check facts or do some real research. Deal with disagreements with the individual(s) who is part of the solutions.

 10.  60th & 71st & 81st Rules - Be not immodest in urging your friends to discover a secret. Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of others and ask not how they came. What you may speak in secret to your friend deliver not before others. Be not curious to know the affairs of others neither approach those that speak in private. (Translation for Internet – Keep personal ‘secrets’ off the social media websites. They will be forwarded to others. Also, hacking into other people’s passwords or social media sites will lead to trouble.)


I could go much further, but in order to abide by Washington’s brevity advice, I think it is best to stop. I urge your t take 15 minutes and read George Washington’s original rules. Better yet, discuss them with family, colleagues and friends. I’d also love to hear your thoughts (in the comments section) for how to apply these words to social media decency today.

I’ll leave you with perhaps my favorite rule from George Washington’s list. Rule 110 says, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” That sums it all up for me.