Civic Behavior and Civil Behavior: What’s the Difference?

By Cynthia Resor posted 01-20-2019 01:15:57 PM


Civic education in schools serves to teach students the knowledge and skills for citizenship in a democracy. Promoted since the founding of the United States, civic education is getting renewed attention in recent years.  Commonly referenced civic behaviors are voting, paying taxes, and advocating for important issues in the political process.

On the other hand, soft skills have become the new word for another old concept – civil behavior. Both terms describe skills such as polite and effective communication, collaboration, as well as respect for others, integrity, timeliness, dependability, and worth ethic.

While civic behavior describes our obligations and duties in government; civil behavior describes our relationships with others.  Civic and civil behavior are related concepts with a long history reflecting changes in government and views of human nature.

What we think of as civil behaviors were first described as courteous behavior. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, courtesy was first used in the English language in the 13th century. The word originated in France and Italy in the ruling courts of the nobility. Originally, courtesy was the elegant and proper behavior expected of one who served a monarch or powerful lord. Castiglione’s 16th century The Book of the Courtier  described this cultured behavior expected at court.

The word civility was first used English in 15th and 16th century. Its meaning was slightly different – associating orderly behavior with good citizenship, the nation, and fellow citizens, not just the behavior of elite males in the court of powerful rulers. However, because most people believed humans would only act good when threatened with punishment, training a moral and mannerly person was thought to require strict religious instruction and plenty of corporal punishment.

By the 18th century Enlightenment, changing views on human nature and government impacted how proper behavior was viewed. Enlightenment thinkers believed humans were rational and only needed the proper education to bring out “natural” polite behavior. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in Émile that good citizens were created through an education encouraging the natural goodness of the pupil.  Politeness wasn’t just a set of rules to be memorized, it was innate, like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” New forms of rational government, such as America’s new republic, depended upon rational citizens and civil discourse for survival.

Ask your students to consider the historical relationship of civic and civil behavior. Explore the place of civil and civil behavior in schools and their relationship in current events and social media. Are mannerly individuals, trained in “soft skills,” required for effective functioning schools, workplaces, or democracies? If so, what civil and civic behaviors are the most important? The least important? How and where should one learn civil and civic behaviors? At home? At school? In the workplace?

For more, about manners and etiquette in history, see Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies: Primary Source Inquiry for Middle and High School

Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia (1819) by John Lewis Krimmel