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Decorum in Discussing,
Interrupting & Responding

We see that the modern egalitarian world encourages youth to speak up freely, boldly interrupt others, and act with a general rudeness and lack of decorum to their peers as well as to those in authority. The Saint and founder of the Christian Brothers Boys Schools reminds the youth – and adults – how good Catholics should always exercise a prudent custody over their tongues.

St. John-Baptiste de la Salle

St. Paul warns his disciple, St. Timothy, not to waste time in disputes over words (2 Tm 2:14); nothing is more contrary to the rules of decorum. Thus, as the Apostle would have it, you must avoid all foolish and useless questions, because they only give rise to disputes (2 Tm 2:22).

If you wish to prevent a dispute, you must do away with its occasions. Indeed, St. Paul tells you that you ought not to argue, because as a servant of God, you must not be contentious (2 Tm 2:24).

When you are in company, you must be on your guard not to contradict the statements made by others and not to propose anything capable of stirring up controversy. If others put forward anything that either is not true or seems inappropriate, you may simply express your opinion with so much deference that those who think differently will not take offense. If someone contradicts what you have said, you ought to show that you willingly submit your view to his, unless it is altogether contrary to Catholic maxims and the rules of the Gospel.

Then you would be obliged to defend what you have advanced. This you must do, however, in so refined and reserved a manner that the person you are contradicting, far from taking offense, will willingly listen to your reasons and accept them, unless he is entirely stubborn and unreasonable. A soft word, the Wise Man says, wins many friends and mollifies enemies (Eccl 6:5).

If you happen to be with a person who readily contradicts what others say, decorum requires that you be reluctant to express your opinions on any subject, for, as the Wise Man says so truly, promptness in arguing lights the fires of anger (Eccl 6:28: 12f). Great talkers are usually prone to defend their positions with the greatest stubbornness, so you must, following the advice of the same Wise Man, never argue with a voluble person, lest you fuel his fire (Eccl 6:8:1-4).

You must, above all, be careful, as the Wise Man further counsels, never to contradict the word of truth in any way (Eccl 6: 4:30). If you are not well versed in a given subject, prefer to keep quiet and to listen to others.

When you are engaged in a conversation in which an argument develops, as ordinarily happens in academic circles, you must listen attentively to what the others say. If you are asked or urged to speak, you may then give your opinion on the topic under discussion, but if you do not understand the matter, do not be ashamed to excuse yourself.

If you believe that the opinion you have set forth is correct, you must defend it, but this ought to be done with such moderation that the person arguing against you may yield without embarrassment. If the reasons the others adduce show that you are wrong, you must not stubbornly continue upholding a lost cause. With good grace be the first to admit that you are wrong. This is the best way to emerge from the discussion with honor. When you are in a discussion like this, you must not be determined to win at all costs. It is enough to set forth your ideas and to back them up with solid reasons. …

It is not in keeping with decorum for you to contradict anyone, unless he is much beneath you in rank and says something inappropriate and you are obliged because of the consequences to affirm the contrary of what he has said. If so, do this in such a mild and courteous way that the one who is corrected may be forced, as it were, to be grateful to you.

It is quite uncivil for you to interrupt a speaker by asking, for instance, “Who is that?” “Who said so?” “Who did that?” Such an interruption is even more impolite when the speaker is using innuendo.

It is also a very shocking offense against civility to interrupt someone who is telling a story and to try to tell it better yourself. When someone has begun to tell a story, it is no less rude to say that you know all about it or that you know exactly what the speaker wants to say. If the narrator does not tell the story well, it would be mocking him and giving him reason to feel seriously offended if you smiled as though to show that it was not as he says.

It is disgraceful to declare openly: “I bet it did not happen like that.” Such a manner of speaking is entirely rude and improper and would be used only by a person poorly brought up. If it happens in the course of a conversation that someone makes a mistake, you have no right to call his attention to it, for example, if he mistakes one man or one town for another. You must wait until the speaker catches the error himself and corrects it.

If he brings up the subject in another connection, you may point out the mistake to him; otherwise, he might be embarrassed. However, if it is a question of something that you must make clear for the sake of someone else, you may point out what the facts are, provided that you do so in a very courteous manner and very circumspectly.

Pay close attention to what the other person is saying, so that he is not obliged to repeat it. It would be very impolite to say, “What are you saying, sir? I did not hear you,” or something similar.

When a speaker has difficulty finding the right words or hesitates, it is entirely contrary to respect and to propriety for you to suggest words or to add the words the speaker has not pronounced properly. You must wait until asked to do this.

You must not take it upon yourself to reprimand anyone, unless you are obliged to do so or the matter is important. It is a serious fault to set yourself up as critic and public censor. ...

However, when you are advised or reproved by another, it is a matter of decorum to receive the admonition graciously and to show much gratitude. The more gratitude you show, the more you will act like a true Catholic and the more highly you will be regarded.

If it happens that someone insults you, it would be acting like a prudent person not to be offended by it. Far from wanting to defend yourself, say nothing at all. It is a sign of a mean and slovenly spirit if you cannot endure an insult; a Catholic ought not to show any resentment or even experience any.

The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility,
LaSallian Publications, reprinted 2007, pp 125-127

Posted November 23, 2019


Blason de Charlemagne
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