When Alexandra Hudson took a job at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., she found herself faced with two extremes she was not prepared for- people who seemed good and nice, but were actually ruthless and cruel. This prompted her to think about the distinction between people’s inner and outer manners, which led her to the comparative study of civility and politeness.

Later, when Hudson move from DC to Indianapolis, she experienced a “surprising reprieve” with her neighbor Joanna and her practice of “porching.” What’s the difference between civility and politeness, and why does it matter? In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts invites Hudson to discuss these ideas and her new book, The Soul of Civility.



1- Hudson describes civility as a disposition of the heart arising from a respect for the inherent dignity of the individual. She also notes that such respect sometimes requires being impolite. How can one be civil and impolite at the same time? What are some circumstances in which you think this sort of impoliteness is necessary and beneficial? Explain.


2- Hudson describes politeness as more of a tool, while civility is both instrumental and inherently good. How can politeness be used for Machiavellian ends? To what extent might politeness be a tool of the patriarchy, a critique Hudson mentions. If it is, to what extent should we still regard it as valuable?


3- Is the disposition of civility more a function of nature or nurture? How does civility bridge the gap between our social nature and our inherent self-love? What is the role of education and formal schooling in cultivating civility?


4-What is the relationship between civility, law, and trust? Roberts and Hudson talk about the example of the Code of Hammurabi. Do social norms precede the formalization of law, or is law more often a reaction to the degradation of norms? How do higher levels of social trust affect the nature of laws in a polity? What role does the disposition for civility play with regard to social trust?


5- Roberts reflects on Hudson’s neighbor Joanna and draws a distinction between two types of “porchers”- the raconteur and the networker. Which one better describes you (or someone you know)? What does this suggest to you about the power of face-to-face networking? To what extent can such a practice of civility flourish digitally? That is, is it possible to inhabit an online porch?