The Rule of Civility

Respect the sanctity of houses you are building
with your attitude and language.

A few weeks ago, I received a nice call from a client who mentioned, among other things, how civil and well spoken our crew was during the job. He remarked about it because he knew that kind of behavior is unfortunately unusual in construction. His comment reminded me of where I started.

Before I knew anything about homebuilding, I learned a lot about swearing. My Christian upbringing didn’t prepare me for the extreme, low level of human behavior and language I encountered in my first construction experiences. The production homes being built were noticeably bad, even to a novice, but the crudity that came out of the mouths of people was even more unsettling. I didn’t know there were people who couldn’t say anything at all without stringing together multiple obscenities, and it was amazing how consistently job-site banter always spiraled into the lowest gutter-thought the group could conjure. One guy whose name was Deke usually got to the bottom the quickest. He thought he was funny.

Lunch break was particularly awful because there was enough time for the discussion to not only sink to the lowest depths, but also get into lurid detail. I hated having to hear it, particularly because I knew some of their stories were true and probably accurately described. It was disgusting, angering and sad. The best of the crew were smart enough but lost; the worst were deviants and actual criminals.

One day we were eating our lunches inside a newly constructed house. It was still only rough framed and sheathed, with open stud partitions shaping the future rooms. To me, the spatial transformations were pretty exciting; as for the other crew members, I got the sense there was nothing to see and feel but a hateful job. As usual, the conversation drifted toward crude jokes and cynical epithets. Then, it got worse.

Finally I had to speak up, and what came out was something like: “Stop it! People will be living here soon and your talk is turning this place into a cesspool. It will take years to clean this place of the garbage you’re throwing around.” Of course, it didn’t do any good. I was the young, goofy, straight-laced kid who was badly in need of the education they were trying to give me, which had nothing to do with building. They laughed at me about that for days afterward and continued to trash the homes we built with their mouths.

I’m more world-wise now and less of a prude, but the young me was right on that subject. My stumbling certainty came from growing up in a home in which the security and integrity came from both inside the people (my family) and the standards of demeanor expected in the place. I knew the sanctity of place mattered. Even those hardened guys wouldn’t have talked that way in a chapel, nor would they have been so crude in a stranger’s finished home because that’s another kind of chapel people instinctively respect.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed something like my early experiences being repeated on jobsites across the country. My workmates in those early days were perhaps extremely debauched, but the norm for construction behavior today isn’t something most people would want their kids exposed to.

But if your kids are not there and you don’t hear it, why would it matter? First, it matters because civility is the mother of quality. Good work comes from good attitude, and it’s pretty hard to maintain a good attitude while also spewing obscenities.

The other reason is essentially what I was trying to say to the vile “carpenters.” What we think is who we are, and who we are matters to what we make. That’s why in all the craft and trade traditions going back thousands of years, personal discipline and integrity are emphasized as much as the skills. The essence of craft is in the character of the craftsperson. Discipline and care are also optimism, just as non-caring short-cuts and bad work are cynicism in action. When hopelessness and acrimony are being built into a house, you can hear them tumbling into the cavities. It sounds bad and it’s not funny.

Having told that bad story, I need to offset it with several good ones. The first is the general comment that one of the surest ways to identify a good quality construction crew is to listen to them. They usually don’t need to talk a lot, almost never raise their voices, and are typically capable of expressing themselves without resorting to the low adjectives.

Some years ago, we had the job of replacing the roof of a church in New York City after a fire. Our team of timberframers worked alongside quite a few other trades people as the job was on a tight schedule to recreate the weather protection for the building as quickly as possible. The guys on our crew reported that it was by far the most curse-absent project they had ever been on. There were no rules set. It was just apparently automatic to not hurl profanity while standing directly between the sky and a sanctuary.

Finally, there is a story about a Habitat for Humanity blitz build I led a few years ago. We had over 500 volunteers and we worked several shifts over an eight day period and in that period completely constructed a new home for a large family. At any given time, the site was nearly a riot of activity. The energy level was high, but there were also plenty of reasons to be frustrated with people, process and certainly my attempts at coordination and leadership. Yet I never heard a word in anger and certainly no bad language. People came in the right spirit and knew that what they were giving was the gift of their higher selves as much as their physical effort. Nobody diminished the building with a bad attitude and therefore what we built was a simple, sturdy home that was also constructed with confidence, hope and love.

8 thoughts on “The Rule of Civility

  1. Not surprised that your clients are so complementary about your staff. The energy in your office/shop is fresh, warm and ‘free’, which is directly related to the quality of your people and the apparent level of respect and goodwill toward one other. The words ‘nice’ and ‘Bensonwood’ kept appearing together in sentences when I spoke with people (complete strangers to me) around Walpole. The triple benefit is obvious: a good work environment, happy clients and the unwitting elevation of others who have the good fortune to work with you. Pretty great I’d say.

      1. Great…I love it! It’s unfortunate that the scene seems so impossible to conceive because of the construction site context. Yet opera being played at the corner store or in a barber shop would not be nearly so unexpected. Why is that? It would be great to hear more construction site civility stories.

  2. Tedd-
    Your comments brought back a flood of memories, from when my brother and I were roofers 30 years ago in Pittsburgh. Occasionally we would play classical music on our boombox, up on the roof. Needless to say, doing so always elicited plenty of cursing and ridicule.

    One time, a particularly obnoxious kid got up on the bricklayer’s scaffold, and grabbed our extension cord in an attempt to unplug us. I had wrapped the cord around a vent pipe- it didn’t budge. However, he yanked hard enough to pull the scaffold off a block that was leveling it, and brought the entire rig down with quite a roar! He wasn’t hurt, but the bricklayers made him spend the rest of the afternoon setting everything back in place, and restocking the bricks. Every time an opera piece came on the radio, they had us crank the volume. At first, we thought they just wanted to torment the kid, but being Italian immigrants, it turned out they loved opera!

  3. Hi ted, so true, there is also the way the big companys treat there people the change in the past 5 years with new mangerment is diff there answer is hurry up get it done were on a dead line ,im in the middle ,i would love to work for a company that has pride, we lost that how to we bring that the personal touch back, is it were getting older and we see more??? talk soon….. scott l horanzy ,,lead carpenter ..wpi ..ps thanks for all your books ,knowledge, im building my new barn this summer my 4th frame ………thanks

  4. I’m photocopying the your article work my guys at work, not that I need to as we tend to keep our language, attitudes and conversations pretty tame on our job sites. That in itself is funny because we are pretty crude after work. I and the other foremen have an understanding and unwritten rule that we maintain the highest form of professionalism on the site. We as a group all consider ourselves to be on the same level as any doctor, lawyer or other profession that society places on a pedestal (especially when it is we tradesmen that build the pedestals). It is imperative that we do so not only for the sake of ourselves but especially for our apprentices and helpers. This smooth and courteous work site attitude helps us create an atmosphere of focus and problem solving and makes us all way less tired at the end of the day. I have spent half of my years working on commercial sites and all of opposite occurs generally speaking and it shows in the junk that we call commercial building. On our site we haven’t gone so far as to play opera but we play never hard rock music and rarely play modern music. It’s the little things that go a long way to build an excellent product. I’m glad to read that others share our techniques.

    1. Keep at it! …and yes, we build the pedestals and all the buildings they’re in. Without our built environment, we’re cavemen. Those who build the physical structures of civilization should rise up in every way we can. We’ve got to stop acting like servile idiots and stop building junk. We can do better, and it sounds like you’re a part of that good effort.

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