The Lost Art of Civility
It seems today, more than ever before, we are witnessing uncivil behavior in a broad spectrum of society. We hear about basic rudeness; harsh words, expletives shouted at others, and seeking out others with whom we disagree to forcefully make our point or criticizing theirs. If you think there’s nothing wrong with this kind of behavior, just think about the Golden Rule. The way we treat others in casual conversation, online communications, and in the public forum says a lot about the kind of person we are.
How would you like it if someone got in your face while eating dinner with members of your family, while at work, or through actions on social media? Ethics is all about how we treat others; what we do when no one is looking; and whether our intentions are good – to make a point civilly, not abruptly or overly aggressive.
I have blogged before about the fact that by age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The first rule is: 'Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.' Civil behavior requires that we have basic respect for the person(s) we are dealing with and that has changed for thousands of years.
Civility is about more than just politeness. It is about listening without interrupting, disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same.
Tomas Spathe and Cassandra Dahlke, writing for the Institute for Civility in Government, characterize civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” This is a useful characterization because it addresses how being civil can enhance self-interested activities while, at the same time, avoid doing harm to others.
An annual poll on civility in society by Weber Shandwick continues to show that a vast majority of Americans – 93 percent – identify a civility problem in society, with most classifying it as a “major” problem (69 percent). Eight in 10 Americans (84%) have at one time or another experienced incivility in a wide variety of circumstances, most typically while shopping (39%), while driving (39%), or while on social media (38%).
Trolling on the internet is a good example of incivility. Trolling has changed culture, both online and off. Trolls hide behind their electronic devices, screen names and avatars when they go out trolling for trouble, and after they are all done the target of their behavior is left to pick up the pieces. Trolls seem to be on the prowl for their next victim, ready to pounce and offend others through inappropriate comment posts, harassment, and other discriminatory behaviors.
If you have been the victim of trolling as have I, you wonder when the troll will strike the next time and what affect it might have on your feelings and emotions – at least for that day. Germany Kent, a social media etiquette expert, said about behavior online: “Tweet others the way you want to be tweeted.”
Research on incivility in the workplace has found that mental and physical health, productivity, and employee retention, customer relations, and so on all greatly suffer when work and social environments are uncivil and uncivil behavior tends to spread throughout the organization if the behavior goes uncorrected. These behaviors that can include sarcasm, disparaging remarks, and hostility violate workplace norms of collegiality – the cooperative relationship of colleagues.
Writing for Psychology Today online, Dr. Thomas G. Plante, a clinical psychiatrist and behavioral scientist, provides helpful ideas on how to be more civil including:
- Think before speaking.
- Focus on facts rather than beliefs and opinions.
- Focus on common good rather than individual agendas.
- Disagreeing with others respectfully.
- An openness to others without hostility.
- Respectfulness of diverse views and groups.
- A spirit of collegiality.
- Offering productive and corrective feedback to those who behave in demeaning, insulting, disrespectful, and discriminatory ways.
Michael Brannigan observed “Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption. Civility is that moral glue without which our society could come apart.” Given the scope of incivility in our daily lives, each of us should look for ways to control these negative behaviors that can cause unhappiness to ourselves and others. One way to build a better, more civil society is to advance the cause of greater ethics.