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How We Can Create a More Civil Society

Ethics and Civility Go Hand in Hand

I was recently interviewed by both Authority and Thrive magazines about my views on ethics and social media. There is no doubt that social networking opens the door to improper behavior for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the anonymous nature of posting and the impersonal dynamic where people say things without fear of consequences, or so they think. It’s far less likely another party would call you a jerk, bully you online, or body-shame you if the interaction had been and disparaging remarks were made to our faces.

Before I get too far, let me provide a perspective on just what civility is, it’s dangers, and the possible effects on those who are the target of uncivil people.

What is Civility?

By age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. These rules are based on a set of guidelines 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.” The fact that Washington recognized respect many years ago emphasizes its place as an enduring moral value in society and important component of civility.

Civility is about more than just politeness. It is about disagreeing without disrespecting, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same.  Indeed, “civility represents a long tradition of moral virtues essential to democracy. Virtues like empathy, humility, integrity, honesty, and respect for others are ideals of democratic engagement.”

How to Be More Civil

Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, 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 links actions that benefit ourselves with treating others respectfully.

Writing for Psychology Today online, Thomas Plante, a clinical psychiatrist and behavioral scientist, provides helpful ideas on how to be more civil:

  • Think before speaking.
  • Focus on facts rather than beliefs and opinions.
  • Focus on common good rather than individual agendas.
  • Disagree with others respectfully.
  • Maintain an openness to others without hostility.
  • Be respectful of diverse views and groups.
  • Embody a spirit of collegiality.
  • Offer productive and corrective feedback to those who behave in demeaning, insulting, disrespectful, and discriminatory ways.

Survey on Civility

The 2019 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 (68%). Eight in 10 Americans (84%) identify serious ramifications of incivility, including cyberbullying (89%), which is something I blogged about last week with respect to personal interactions and in the workplace. Others identify harassment, violence and hate crimes (88%), intimidation and threats, intolerance, and people feeling less safe in public places (87%).

Not surprisingly, the survey results show that more people experience uncivil behavior online than in-person. Contributing heavily to the cause of online incivility is social media, with 63% of Americans sating that, in their experience, the impact of social media on civility has been more negative than positive. Only nine percent say it is more positive than negative.

Interestingly, while nearly 60 percent of Americans have personally experienced uncivil behavior online, they are not likely to respond in kind on social media, which is the smart thing to do rather than push the buttons of the abuser who would then be more likely to attack again. Here are the actions taken by Americans the last time they experienced incivility online:

  • Ignore the person/people acting uncivilly (49%)
  • Removed themselves from the situation (47%)
  • Politely defended themselves (27%)
  • Responded uncivilly (11%)
  • Filed a complaint or report (10%)
  • Told friends about it on social media (9%)
  • Called or reported the innocent to the police (5%)
  • Wrote a letter or email (5%)
  • Others (18%)

Effects of Incivility Civility

It seems today, more than ever before, we are witnessing uncivil behavior in broad swathes of society. We hear about one group of people with a distinct point of view making offensive comments to others with an opposing view. Some get in the face of a politician they don’t like to forcefully put their point across and do the same in private venues. Arguments break out that more frequently lead to violence, so the police are called in to maintain order. On college campuses, we increasingly hear about some students shouting down or walking out on speakers because they don’t like the speaker’s message. What’s lost is the ability to have a productive dialogue about our differences. In a 2017 Gallup survey of civility on college campuses, 61 percent of students, up from 54 percent in 2016, say campus climate prevents people from speaking freely because others might be offended.

Civility and Ethics

Incivility occurs because we lose sight of what it means to be an ethical person. Ethical people do not berate others. They certainly don’t promote violent behavior. Being willing to accept the ideas of others who may not agree with you is a sign of civil behavior. It values those with opposing views as members of humanity. To bring civility back to society, we all need to learn how to disagree with one another without being disagreeable.

Trolling is a good example of incivility. Trolling on the internet occurs when a person starts quarrels or upsets people by posting inflammatory or off-topic messages. Trolls purposefully say controversial things to provoke others. 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 next and what effect it might have on your happiness—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.”

How Incivility Negatively Affects Our Well-Being

I recently wrote a book that deals, in part, with civility from an ethical point of view. Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior explains how and why certain behaviors are uncivil and the best way to deal with them.

I also address the thoughtlessness of such behaviors that can cause distress, thereby affecting the well-being of others and, in turn, our own happiness. Here are a few behaviors that are uncivil:

  • Making the discussion all about yourself—all the time—thereby frustrating others.
  • Making infuriating comments designed to provoke another to respond.
  • Demeaning others and attacking their character.
  • Getting the last word in so you prevent the other person from making a good point at the end of the discussion.

Many of these behaviors are passive-aggressive, meaning they are negative behaviors that are expressed in an unassertive but harming way. The best way to deal with them and avoid further uncivil acts is not to overreact, get drawn into the game, or try to change the other’s thoughts or behaviors.

Incivility in the Workplace

Research on incivility in the workplace has found that mental and physical health, productivity, employee retention, customer relations, and so on all greatly suffer when work and social environments are uncivil and that uncivil behavior tends to spread throughout an organization if the behavior goes uncorrected. These behaviors can include sarcasm, disparaging remarks, and hostility that violates workplace norms of collegiality—the cooperative relationship of colleagues. The negative effects on one’s physiological and psychological health may make it more difficult to gain meaning from one’s work and satisfy higher-level needs such as self-actualization.


Michael Brannigan, the Plaff Endowed Chair in Ethics and Moral Values at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, 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 for ourselves and others. One way to build a better, more civil society is to advance the cause of greater ethics.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 24, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book titled Beyond Happiness and Meaning that explains the ethics of personal relationships,  workplace interactions and on social media activities. Cyberbullying issues are addressed. Visit his website, sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.