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The Death of Civility


An epidemic of coarse and obnoxious behavior is in full swing. Is there anything to be done?

Article by Chris Lee on the TrainingSuperSite

ITEM: Ex-professional wrestler and middle-aged action figure Jesse Ventura, now Minnesota’s governor, strong-arms recalcitrant state legislative leaders by threatening to shut them in a room with his flatulent bulldog if they fail to pass a tax bill.

ITEM: The Clinton impeachment hearings drive incivility—instances of name-calling and use of "aspersions" and "vulgarities"—to new heights on the floor of the U.S. House, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which studies such things. Relations deteriorate so badly that House members are asked to attend a post-impeachment "civility retreat" in mid-March. Fewer than half the lawmakers show up.

ITEM: The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago upholds a lower court dismissal of a lawsuit in which a black female employee of S.C. Johnson & Co. charged a male co-worker with sexual and racial harassment. Although the man had berated her with expletives—some with racial overtones—let a door slam in her face, and cut her off in the parking lot, the court found that the man "treated all his co-workers poorly" and concluded that "equal opportunity harassers" aren’t guilty of discrimination.

Rude, obnoxious, boorish behavior. It may not be illegal, but it’s all too familiar. You know what I’m talking about. You spend your morning commute fuming at your fellow passenger who could use some basic training in personal hygiene or at the guy in the urban assault vehicle who cut you off in traffic.
You race into the office just in time for a meeting with the boss, which starts late and gets interrupted half a dozen times in the hour you’ve managed to schedule with him because he answers his phone while you sit and wait, inwardly steaming. You return to the semi-haven of your cubicle and begin sorting through 47 e-mails and 11 voice messages. It’s not easy to concentrate because the gang from marketing is replaying last night’s basketball game just outside your walls. You go to fetch a cup of coffee from the community pot, and find it empty—whoever took the last cup didn’t start a new pot brewing…and so your day goes.

Workplace incivility isn’t violence or harassment or even open conflict—although it can build up to any of those things. For most of us, it’s the thousand small slings and arrows that, day after day, eat away at what Peter Drucker once called the "lubricating oil of our organizations." Manners? Who needs them? Respect for other people? Who’s got the time? In the fast companies of the nearly 21st century, we go at Net speed and take no prisoners.

To those for whom the whole concept of civility smacks of white-glove rules of etiquette or a cheap veneer of gentility: Don’t be too quick to dismiss it. This isn’t your mother’s idea of good manners we’re talking about. "Civilité is often translated as politeness, but it means something more," writes Yale law professor Stephen Carter in his 1998 book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. "It suggests an approach to life, a way of carrying one’s self and of relating to others—in short, living in a way that is civilized." The concept arose, Carter notes, when chivalrous society and the unity of the Catholic church were disintegrating and "Europeans were casting about for guidance on how to avoid killing each other."

That’s an important thing to keep in mind in an era when raising your middle finger at the driver who swerves into your lane can get you shot and high school dissing can end in mass murder. But Carter’s definition of 20th century civility is perhaps more useful for our day-to-day workplace struggles: "Civility…is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together. When we pretend that we travel alone, we can also pretend that these sacrifices are unnecessary."

And quite a number of us act as though we’re alone these days. Isolated in our cars or glued to computer screens in our cubicles or cocooned in front of the television, our contact with other people for long stretches of the day is virtual—e-mail messages, phone tag and flickering electronic shadows. Treating each other civilly—following the simple dictates of the Golden Rule, the basis for good manners—requires taking the time to connect, human to human. It’s easy, especially at work, to rely on e-mail and voice mail. But emoticons are poor stand-ins for the facial expressions, tone of voice and body language that temper our words.

Edward Hallowell described the fallout from our lack of "the human moment at work" in an article by the same name in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year. The Concord, MA, psychiatrist found that more and more of his patients were describing feelings of anxiety, isolation and confusion following encounters with co-workers who relied on e-mail and voice mail. He also identified an antidote: the human moment, a.k.a. face-to-face communication.

He defined it as "an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space." This encounter requires two simple ingredients: "people’s physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention." There’s little enough of either these days, Hallowell observed. "I have given the human moment a name because I believe that it has started to disappear from modern life—and I sense that we all may be about to discover the destructive power of its absence."

In a telephone interview, Hallowell professes amazement at the number of people who contacted him in response to his article. "It clearly tapped a nerve," he says. No Luddite, he applauds e-mail for freeing us from boring meetings and for communicating information quickly. But as humans, he says, we need face time when emotions are involved. Unfortunately, we’re allowing ourselves less time to have it. "We’re too busy, too goal-directed. We’re lean and mean. We glorify rudeness. Civility is for stupid, weak people. We’ve got better things to do," says Hallowell, summing up the ’90s business credo.

But the faster we go, the less we honor the human moment, and the more disconnected we become, he says, echoing one of the themes of his forthcoming book, Connect: 12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life and Deepen Your Soul (to be published by Pantheon in September). "Our interpersonal infrastructure is breaking down," he warns. That breakdown, he says, accounts for our growing incivility to each other, our mistrust of and disrespect for each other, and even, in part, for horrific events like April’s mass shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO.

Pollsters love to ask Americans about the rise in rudeness; they invariably find ample evidence. In 1996, a U.S. News & World Report survey found that 88 percent of Americans thought incivility was a serious problem. When asked about the consequences of the decline in civility, respondents cited an increase in violence, divided communities, and eroding moral values.

When asked about their own behavior, however, they were only too eager to point a finger at the other guy: Only 1 percent of those queried rated themselves not very civil. But rudeness must be contagious, because it seems to have spread in the three years since then. A recent ABC News poll found that 11 percent of Americans say they’ve made an obscene gesture at another driver in the last few months and 42 percent admitted to swearing in public. Either we’re more honest than we used to be or incivility has reached such epidemic proportions that we’re proud of our lapses.

For several years now, pundits and scholars have been raising alarums about the decline of civility. The progenitor of this attention—or at least one convenient starting point—is "Bowling Alone," an essay by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, published in 1995 in the Journal of Democracy. Putnam pointed to Americans’ declining participation in all kinds of groups, from PTA to bowling leagues, as an indicator of our retreat from civic engagement and social connectedness and into self-centered isolation. He blamed the usual suspects—suburbia, the two-career family, television—for the erosion of social capital.

Since then, a crusade of sorts has gathered steam, as well as a mixed bag of proponents. Dozens of national commissions are currently considering the problem of incivility. Ongoing discussions among opinion leaders and academicians, convened by groups such as the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community at the University of Pennsylvania, focus on ways to reintroduce civility to public debate. Writers as wide-ranging as communitarian Amitai Etzioni, linguist Deborah Tannen, and syndicated columnist Judith Martin have weighed in with The New Golden Rule, The Argument Culture and Miss Manners Rescues Civilization, respectively.

There’s plenty of action on other fronts as well. A civility retreat held in March for members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Hershey, PA ("the sweetest place on earth"), was supposed to help legislators rebuild collegial relations with their peers—despite ideological differences—after the partisan assault of the Clinton impeachment hearings. Members of Congress listened to a keynote speech by John Hume, the Nobel-winning architect of peace efforts in Northern Ireland, met in small groups to vent their feelings, and learned to line dance at a country hoedown. Most legislators who attended (fewer than 200 of the 435 House members, as it turned out) brought their families, the theory being that once they got to know each other on a personal level, they’d be less able to demonize those on the other side.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has also been on a well-publicized civility crusade. To improve the quality of life in his rowdy city, he’s targeted reckless and discourteous cabbies, jaywalkers, noisemakers and litterers. Undeterred by media commentaries on the obvious irony of pumping civility in a city whose motto might be "You talkin’ to me?" Giuliani doggedly pursues his mission.

His most recent salvo was handing out palm cards to police officers instructing them how to be polite (sample guideline: "Explain to the public in a courteous, professional demeanor the reason for your interaction with them and apologize for any inconvenience").

Giuliani’s civility campaign, despite its occasional lapses into absurdity, is just what some observers prescribe. In mid-May ABC News ran a weeklong special feature about civility, manners, and our lack of both, interviewing experts who cited statistics and lamented the crisis as well as citizens who confirmed it and sputtered helplessly. Such hand-wringing over declining standards of behavior has become commonplace, but it doesn’t accomplish much.

In a delightfully acerbic essay in a 1996 special section on civility in America, Wilson Quarterly’s associate editor James Morris blamed "the universal shrug" with which we greet rude and obnoxious behavior for the rise in incivility. "The country may not get the behavior it deserves, but it does get the behavior it countenances," he observed. "In this age of ‘whatever’…it’s all capitulation. No one wants to make a judgment, to impose a standard, to act from authority and call conduct unacceptable."

Some of this reluctance stems from the grand American tradition of reverence for the individual. Joe isn’t a coarse and ill-mannered slob—he’s a free spirit. And indeed he may be, but does his right to exhibit his "gotta be me" eccentricities extend to my office?

On the other hand, the line that separates setting standards from attempting to regulate or criminalize any behavior of which I disapprove is not one that’s easy to draw, especially if the discussion extends beyond the realm of etiquette to civil disobedience. Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus was considered uncivil, as were protesters who opposed the Vietnam War. Now extend the discussion to creative expression: Elvis was considered as shockingly offensive in the ’50s as rap music has been in the ’90s.

The island nation of Singapore, which has tried to legislate civility, is a case study in what you get when you stress civil order at the expense of individual expression. There, you can be fined for not flushing a public toilet. People and places are under constant surveillance. Television is censored and use of the Internet is monitored. It’s clean, safe and civil, all right, but rigidly controlled. Social harmony and public order are enforced; the price is individual rights.

To be civil "may sometimes mean tolerating conduct of which you disapprove," points out Yale’s Stephen Carter. He describes a "sensible civility" that tracks the tension between freedom and morality: "On the one hand, freedom unrestrained by clear moral norms begets anarchy," he writes. "On the other, moral norms that have the force of law often stifle freedom. This tension is inevitable in a nation that wishes to be both moral and free."

Which gives you something to think about the next time you’re seething over a rude encounter in the street or at the office.

Also See: Tales of the Uncivil Workplace and
Tips for Surviving Rude Behavior

Chris Lee is managing editor of TRAINING


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