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The Rise of Incivility and Bullying in America

The majority of Americans report that incivility and bullying is on the rise

Has the recession and economic equality been a catalyst for growing incivility in America? Just look at our TV shows—the superficial pettiness and backstabbing of Orange County or Vancouver housewives, New Jersey shore grotesques, bullying chefs, rude and disrespectful contest judges, talk show hosts, news program hosts, and politicians.

Repeated public opinion polls have voiced the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in government, business, media and social media. The most recent poll by Weber Shandwick, reported that 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenants of democracy—government and politics—because of incivility and bullying.

The second survey of Civility in America was conducted by KRC Research in late May 2011 using an online survey of 1,000 U.S. adults. The 2011 results from Civility in America fall into several key areas in this report—civility in politics, education, the workplace, the Internet and 
the marketplace. Most Americans report they have been victims of incivility (86%). Their most common encounters with rude or disrespectful behavior come while driving (72%) or shopping (65%). Americans also admit to perpetrating incivility—approximately six in 10 (59%) Americans acknowledge that they themselves have been uncivil.

Uncivil behavior is also increasingly showing up in our classrooms, not just at work. Half of American parents (50%) report that their children have experienced incivility at school and nearly half of Americans twenty years and older (45%) say that they’d be afraid to be teenagers today because of incivility’s frequent occurrence. One in 10 (11%) parents report that they have sent children to a different school due to problems with incivility.

With incivility a growing problem in America, the risk of companies losing business over it is becoming more of a reality. Approximately seven in 10 Americans (69%) have either stopped buying from a company or have re-evaluated their opinions of a company because someone from that company was uncivil in their interaction. Further, nearly six in 10 (58%) have advised friends, family or co-workers not to buy certain products because of uncivil, rude or disrespectful behavior from the company or its representatives. All of these reported buying behaviors have significantly increased since one year ago.

Cyber bullying—when someone is threatened, harassed or embarrassed by another using the Internet — is of great concern to Americans today. Nearly seven in 10 Americans—69%—report that cyber bullying is getting worse. An equally large number (72%) worry about children being cyber bullied. The National Crime Prevention Council recently reported that a sizeable 58% of fourth to eighth graders have had mean things said to them.

Pier M. Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian Literature and founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude says, “In today’s America, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by coworkers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage maims and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where many check their inhibitions at the digital door.”

Nowhere is the problem of incivility more promiment than in politics with political discourse between candidates degenerating into attack ads and worse. The NAACP recently published a report called “Tea Party Nationalism,” exposing what it calls links between various Tea Party organizations and racist hate groups in the United States, such as white-supremacist groups, anti-immigrant organizations and militias. The NAACP report , which counts among its authors, Leonard Zeskind, one of the country’s foremost scholars of white nationalism, says the Tea Party has become a site for recruitment by white supremacists and others.

Forni of Johns Hopkins’ Civility Initiative says the onslaught of rude, bullying and uncivil behavior—intensified by the 24/7 reach of the Internet and social-networking sites such as Facebook—adds to the stress people are already feeling and can translate into real and very tragic consequences.

 “The weak economy, wars, the threat of terrorism, the hostile political environment, the two major parties warring with one another and exchanging salvos that are not very civil—these are not the most pleasant or stress-free of times,” says Forni. “When we are stressed, we are less likely to be considerate and kind to others. We retire, retreat into the citadel of ourselves and we shut the door. We are more prone to anger. We are less tolerant of the mistakes of others.”

Forni says feelings of insecurity only exacerbate the problem. “When we are insecure or not sure of ourselves for whatever the reason because the economy is bad, or we think we are going to lose our jobs … very often we shift the burden of that insecurity upon others in the form of hostility,” he says. “It is the kick-the-dog syndrome. You make an innocent pay for how badly you feel in order to find some kind of relief.”

Incivility and bullying behavior is also often a precursor to physical violence, says Forni. According to the Department of Labor, there are about 1.8 million acts of physical violence in the American workplace in any given year.

“How in the world can we stop bullying in schools, in the workplace, in politics, when it is so close to our national character right now?” asks Dr. Gary Namie, a psychologist and cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, a Washington state–based nonprofit.

Writing in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Roddey Reid, a professor of cultural studies at the University of California contends, “Although a universal problem, bullying enjoys a virulence and prevalence in contemporary U.S. culture virtually unmatched anywhere else in terms of its reach, depth, and legitimacy. Unlike in many European nations and Canada it is not illegal in the U.S.”

Reid argues that Americans should not be surprised at the levels of incivility. It’s not like there wasn’t ample warning. “So much macho bluster. Strutting around, talking tough. But following close behind came the actions: fire-bombings of abortion clinics, serial capital executions, gay bashings—not to mention “three-strikes” laws and mandatory sentencing that send citizens off to long prison terms for petty drug offenses, tripling the U.S. prison population within twenty years. Next to come in for brutal treatment were the schools and workplaces: from the presence of police in hallways and zero-tolerance drug tests to factory closings and the downsizing of middle-management, to the cutting and privatization of public services and government programs. Even the Post Office became a ‘profit centre of excellence’ meant to compete with private sector enterprises; it also became a centre of workplace violence and shootings,” Reid says.

Incivility and bullying has carried over into the workplace. Look at the popularity of Donald Trump’s Apprentice TV show, where people eagerly await Trump’s now famous edict—“you’re fired”—as some kind of pleasure. Stanley Bing wrote in the early 1990s:

"So it is today, where bullying behavior is encouraged and rewarded in range of business enterprises. The style itself is applauded in boardrooms and in business publications like Business Week, as "tough," "no nonsense," "hard as nails." When you see these code words, you know you're dealing with the bully boss...thanks to the admiration in which bully management is held in American business and academic gurus who perpetuate the techniques."

Some of our captains of industry, supposed models of leadership, are increasingly engaging in uncivil behavior. Witness Is smack-talking Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison calling the HP board “idiots” for firing Mark Hurd, and ridiculing SAP co-founder Hass Plattner’s “wild Einstein hair” in an email to the Wall Street Journal or even dissing Bill Gates as not being so smart, as reported by Brad Stone and Aaron Ricadela, writing in Bloomsberg BusinessWeek.        

Little is said in the U.S. media or public discussion about how the continuing obsession with short-term profits and the awarding of exorbitant executive pay lay the foundation for a surge in abusive behavior in the workplace to begin with, let alone how the introduction of best-practices of flexible employment, outsourcing of traditional company tasks, and the recourse to workers reclassified as “independent contractors” have opened the door to “management by terror” Reid contends. These changes compounded worker vulnerability in those workplaces already left to the tender mercies of “at-will employment,” a workplace regime dating from the 19th century and unique to the U.S.

The workplace is increasingly characterized by incidents of incivility and bullying, and this may be part of a general societal trend, exacerbated by tough economic times.

A startling 37% of American workers—roughly 54 million people—have been bullied at work according to a 2007 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The consequences of such bullying have spread to families, and other institutions and cost organizations reduced creativity, low morale and increased turnover. According to the Institute, 40% of the targets of bullying never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported that they were ignored.

According to a 2007 survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of the U.S. workers report they have experience or witnessed some kind of bullying—verbal abuse, insults, threats, screaming, sarcasm or ostracism. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.

The recent economic downturn, with layoffs and financial pressures on managers to perform may have exacerbated the bullying problem. Research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter and Samantha Englehardt at Florida State University concluded that “employer-employee relations are at one of the lowest points in history,” with a significant decline in basic civility.

According to the Department of Labor, there are 1.8 million acts of physical violence in the American workplace every year. According to Time magazine columnist Barton Gellman, threats against President Obama’s life brought him Secret Service protection at the earliest on record for any presidential candidate, and the number of extremist groups in the U.S. increased 244% in 2009.

According to a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, allegiance to many old public virtues such as the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Convention and the rule of domestic and international law is now commonly mocked or dismissed as quaint by significant people in power and persuasion.   

In the The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, well-known author Os Guinness argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in western societies like the USA if they are to survive: "Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic”.

Trevor Cairney, writing for the Center for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, says that civility refers to the behavior between members of society that create a social code and is a foundational principle of a civilized society. The Romans in creating an empire that expanded around the world put great emphasis on civil virtue. The Romans believed in honest debate, civility in the streets and treating adversaries with respect, even if defeating them in battle. Historians looking at the fall of the Roman Empire have tried to find reasons why the great Empire failed. Many see the loss of the civil society as a symptom of the loss of civility in general as a major reason for the fall of the Romans. People stopped treating each other with respect. The Empire itself stopped treating those they conquered with respect. What was once a society of mutual respect for all became a society of overconfidence of complacency. The very values that made the Roman Empire great were the very values that were left behind.

Jim Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, writing in the Huffington Post, contends that “Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those strictures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences.”

So what is to be done about incivility? Forni, co-founder of the Civility Project, defines the basics of civility as the Three R’s: Respect, Restraint and Responsibility. These fundamental components of civility were echoed strongly in our research. When Americans were asked to define “civility,” the words “respect” and “treating others as you would want to be treated,” predominated.

Civil communication begins early. The more that incivility infiltrates our culture, the more we may become dangerously indifferent to its existence and pass it down to the next generation. Many Americans agree that there should be civility training at school and at work. Perhaps a national public education program starting in the schools, cities and public squares across America could turn the tide on incivility and help restore respect and pride as a country.

“A national public education campaign endorsed by political leaders, schools, PTAs and corporate America and distributed through the media might be an important first step towards bringing civility back to our shores,” argues Jack Leslie, Chairman of Weber Shandwick.

A second step may have to be legislation that proscribes incivility. In the U.S., 20 states are exploring legislation that would put bullying on the legal radar screen. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec have passed legislation that addresses workplace bullying, although both countries are far behind some European nations and New Zealand.

One thing is for sure; if the culture of incivility, and along with it bullying, continues to escalate in America, it could fan the flames of violence and anarchy.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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