Has incivility become the new norm in America? Fundamental ethical values such as respect, fairness, honesty, personal responsibility and tolerance seemed to have been replaced by rudeness, discourtesy and insulting behavior, at times bordering on outright bullying and aggression. And the price we pay in social discourse, our institutions and workplace may be far greater than we think.
The Definition of Incivility
The word incivility is derived from the Latin meaning “not of a citizen.” The intent is for democracy to operate in a healthy manner, civilians need to conduct themselves in an ethical and respectful way.
This incivility is clearly evident in the current political campaigns, and is also reflected in rude and discourteous behavior such as cutting in line, road rage, personal insults, interrupting in conversations, and internet bullying and trolling. T.V. shows, movies and news broadcasts now typically depict the heroes or “good guys’ acting and speaking in a uncivil manner that make them hard to distinguish from the “bad guys.”
Americans feel incivility has consequences and tends to be directed at certain groups. In fact, most see a direct link between incivility in society and violent behavior (93%), online bullying/cyberbullying (90%), discrimination/unfair treatment (88%), humiliation and harassment (92%), and intimidation and threats (93%). Groups thought to experience incivility often: homeless people (55%), Muslims (51%), immigrants (50%), refugees (47%), transgender people (50%), lesbian and gay people (46%), lower income people (46%), African Americans (41%), Hispanics (35%), people living with a mental disability (38%), people living with a physical disability (31%), police officers (35%), and women (28%).
Repeated public opinion polls have voiced the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in government, business, media and social media. According to a recent poll by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research, 70 percent of Americans think that political incivility has reached “crisis” levels. The poll also found that Americans avoid discussing controversial questions, out of fear they too will be perceived as uncivil. The findings speak to a flaw with civic education, especially in the main institution charged with delivering it: public schools. Put simply, schools in the United States don’t teach the country’s future citizens how to engage respectfully across their political differences. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they can’t, or that that they don’t. 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.
Results from the Civility in America report 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.
On April 22, 2016 The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago released a report citing that 74 percent of Americans think manners and behavior have declined in the United States. In this study they discovered that people in most cases can agree with what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. They found that 8 out of 10 Americans find jokes made based on race, gender, or sexuality are considered inappropriate, but only a small amount of people own up to actually making these types of jokes. Although there were some differences between age demographics on newer technologies, such as the use of cell phones. The report suggests that nearly half of all Americans 18-29 find it acceptable to use their cell phones in a restaurant, while less than 22 percent of people over the age of 60 years old agrees.
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.
A Pew Research Center survey published two years ago found that 70% of 18-to-24-year-olds who use the Internet had experienced harassment, and 26% of women that age said they’d been stalked online. This is exactly what trolls want. A 2014 study published in the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences found that the approximately 5% of Internet users who self-identified as trolls scored extremely high in the dark tetrad of personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and, especially, sadism.
But maybe that’s just people who call themselves trolls. And maybe they do only a small percentage of the actual trolling. “Trolls are portrayed as aberrational and antithetical to how normal people converse with each other. And that could not be further from the truth,” says Whitney Phillips, a literature professor at Mercer University and the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. “These are mostly normal people who do things that seem fun at the time that have huge implications. You want to say this is the bad guys, but it’s a problem of us.”
Cellphones are another target for incivility researchers. While most users no longer feel the need to shout into their phones, they may be so wrapped up "in their own little bubbles" that they don't realize they're blocking a sidewalk or holding up a line, says psychologist Veronica V. Galván, PhD, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of San Diego.
Why Civility is a Cornerstone of Democracy
In the book, 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.”
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.
What are the Causes of Incivility?
According to a recent poll, the majority of Americans (58%) expect incivility to get worse and they believe politicians (64%) and the internet and social media (63%) are the ones to blame. In fact, some research suggests that angry messages spread faster on social media than other ones. The news media (54%) also rises to the top of the blame list. Today’s instantaneous, nonstop media coverage may exacerbate the problem–and most think it makes incivility appear worse than it is (64%). On the one hand, most (70%) feel the media has a responsibility to help decrease incivility. On the other, most also think that responsibility shouldn’t come at the cost of censoring free speech: 69% say the media should report news about political candidates, even if they are uncivil.
There is general agreement that there has been an increase in rudeness and incivility. However, there is less concurrence as to the reasons for the increase. Most experts suggest a combination of individual, family and organizational factors that contribute to this increase. For instance, it has been suggested that today’s workers are simply stressed out. Employees are stressed because they are often asked to do more work and are usually provided with less assistance from management. The workplace has also become more diverse. Workers from various backgrounds may react differently to situations. Behaviors that one person may perceive as being “cold” or “rude” may be viewed differently by another individual. In other words, there is also an element of subjectivity to the perception of rudeness, just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
The increase in rudeness and incivility may be traced to the family and the effect of technology, such as television and the Internet. It has been suggested that in our technologically focused society, we are more competent when dealing with machines and software but have lost ground when it comes to dealing with each other. Rudeness may pay off since the rude individual at work is three times more likely to be in a higher position than the target of the rudeness.
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.”
Forni 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.”
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."
Incivility in the Workplace
Incivility has spread to the workplace with increasing frequency, resulting in a human and financial toll. From 2011 to 2013, according to the report Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey by the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, there has been an increase in Americans reporting they quit their job because it was an uncivil workplace. “Incivility can be the enemy of a collaborative culture,” argues Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick.
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 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. According to a 2007 survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of the U.S. workers report they have experienced 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.
Over the past ten years, research investigating workplace incivility has estimated that prevalence rates may be between 75% and 100%, meaning that nearly all employees have experienced some level of incivility from their coworkers, supervisors, or customers/clients. The exceptionally high frequency of occurrence for incivility is cause for concern because research has consistently demonstrated that the effects of incivility can compound over time. As a result, incivility has been shown to lead to a host of deleterious effects on employee and organizational well-being. In terms of personal outcomes, coworker incivility has been linked to higher levels of employee burnout, feelings of strain, and decreased psychological well-being. In terms of organizational outcomes, incivility has been related to employee withdrawal, decreased satisfaction, and decreased performance.
Not only is incivility related to these negative effects on employees and organizations, but it can also “spiral” out of control. That is, when someone perceives incivility from another individual in the workplace, they may retaliate with an uncivil act of their own (i.e., you were rude to me, I’m going to be rude to you!), creating a spiral of incivility. In such a spiral, retaliation occurs between two organizational members, increasing in intensity and eventually escalating from minor deviant acts of incivility to overtly hostile acts such as verbal aggression and even violence. As such, minor breaches in etiquette could quickly grow out of hand.
Uncivil behaviors at work -- put-downs, sarcasm and other condescending comments -- tend to have a contagious effect, according to a new study by a management professor at the University of Arkansas and several colleagues. Uncivil behaviors are less serious than openly hostile behavior such as bullying, harassment and threats, but uncivil behaviors are also more frequent in the workplace and have a significant effect on employees, the study found.
"And it's probably costing companies a lot more money," said Chris Rosen, professor of management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. "Estimates are that workplace incivility has doubled over the past two decades and on average costs companies about $14,000 per employee annually because of loss of production and work time."
"Basically, incivility begets incivility," said Rosen. "And our findings verify that these contagion effects occur within very short, even daily cycles."
Many managers would say that incivility is wrong, but not all recognize that it has tangible costs. Targets of incivility often punish their offenders and the organization, although most hide or bury their feelings and don’t necessarily think of their actions as revenge. Through a poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, we learned just how people’s reactions play out. Among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:
Rudeness at work is contagious, says a study by three psychologists at Lund University in Sweden. They surveyed nearly 6,000 people on the social climate in the workplace. Their studies show that being subjected to rudeness is a major reason for dissatisfaction at work and that unpleasant behaviour spreads if nothing is done about it.
Russell Johnson, an associate professor of management at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, explains the subtlety of incivility, noting that it “does not involve openly hostile behavior, threats, or sabotage. As such, incivility is more benign and does not warrant the same legal attention or formal sanctions as other forms of mistreatment. Yet, it is a relatively frequent, low-intensity negative behavior that has a substantial impact on employees”.
It could be as simple as a sarcastic reply to a co-worker’s comment during a meeting. Or a rude sentence in a poorly thought-out e-mail. Johnson believes our increasing dependence on e-mail contributes to the rise in incivility. “I think our communication is less direct,” he said. “A lot of our communication is done over phone or e-mail. It’s hard to understand the intent of an e-mail without any additional language or social or facial cues to go along with it. That creates more ambiguity. And it makes it easier to be uncivil when you’re not face-to-face with someone.”
And one of the big problems is that incivility is sneaky. It’s not in-your-face, like harassment or bullying. Johnson’s study notes that “because incivility (a) reflects a mild form of mistreatment that is likely to go unpunished, (b) is not limited to interactions with those in authority positions, and (c) is easily denied and therefore excused, it occurs more frequently than other forms of mistreatment and, thus, has the potential to create a noxious social environment.”
The Emotional Toll on Family Life
This comes into particular focus with a new study in the Journal of Management. A research team lead by Sandy Lim from the National University of Singapore finds that when people have hostile experiences at work, they're more likely to be angry or withdrawn when they get home. Lim and her colleagues had 56 participants — averaging 39 years old, 72 percent women — from a large public institution in Southeast Asia report their emotional states on an online survey in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Then, at night, their spouses would report on the way that they acted. This went on over two working weeks.
In what will be no surprise to anyone who's ever worked with a contemptuous maniac, when people had hostile work experiences — one example from the study is if a colleague "put you down or act[ed] condescending to you" — they were less pleasant to be around when at home. They would turn that anger outward, acting aggressively toward their partners, or inward, withdrawing from them. "Our findings show that the experience of incivility was positively related to feelings of hostility, which was in turn associated with increased angry family behaviors, as rated by spouses," Lim and her colleagues write. "This suggests that individual emotions do fluctuate on a day-to-day basis in response to incivility at work, and these emotional responses can have consequences even in the home environment." The research reinforces the link between between how being in a hostile environment at work can lead to expressing hostility in the home. Earlier studies found that working in high-risk occupations — like policing — has an association with partner abuse, and that high workloads and time pressure lead to emotional exhaustion.
The Costs of Incivility in Organizations
According to research, workplace rudeness does not get the same amount of attention as workplace violence or harassment or even open conflict. However, rudeness on the job can cost a company millions of dollars annually. Rudeness can have a direct effect on employee productivity, morale, and absenteeism. There are four ways rudeness may affect employee productivity. Employees tend to:
What can we do?
It is clear that incivility—in its many forms—can be incredibly harmful to both individual employees and to their employing organizations. What, then, should be done to reduce incivility? Research investigating civility interventions is relatively new, but there are some recommendations that might be effective in building a respectful work environment. Perhaps one of the most important factors in maintaining a civil work environment is to have a strong example set by management. That is, managers should model civil behavior, helping create a culture of civility and respect. If managers frequently violate social norms for courtesy and respect, employees might take this as a cue that doing so is acceptable, and begin to be uncivil to each other. Managers should realize that they are always “on,” and should be especially careful when interacting with employees, whether these interactions are in-person or via email. By setting the tone for the organization, managers can help create a culture of civility and respect at all levels of the organization.
Aside from managers modeling behavior, organizations can also make sure that norms for courtesy and respect are evident to employees from the recruitment stage. Recruiters should have the “people skills” necessary to embody the civility norms of the organization and set the stage for these expectations. During the selection phase, employers can thoroughly check references for (among other things) indications of consistent past rude behavior, as well as select on personality traits that might be related to civil, respectful behavior (such as conscientiousness and agreeableness). Upon employees entering an organization, onboarding programs can make civility expectations clear, and issues related to interpersonal behavior can be discussed. Emphasizing that employees should never be too busy to be nice should be a priority, and this should be reiterated throughout the course of an employee’s career.
Overall, organizational leadership should take whatever steps they can to maintain a civil climate, keeping in mind that promoting civility can both reduce negative employee outcomes and increase organizational effectiveness. Maintaining a civil work environment is not necessarily easy, particularly due to the fast-paced, often interpersonally disconnected work environment, where communication is quick and emails are may be sent without a thought. However, previous research indicates that it can be done, and making efforts toward promoting civility will certainly pay off in the long-term.
Numerous organizations, including the United States government, have actively attempted to put in place measures to prevent incivility in the workforce. One measure that was initiated to reduce workplace incivility, was processing cases of sexual to be illegal, which is defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as being against the law in every state to harass any person during the employment or hiring process because of that person's gender. Harassment can include "sexual harassment", but is not limited to workplace bullying, cyberbullying, physical and verbal threats.] Although many would agree that sexual harassment is an issue that should be illegal, it has really been in the spotlight of the attention in the U.S. since 1964. Because of the legal ramifications from poor prior classification of sexual harassment cases in the past, its boundaries were more loosely interpreted and more people were subject to unwanted contact or attention. Since this the term has been redefined, people are greater protected from a legal perspective in their place of work, but must actively participate in preventing these issues by speaking up and/or reporting issues. The definition for these laws are still being written today, as more people are speaking out against the abuse.
The published research suggests that if organizations take a proactive role to eliminate incivility and rudeness, they can be successful. The people who work in an organization are influenced by the organization’s policies and procedures. Rewards, respect and recognition are key components to any rudeness and incivility management program. The organization must develop a zero-tolerance policy toward incivility and rudeness by creating and maintaining a culture that emphasizes respect among employees. How employees are compensated or rewarded is critical. Favoritism and the lack of a relationship between rewards and performance create mistrust and communicate the absence of concern. Research suggests that an attitude of “you don’t care and respect me” leads employees to respond accordingly.
Finally, there are several recommendations that organizations should follow in their efforts to develop and maintain a civil work environment:
However, in order to achieve the above, it is important that organizations set expectations for how the workplace will operate and what behaviors will be tolerated. These expectations must be defined and communicated and organizations need to make sure the employees have a shared concept of respect. It is also critical that employees are held accountable for any transgressions. Civility must be taught. The organization should teach civility through conflict resolution training, negotiation and training on dealing with different people, working in teams, stress management, active listening skills, and coaching. In other words, today’s company should listen carefully to what is going on around them and when incivility occurs, respond to it. That seems to be the final challenge since many instigators of rudeness are individuals in positions of power.
Another solution 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.
Finally, a renewed emphasis on civil behavior in our schools and homes will do much to address the growing cancer of incivility we are witnessing in our society.
What happens when civility, reason, and a commitment to the greater good are left by the wayside? Given enough time, signs of an internal breakdown begin to emerge. Although these signs may be gradual at first, the lack of containment of “bad” behavior guarantees its escalation. When uncivil behavior escalates far enough, trust, safety, and optimism begin to diminish. People lose trust in leaders, in government, in their own capacity to actually make a difference. There has never been a more important time to re-establish the requirement for citizenship in a democracy—civility.
To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.
Copyright, 2016 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.