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Is Civility Dead in America?

We seem to be living in a more and more uncivil society. We don't have to.

Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing/Wikimedia Commons by Threeboy
Source: Jay & Trey Cartoon Swearing/Wikimedia Commons by Threeboy

Sadly, we seem to be living in an increasingly uncivil community. From presidential politics to random internet comments, there seems to be more and more rude, demeaning, insulting, and aggressive language and behavior in our society.

Research on the topic of incivility has found that mental and physical health, worker productivity and employee retention, customer relations, and so forth all greatly suffer when work and social environments are uncivil. And there is social contagion with incivility in that if uncivil behavior occurs and is not confronted by corrective feedback or consequences, it tends to be more readily repeated and spreads to others. Additionally, observational learning theory suggests that when leaders and those held in high esteem in our culture behave in uncivil ways their behavior is modeled and repeated by others. For example, when celebrity CEOs, Presidential candidates and other high ranking politicians, sports stars, and Hollywood celebrities behave in uncivil ways (and get away with it) it gets modeled and thus repeated by others.

Civility is defined as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior” (Merriam-Webster). Other definitions include “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process” (Spath and Dahke, Institute for Civility in Government). Even President George Washington in his publication, Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, offered an instruction that included “every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.”

Helpful operational definitions of civil behaviors that we may wish to encourage, embrace, and reinforce include:

  • Thinking before speaking
  • Focus on facts rather than beliefs and opinions
  • Focus on the 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

Forms of uncivil behavior that should be avoided include the following:

  • Interrupting and talking over others who have the floor
  • Insults as well as overgeneralized and dispositional character criticisms and attributions
  • Use of aggressive, sarcastic, or demeaning language and tone
  • Refusal to acknowledge the good points of others
used with permission from TEDxSantaClaraUniversity
Source: used with permission from TEDxSantaClaraUniversity

We can all do our part to treat others as we wish to be treated and to be respectful and compassionate to everyone (even those with whom we disagree). While there are no simple answers, if we can work together to create a culture and environment where all (and I really do mean all) interactions (in person and online) are conducted with respect and compassion and that people who don’t behave in a civil manner are provided with corrective feedback, perhaps we can start to turn the tide in our increasingly uncivil culture.

So, what do you think?

For further reading consider the following:

Eisenhardt, K. M., Kahwajy, J. L., Bourgeois, L. J. (1997, July-August). How management teams can have a good fight. Harvard Business Review, 1-8.

Plante, T.G. (2004). Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Washington, G. (2007). Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. BN Pub.

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Copyright 2016, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP