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Why Civility Needs to Make a Comeback

“I’ve seen better-organized food fights at summer camp,” Republican strategist Michael Steel said in The New York Times about the September 29 Presidential debate. The debate clearly demonstrated why 75% of respondents in the annual “Civility in America” nationwide survey said civility in America has reached crisis levels. 

The word “civility” derived from a Latin word that originated around 500 BCE when the Romans – who emphasized civil virtue, honest debate, civility in the streets, and treating adversaries with respect – founded their republic. 

That philosophy changed over time and the Roman empire eventually collapsed, which might be a forewarning for us. Indeed, Os Guinness, author of The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in the U.S. if it is to survive as a democracy: “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.” 

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that our society wasn’t really all that civil to begin with. Things like slavery, the forced migration of indigenous people, Jim Crow laws, and Japanese internment camps prevent us from claiming that it was. The reason people tend to think the past was better than the present is because we directly feel what’s happening to us now, and we don’t feel what happened to others long ago. 

There’s not much we can do about our history; however, we can do something about our workplaces and ourselves. Let’s talk about why incivility is so bad before we talk about what to do about it.

In The New York Times article “Incivility Can Have Costs Beyond Hurt Feelings,” Richard Boyd, associate professor of government at Georgetown University, said this: “To fail to be civil to someone — to treat them harshly, rudely or condescendingly — is not only to be guilty of bad manners…It also, and more ominously, signals a disdain or contempt for them as moral beings. Treating someone rudely, brusquely or condescendingly says loudly and clearly that you do not regard them as your equal.”

Being treated this way can literally be painful. In her article “The Good Old Days Were Awful,” Dr. Loretta Breuning explains, “Pain was a big part of daily life in the past due to hunger, injury, disease and violence. Today’s life holds less physical pain, so social pain gets your attention. If a social snub in the cafeteria is the worst pain you suffer, then to your brain it is a survival threat of the first order. We process social pain with systems that evolved to process survival threats…”

In their article “The Price of Incivility” in the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson say when employees felt they were treated uncivilly, they intentionally decreased their work effort, quality of work, and time spent at work. Additionally, they lost time at work worrying about the incident and avoiding the offender. As a result, their performance and commitment to the organization declined and many left their job because of uncivil treatment. That behavior obviously is costly to everyone involved.

To prevent workplace incivility, Porath and Pearson suggest employers model good behavior, ask for feedback, pay attention to their progress, hire for civility, teach civility, create group norms, reward good behavior, penalize bad behavior, and conduct exit interviews.

If you’re not an employer, you can still do the first three items on that list. Try to be civil (instead of rude, brusque, and condescending), watch how others respond to you and, if people are civil back to you, you’re probably doing it right. 

Being civil is not that difficult, but it is critical to the wellbeing of our country and ourselves.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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