Surprise doesn’t quite describe the feeling I got when I said to the barista, “it seems like you are having a hard day, I’m so sorry”, and she said “That is none of your business”. In dismay, I realized that she had just made it my business. According to Christine Porath at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, in her book, Mastering Civility, “incivility is prevalent globally and has increased in the last two decades.” This is not new news, but it’s also not good news. It’s true that we all have bad days, say something to someone we need to apologize for (including the little voice in our head that tells us something uncivil about ourselves) or wish we could put some words back in before they spill out, but if you are anything like me, you would love an extra dose of civility on occasion. The term civility — from the dictionary — says… civility |səˈvilədē| noun (plural civilities) formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech
Even though etiquette (especially formal etiquette) can be perceived as outdated, and our cultural norms have relaxed, we all know what it feels like to have be sitting at a business luncheon and have one of our colleagues yell at the waiter or waitress. It’s uncomfortable at best, and can trigger our own anger and incivility, and we wish the bright “out of control” flashing sign on their forehead would just go away. In a world where we aren’t sure what politeness looks like, let alone formal politeness, I think it’s helpful to again quote Porath: Many people think of rudeness as a self-contained experience, limited to one person or interaction. In truth incivility is a virus that spreads, making the lives of everyone exposed to it more difficult (Mastering Civility, p 39)
Between technology, a shattered world, and the daily stress of life, we have become most uncivil, and it’s our awareness of this reality that can act as a wakeup call to our own manners. Instead of policing others, maybe it’s time to talk to ourselves and listen to how we sound. The goal is to respond more positively, with more respect, more courtesy and more kindness, but how? In 1883, the standard for civility was set by Walter R. Houghton in his book, American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness and he says this civil conversation: Do not lose your temper in society. Avoid all coarseness and undue familiarity in addressing others. Never attack the character of others in their absence, avoid all cant…never give officious advice, and especially avoid contradictions and interruptions.
Though Houghton’s words may seem “so 1800s”, how much kinder would our world be if just our online and in-person manners were responsive instead of reactive. What if we were able to be more civil because we had some tools to help us. Recently I watched an interview with Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, on MarieForleo.com, on marriage and communication and her take on relationships: Being able to talk to another human being without pissing them off; connecting so that you feel safe with that person and they feel safe with you. That’s the desire of the human heart.
And she points out “negative relationships don’t just damage our own health and productivity, they have a huge long-term impact on society”. Civility in the workplace faces its own problems because “social media has opened the door for just to know people’s intimate views on things that are not work-related, says Joey Kolasinky, SHRM-SCP, HR manager at Encore Electric Inc., in Denver. But as June D. Bell points out (from the same article in HR Magazine, September/October 2018) “in today’s hyperconnected culture, an online comment or photo can spread like wildfire from one co-worder to another and then to multitudes of strangers” And, if we think we can just be neutral or blasé about our responses in person or online, here is what Porath says: Civility in the fullest sense requires something more: positive gestures of respect, dignity, courtesy, or kindness that lift people up…[y]ou either hold someone down through your actions or lift them up. Not holding someone down isn’t the same as lifting them up. Not sidelining them isn’t the same as encouraging their best self to shine forth. (Mastering Civility p 27)
For a more up-to-date guide on civility in 2018, I recommend Eric Brown’s The Reformation of Internet Manners which applies to personal etiquette as well. His Good Internet Manners Chart is available for download for FREE at the end of the piece. I printed it out to remind me about “following and being followed online”, and many more topics listed in his Guide. As I flew into Dallas a few weeks ago, I was struck by the first “yes ma’am” I had received in over a week. The tone was kind, the sentiment one of help (even if it was just to confirm I wanted a salad), and the simple courtesy of a kind yes was in stark contrast to the barista in Reno. Maybe it was too formal, but maybe it wasn’t. As an aside, here is one the best responses to incivility from activist Mavis Leno: If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally, because it is personal.
Leno continues: We all know how to take it personally. In fact when we witness cruelty, it’s human nature to take it personally. If we choose not to get involved or pretend it’s not happening, we’re going against the very sense of connection that makes us human. The good news is that you have the choice to be civil, to say “this is who I am” and I choose to observe, interpret and apply my own civility and manners to any situation.
In the spirit of gratitude, click here for a free download on holiday etiquette, and for now, I’ll leave you with one more quote from Houghton that could have been written yesterday: The importance of being polite cannot be overstated. Of all social acquirements of the present day, it stands first…true politeness is not a garment that can be put on and off at pleasure. It is habit pursued consistently until it has grown into nature and become abiding.