5 Things We Can Do to Promote Civility in Today's Society

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Can’t we all just get along?!

These were the famous words of Rodney King who implored a return to civility even after being savagely beaten by Los Angeles police during the 1992 LA Riots. While that petition was uttered decades ago, sadly it’s still an apt request.

The Recent Rise of Incivility

Given our current environment, many are lamenting the lack of civility in today’s society. A most prominent focus of this concern centers around politics. As I write this from the United States the lack of civility in political discourse has reached toxic levels.

Unfortunately, this is not something that pertains only to America. Whether it’s the wrestling of the Brexit vote or the increased debate about nationalism in countries around the world, people are claiming their positions and digging in.

Aside from the lightning rod of politics other topics (which are seemingly associated) are wearing down our civility and accelerating a societal divide. Entrenched positions tied to class, race, religion, gender, culture, and geography (i.e. urban/rural) to name a few are solidifying a new tribalism. An ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality is emerging.

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Why Loss of Civility is Happening Now

There are some root causes of how we got here. Today we live in a world of democratized communication. Meaning, anyone and everyone has the means to share their opinion whatever it may be through myriad technology. Lovers and haters have equal opportunity.

When messages that support one’s point of view are seen again and again, it contributes to the hardening of that position as supported by reinforcement theory. Whether grounded in fact or not, one can develop a strong conviction that his position is right and the other’s is wrong.

These smoldering embers are then ignited by a media apparatus that sadly profits off of division and conflict. Knowing that curiosity is piqued to see a good fight, the media doesn’t clamp down on the rhetoric. Instead, it uses its broadcasting power to amp it up and distribute it widely.

This then becomes a vicious and destructive downward spiral as now political heads (I dare not say leaders) and others in positions of authority jump into the fray. It becomes an anything-goes mentality with the assumed justification of righteousness because for sure the “other side” is worse.

Incivility is Causing Real Harm

If we could all just keep our heads about us and not let this poison seep into our everyday lives, we’d all be better for it. Unfortunately, it seems to be too late. Instances of friction within our workplaces and even within our families are becoming too common. The 2017 version of the annual Civility in America poll conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, found that uncivil behavior (in America) was on the rise with 75% of respondents stating they believed incivility had reached crisis levels.

Part of this perception is due to the evolved expectation that anything is fair game. Forget about the decency of manners and social etiquette. We are now contending with outright aggressive behavior like road rage, social media trolling, and bullying.

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The result of which is creating tangible harm. The results of one 2017 study examining the relationship between bullying and suicidal behavior in youth painted a clear and disturbing linkage. Of those who experienced cyberbullying, they were 11.5 times more likely to have suicidal ideations (i.e. tendencies), while individuals reporting verbal bullying were 8.4 times more likely.

Rudeness in the Workplace

Even in the confines of the workplace, one would hopefully assume that the norms of professionalism would prevail. Unfortunately, that is becoming less evident. As reported by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, workplace incivility is rampant and on the rise.

Workers are reporting more cases of being socially and professionally ostracized, undermined by colleagues and superiors, and publicly belittled or humiliated. Aside from this being a real morale killer, to the employers it also results in higher employee turnover, poor customer service, and ineffective collaboration. It seems being mean is bad for business.

I know this situation first hand. The main reason I decided to leave a previous employer was the overt hostility, bullying, and intimidation of management to the department’s workforce. The near-daily pummeling by management on the staff with the typical blame game left me both shocked and irate. The lines of ethics were well beyond crossed. My decision to leave came when the lines of legality were crossed too.

Organized Efforts to Bring Back Civility

Despite this gloomy picture, it’s reassuring to know there are small glimmers of hope out there. Emerging are organizations and thought leaders who are imploring a return to common decency, civility, and respectful exchange. This past summer the National Institute for Civil Discourse which focuses on calming political discord hosted a National Week of Conversation to put civility into practice. Since then it has championed an ongoing campaign to revive civility.

— Mahatma Gandhi

It may seem the mere utterance of Please Be Kind is barely a whisper compared to the incessant screaming of vitriolic debate. Some enlightened media organizations are deciding to focus on the positive and reaffirm how we are all interconnected and that it’s worth celebrating. The Civil Conversations Project as part of the contemplative program On Being dives into heartwarming stories of humanity that renew a faith that we can eventually come together again.

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Reflecting on Our Own Efforts to Extend Civility

So while we live in a world that sometimes looks ugly and feels hopeless, it’s important to remember that we do hold the power to affect change. It will require focusing in on what we as individuals can control. While the problems may be global, the solutions will be local.

It will be more than reinstituting good manners and extending common courtesy (even though that still goes a long way). It will be about getting back to our humanity and the understanding and the appreciation that we are all interconnected. Each of us, when in the right frame of mind, readily take comfort in our commonality and the bonds we share with one another.

Perhaps this has happened to you. You travel somewhere far from where you live or where you grew up. Serendipitously (or not) you meet someone from your town or birthplace. Immediately you celebrate your joint commonality and enjoy some impromptu camaraderie. While you swap stories and recollect familiar places you feel a connection with this complete stranger.

So what’s going on here? In this situation, you are out of your literal comfort zone and you’re clinging to a beacon of familiarity. Unlike any other day when you walk down the streets of your hometown the person you just met would remain a nameless faceless stranger. But today as you bond through familiarity, he’s a new friend. If you reflect on this, is it fair to recognize that friends are closer than we think?

The point here is that how we feel about others and our interactions with them has everything to do with our thinking which in turn affects our believing. It’s all a mirage. It takes discipline to examine objectively the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the ones we make up about others. Have the bravery to be objective and honest. And recognize that opinions and generalizations are not facts. The time is now for us to ease our agitated minds and embrace the comfort of our interconnectedness.

Five Things We Can Do to Practice Civility

Walk a mile in someone else's shoes.

How easy it is the throw stones especially when you are convinced of your own righteousness. Never do this because until you experience exactly what another is experiencing you will never know. Instead of professing moral superiority extend empathy and compassion. A person’s situation is their own and how they handle it is intertwined with circumstances and conditions beyond your vantage point. You don’t need to know the details to be kind and merciful. And remember there will be a day you will long for the same consideration.

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Disassociate from Your Negative Emotions.

In the discipline of Mindfulness, there is a concept that you are not your emotions. Instead, you are an objective observer of them. When you put this into practice it can feel empowering. If the emotions of hatred, anger, or frustration come over you, can you muster the discipline to stop and objectively acknowledge what’s going on? Yes, these feels are present within you but you do not have to own them.

Recognize the difference between calmly stating “I recognize that I’m feeling agitated.” versus exploding with “I am so furious!”. Now, I know at first this seems ridiculous. You’re in a fury for a reason! We’re all human and emotions can often take over in the heat of the moment. But the idea of honing this discipline over time allows for cultivating a baseline of emotional control despite the situational circumstances.

Debate with Fairness. Use a Pattern Interrupt.

If cable news were any indication one would assume rancorous debate was commonplace in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully in our private lives debates can be more level-headed and respectful. But there will be times when an opposing viewpoint seems so outrageous it demands a response. And likely a heated one. Some people can bite their tongues long enough to end the discussion with some grace but then fume afterward. An alternative approach is to engage calmly and use a pattern interrupt.

A pattern interrupt is a breaking of an individual’s habitual and sometimes unexamined thought or behavioral pattern. An example is an impassioned adherence to a position or opinion. This can be effective in the throws of a heated debate when our mind is ready for a fight. Oftentimes we are so married to our positions we instinctively dig our heels in without ever thoughtfully examining why we hold them.

When someone voluntarily relinquishes control and temporarily suspends an entrenched conviction, the course of a discussion can take an amazing and disarming turn. What would happen if your opponent spontaneously agreed with you?

By stepping towards agreement you catch someone off guard (hence the pattern interrupt) and the intensity immediately dissipates. By then inquiring about someone’s point of view (with sincere curiosity) the iron grip of defending a position loosens. It’s a wiser and more mature posture. While you may not find an ultimate resolution to your differences you help dial back the heated emotions of the exchange.

Demonstrate Acts of Kindness.

What if we turned our position of guard and retreat into one of expansion and giving through random acts of altruism? Extending goodwill with no expectation of return pays dividends by elevating your own mood. But also it has an exponential effect because kindness begets more kindness. It’s contagious as science has proven. When one observes or is subject to this moral elevation it prompts further altruistic behavior towards others. It can become an accelerating upward spiral.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of unexpected kindness and generosity? How did that make you feel in the moment and for the rest of the day? For me, I find my energy and outlook shift. I stop feeling so alone and start feeling a sense of connectedness with others. (I am part of a broader community that cares about one another!). I then wish to keep these good vibes going because someone else deserves to feel this way too. 😊

Be Optimistic.

This last point is about just deciding to look at the glass half full. It’s a choice. Sometimes a difficult one but it’s a commitment to believing that things can and will improve. Life is cyclical and collective animus is hard to sustain much like the energy of a ferocious hurricane. They both will eventually subside. We can each take it upon ourselves to be the contrarian in the group and choose to look on the bright side. Dark clouds eventually dissipate and sunny days will return.

A synonym of the word civil is humane. As is civility is an inherent part of our human condition. Right now we are exhausted carrying around pent up emotion that needs an overabundance of goodness to balance out. While it feels like a monumental challenge, we can each take steps to just do our part. When enough people take this same approach, the civility we all wish for will be ours once again.

Take Action!

“Watch” your emotions. For one day try to make a conscious effort to observe and identify the emotions that come upon you. They may range from joy to rage. Try to look upon them objectively and take note of them.

“In that meeting I was feeling very frustrated.”

If you feel inclined, jot down these instances and journal about them. Pretend you are observing them from a scientific vantage point. Hmm...that was interesting. I wonder why I was feeling that way? It can be very revealing and therapeutic to “get it out” and also identify patterns over time.

What are some recent demonstrations of kindness and civility you have either seen or exhibited in your recent day-to-day? And how did they make you feel? Let me know in the comments.