Is civility dead?  I have been asking myself this question a lot lately?  Three recent incidents have led me to the suspicion that courtesy has all but died.

While entering a shopping mall I held the door open for a young woman pushing a baby stroller.  I was greeted with a snort and a demeaning comment “I can push the automatic door opener myself you know”.  While stopping my car at a crosswalk to let an elderly woman cross the road the driver behind me rudely hammered on his horn, and later, after the woman crossed, passed me on the outside and gave me the finger as a critique of my driving habits. While calling a local retailer to inquire about the status of a product the customer service representative’s tone was so dismissive that I decided to end the call prematurely rather than suffer through another minute of his rudeness.

I see the same behaviour in business too.  Several of my clients applying for advertised positions never receive an acknowledgement in response to their application.  When they call the recruiter to follow up via e-mail or voice mail message they never receive a reply.  I’ve had clients who have been through five and six interviews and never receive an update on the status of their candidacy.

When did it get so bad?

We have all come through the pandemic, for better or worse.  People have been cooped up for so long they can’t wait to get out.  Everyone seems in a hurry.  We are all in a mad rush to put the social isolation of the last year and a half behind us.

But is that the reason for this terseness, bitterness, acrimony and nastiness that seems to permeate so many of our daily interactions?

Truth is this predisposition to edginess has been going on for some time.  I used to read an online newspaper that covers municipal issues in my community.  The articles were often thought-provoking, and many readers would post comments which were usually well-reasoned and thoughtful.  I generally enjoyed reading them, and sometimes there was a spirited discourse between opposing viewpoints which produced a healthy debate.  Unfortunately, the level of debate this past year degenerated into snide comments, personal insults and back-biting.  Suffice to say I don’t bother reading this online paper anymore. 

I got off social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) a couple of years ago for much the same reason.  The level of rancour, insults and offensiveness reached alarming proportions.  If you don’t voice the appropriate level of political correctness, or subscribe to the prevailing political opinion, then it is easy to become the butt of ridicule and invective. 


Is Civility Dead?

Being aware of, respecting and taking time for others is a key aspect of civility (Photograph courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio at Pexels)

It’s bad in business too

Prior to leaving the corporate world back in 2015 I noticed that manners and decorum in the workplace had taken a sharp turn for the worse.  Office pleasantries like a “Good morning” were often lacking amongst my colleagues.  Words like “please” and “thank you” were the exception rather than the rule. Workplace language was often interspersed with profanity and expletives.  If you phoned someone and left a message it was rare that a response would be forthcoming soon.  Ditto e-mails.  Self-interest reigned supreme.

What’s the cause?

Ask a dozen people what is the cause for this lack of civility and you’ll probably get several different answers.  Some will blame the emergence of Millennials in the workplace.  Others attribute it to the pervasiveness of social media.  A few will allege that the advent of the smartphone has brought about a precipitous decline in courtesy and etiquette.

I have no unique insights or scientific data to confirm or negate any of these assessments.  However, I do believe that a major reason for the overall decline in manners is the heightened pace and demands of our work and personal lives.  People are in a rush, and they lack the time to express or display consideration.  Everyone is fixated on their schedule, their needs and their agenda.  No one is thinking about the effect their comments or behaviours have upon others, let alone as to whether their actions are impolite.

EDI really isn’t helping

Our current political, social and economic environments are suffused with talk about Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (“EDI”).  From factories to schools to cultural organizations everyone is engaged in various activities to promote EDI.  However, if this effort is so impactful, and its promotion is so beneficial, then why aren’t people behaving better?  Why isn’t courtesy and respect more widespread?  Why don’t we appreciate divergent viewpoints or opinions more readily?

The sad truth is that most EDI initiatives are nothing more than glib, superficial homilies dressed up in a 1960’s Coca-Cola commercial minus the jingle.  EDI is so suffused with issues of race, colour, sexual orientation, etc.  that it has failed to comprehend that true respect, diversity and inclusion is also about how we treat one another on a personal level.  Until people see the connection between their hostile behaviour and the negative reaction and hurt their actions cause personal interactions won’t improve.  

Striving for a new “normal”

If civility is to be restored to our work and home environments then some practical changes must occur.  Some of these speak to the way we react and how we hold ourselves accountable:

1) Under promise and over deliver.  I’m impressed with people who are realistic in what they claim they can do, and then exceed my expectations.  If you say you will do “x” by Thursday at 5:00 p.m. then having “x + y” completed by Wednesday morning is more than impressive.

2) Two little words spoken with ease.  A simple “please” and “thanks” still go a long way.  If you want better treatment then it is important to “walk the talk” and acknowledge it when you see it.

3) It’s not just about you.  Social media’s emphasis upon personal self-actualization has created an egocentric culture in which one’s self-interest takes precedence over the needs of others.  However, none of us are hermits, and we all live in communities.  Taking into consideration the needs and well-being of others is both respectful and considerate.

4) Disagree respectfully.  I think it was the 18th century French philosophe Voltaire who once said “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  You can disagree with someone but still acknowledge their right to their opinion.  Having a disagreement does not mean one has to be disagreeable.

5) Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  It isn’t just about your agenda.  Others have priorities, deadlines and challenges too.  Acknowledging this, and being prepared to compromise, are important in sustaining respectful relationships.

6) Playing the long game.  Meaningful relationships take a long time to foster and sustain, but they can be destroyed in a nanosecond.  If we all believed that each person we come in contact with could eventually become a valuable ally, colleague or friend then we would likely do whatever we could to preserve the essence of that interaction.  Sadly, we live in such a fast-paced environment, and come in contact with so many people, that many of us think we can easily afford to “blow off” a few people with offensive or dismissive responses.

7) Slow down.  Everyone is in such a hurry.  Truthfully, there is nothing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tik Tok that demands your immediate attention.  There is seldom anything important in life that it can’t wait for a few minutes.

A Final Thought…

In an increasingly collegial and connected workplace getting along with others is a key ingredient of success.  While technical skills are usually a key determinant in who gets hired or promoted advancement is heavily influenced by interpersonal skills, professionalism and manners.   Being polite won’t necessarily guarantee you a seat at the executive boardroom but you can be assured that exceedingly bad manners won’t keep you there very long either.