Birthdays Do Really Matter!

June 10, 2014

“If you wouldn’t post a birthday greeting on their page, you should de-friend them.” That was the advice I received from a friend recently. On my birthday, I realized the logic of that suggestion was actually backwards and may have accidentally learned how to appreciate the possibilities for civility in the realm of social media.

For several years I have made a rather big deal about the rise of incivility being directly correlated to the growth in social media related channels and technology. The cloak of anonymity is now almost regarded as an extension of First Amendment rights in the US. I still vigorously reject this notion. Free speech is rooted in the requirement of responsible speech. Going back to the very beginnings of the argument in favor of natural rights, John Locke never envisioned a world where we would exercise these natural rights with no regard for our responsibilities as citizens or a universe absence of consequences for those who would abuse, disuse or tread on those very same natural rights. And yet, here we are in a world where snark and public shaming, charges with no proof and acidic anonymous commentary and gossip are changing the very community fabric that depends on civility. 

But this past week I dealt with my own nonchalant attitude towards my social media “presence”. It all started a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine shared her philosophy on how to tidy up the messy world of Facebook friends. You know this world well. It is the place where people you barely knew in high school (“I am married to the guy who used to date your cousin who was in geometry class with your sister”) or even where someone you might have been tormented by in elementary now wants to be your “friend”. I have written before about how these connections give a false sense of community and an attitude of entitlement between the “friends” we reconnect with. I have personally experienced the pain of receiving advice, personal criticism, finger waving and outright insults from people I friended who maintain a perception of me that is fossilized somewhere back in the Early 8th Grade Pleistocene Era and does not take into account 30 more years of experiences with growth, loss, heartache, travels, education, embarrassments and victories. 

The philosophical approach to a better Facebook world is to eliminate “friends” that you wouldn’t send a birthday greeting to each year. As soon as I heard the theory though, it didn’t sit right with me. At some point, someone sent me that invite for a reason. Even with my cynical position on social media and civility, I struggled with the nagging suspicion that slipping out the Facebook back door on these synthetic relationships was still…wrong. Something as trivial as these ephemeral cyber friendships had gotten me to thinking about my part in striving for a more civil world – my own little actions – our little actions that are collectively the solution to civility. 

Last year I made it a point to “like” every person’s “happy birthday” comment on my Facebook wall. I wanted each one of them to know that I had seen it – that their well wishes had resulted in a return receipt. I felt good about that. I was taking time to acknowledge them, right? This year something dawned on me at the beginning of my 47th birthday. If civility is a measure of how we choose to respond and interact with others, what if I tried to respond personally to every individual birthday greeting? Not just with a “thanks” but instead with a comment or reference to something relevant to their lives, their Facebook updates, their families, their victories, their heartaches. What if I tried to show them that I was paying attention throughout the year? Here is the scary part – what if I started to interact like this and realized I hadn’t been paying attention? Awkward. 

I decided it must be attempted. What an incredible day! Not life changing or cathartic. But it was a day of actual community, on the digital medium I find to be such a contributor to today’s uncivilized personal behaviors. I found that investing a few moments to share an inside joke, a memory or a congratulations was returned with kindness and thanks. I realized that Facebook has surrounded me with friends and family with passions and purpose that I admire. Friends who organized motorcycle rallies to memorialize a family member who passed away. Friends who share the most amazing pictures and fundraising events for an incredible child with Williams Syndrome – a child with an amazing smile, whom I have never met but brightens my mood every time I see the newest picture of his great adventures. Friends suffering through depression, loss and illness seeking a shoulder or a listening ear. Friends sharing graduations and marriages and victories. And they took time to wish me a happy birthday. 

It took time and effort. Sometimes my response leapt onto the screen with little thought. Other times it took a few minutes to recall an event that would be relevant, timely and hopefully meaningful to my well wisher. And then there were those few where I realized that I had not been paying attention. And it bothered me. Someone took time from their day and I couldn’t respond with the type of genuine interest that I should have for them. I am sure that critics might scoff at the idea of taking the time to try and stay current with all those friends out there on social media. 

But maybe that is the lesson to learn on this birthday. That civility is a product of community, of friendship and of a true and abiding interest in others. These are fundamental truths whether your friend is over the fence or hedgerow next door or in Papua New Guinea. Whether they are reading an old fashioned pen and ink letter or your last posting about your new barbecue grill.

Maybe civility is as simple as telling someone that you appreciate that they think your birthday matters. 

Dinner and a Tweet

August 18, 2011

"Save the neck for me Clark!"

I’ve had a lot of readers ask that I continue to explore the issues of civility as it relates to technology. There seems to be a great deal of interest around the subject of civility and social networking, in particular. While I’ve covered cyber-bullying and the enabling of incivility by the anonymity provided by the internet, I hadn’t thought about the mechanics  of incivility in the social networking space until just recently.

I think the reason that I haven’t dug into social networking as a source of uncivil behaviors is because, like you, I enjoy using technologies like Facebook and LinkedIn. I like re-connecting with friends and colleagues that I haven’t seen for months, years or even decades. I enjoy it when I receive a request to connect to someone that I first met when I was 6 years old but haven’t seen since graduation day from high school. It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I’ve been forced to acknowledge the dark side to social networking; a messy underbelly that most of us react to by “de-friending” those in our circle of connections and acquaintances. And I’ve finally come to grips with what fuels that uglier side of reconnecting via the internet. It comes down to following a simple guideline your grandmother probably taught you.

Before I dive into that particular re-discovery, I think it is worthwhile to visit a component of this issue that I’ve written about before. It is really important that we accept and understand that social networking is not the same as having a relationship with someone. Connecting with someone on Facebook is not the same thing as a healthy and helpful friendship. It isn’t the distance or the digital nature of social networking that makes this so – people who are truly friends can certainly agree that social networking tools can be a useful communication channel. The difference is, true friends know that social networking isn’t the ONLY communication channel. In fact, true friends will certainly know that social networking is, at best, a sub-optimal communication channel.

The problem with social networking today is that we all fall into the trap of thinking that the short updates provided by a “friend” that we haven’t been in the same room with for 3, 7 or 20 years is a complete picture of everything that that person is, was and will be. I’ve said before that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of social networking, familiarity often breeds an attitude of entitlement.

Because I have watched you post updates, comments and photos for the past year – I feel entitled to share my observations, opinions and even my beliefs in the hopes of  “helping” you. Sometimes we invite this often unwanted feedback upon ourselves, by sharing too much information on our social networking pages. “Drunk dialing” has been replaced with “drunk updating” – and I can tell you for certain that receiving an update from an inebriated friend, co-worker or family member is never anything but an awkward experience. Well, maybe not always awkward – there are those moments in time when “drunk updating” can be pretty funny, but most times we’re laughing at you and not with you.

What I find most interesting about behaviors on Facebook and through other social networking outlets is the complete lack of regard for a simple rule that I’m certain you’ve heard, or may have even been taught to you by your parents or grandparents.

Quick, what are the three subjects you never discuss at the dinner table?

Sex – Religion – Politics

Think about the intimacy of a dinner with friends. A social occassion sharing dinner and conversation with people you haven’t seen for, let’s say 14 years. There you are enjoying the opportunity to reconnect, when your dinner partners launch into a lengthy monologue on why they think our current elected officials are awful. Or maybe you initiate a conversation about your ingrained hatred for a particular religious faith. Or even worse, you start up a discussion about your wild weekend in Cabo where you blacked out at least 4 times, lost your digital camera and you keep chasing down embarassing pictures posted on the internet of your “private moments”.

I’m guessing that in any of these instances, you’d pretty much determine that having dinner together again would not be happening. Ever.

When it comes to civil behaviors in America, particularly in reference to the use of technology, I feel compelled to emphasize a very important reminder. Freedom of speech is NOT the same as freedom from responsibility for what you say. Disparaging someone’s faith, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial situation, social standing, socio-economic theories, race, cultural background – are making these types of  inflammatory comments the kind of things that “friends” do to each other? If the entire premise of Facebook is to “friend” someone – why on earth would you use that networking channel to treat a “friend” so poorly? We tend to only register horror and concern about the power of social networking when the abuse of the technology by a bully or a group of bullies results in the suicidal death of a teenager. But the simple day-to-day interactions of appending comments to our friend’s updates in the social networking space have power over our lives and our self-image. An acidic comment by a “friend” to an update we’ve made or a picture we’ve posted can, and frequently does, ruin our entire day. Words have power. And those words stay on your Facebook page – they don’t just disappear on the wind (well, unless you delete them – but if you have to delete a comment it pretty much proves the point that your “friend’s” comment struck a nerve).

When participating in the social networking community, we would be wise to heed the words of author Chuck Palahniuk. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can hurt like hell.”

Or maybe my mother had the best advice on the subject of how to treat people in a civil manner. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Life Is Not a Zero Sum

May 3, 2011

There Can Be Only One!

I have taken some time off writing and speaking about civility, mainly to recover from my own experience of running for public office. I am firmly convinced that there is no better way to truly understand how the American political system actually operates than to run for elected office. I am equally convinced that there is no better way for a person to lose hope in their fellow citizens and to become a hardened cynic towards the degeneration of the American political system than to run for elected office. Fortunately, the lessons of the former condition have helped me to understand the underpinnings of civility in American society even better. The lessons of the latter condition were only temporary and were off-set by the sheer number of amazing people I met throughout the course of the 15 months I spent campaigning.

I have said, on numerous occasions, that I do not look to politicians or the American political process for working examples of civility. Politics is the dark side of the more civilized practice of statecraft. Statesmanship, diplomacy, peace-making; these are terms that illicit good feelings and high thoughts when we hear them. But when we hear the word “politics”, the most frequent responses we all share are those of revulsion, disgust, disappointment and irritation. Whether it is politics in the workplace, in our local community or on a national level, we place the practice of politics far beneath most of the least desirable traits and activities known to man.

Why is it that politics, which finds its origins in something as noble as statesmanship and diplomacy, is considered to be such an ugly and uncivil enterprise – particularly in the highly contentious and venomous atmosphere of the last 10 years in the United States? It was while running for a state level elected office that I believe I found the answer.

Politics in America, when it has been exercised most effectively, has gravitated toward the more “noble” end of the scale. By that, I mean that effective politics results when it is most like diplomacy, consensus building and compromise. Think about your initial gut reaction to that last word – compromise. How you feel about compromise has a large part to play in what I’ve learned about civility in politics; a point I’ll revisit towards the end of this posting.

If we think about the current political atmosphere in the United States, what terms come to mind?




Today, politics is most certainly pegged to the “worse than the practice and people that scam senior citizens” end of the spectrum.

When I ran for office, I was told on multiple occasions that my opinion or a position on a particular issue didn’t “fit” with that person’s expectations of the political party I was affiliated with. Time and again I was told “I like you and I think you’re the better candidate, but I can’t vote for you because you’re in the wrong party”. It was this constant exposure to the process in which people rationalized voting against their own personal desires, and even against their own interests, that brought me to an understanding of why politics in America is so uncivil today. Politicians and many Americans have convinced themselves that politics is a zero-sum game. The political discourse in the United States is based on one simple assumption that is being reinforced by the two primary political parties every single day in the media. Republicans and Democrats alike have usurped a line from a 1980’s movie and made it the guiding star of their political compasses – “There can be only one!”

In high school government classes around the nation, students are taught that we have a representative government. We’re told that our exceptional form of government has been a successful “experiment” (Thomas Jefferson’s own description) because of the strength of our democratic principles. And yet, we have witnessed a political devolution in America since the end of President Eisenhower’s administration. Win-at-all-costs are now demanded of everyone from Presidents to school board members. Our leaders talk endlessly about how great democracy is for every other country, but then systematically take every step possible to destroy their opposing party colleagues and invalidate their positions, beliefs and proposals. In America, politics has become a zero sum equation. There must be a winner and there must be a loser. There are no win-win scenarios in our nation – if you believe what our political leaders are saying. If one side wins, inevitably their win will result in the complete collapse of the United States as we know it – or so the opposition will state in a press conference immediately after a bill has been passed.

If someone must win and someone must lose, the opportunity for civility to manifest is greatly reduced. And let’s face it, in today’s political environment, the vast majority of our leaders don’t want the other side to lose – they want the other side’s position destroyed entirely. It is this environment that has resulted in the collapse of civility in our political discourse. It is this environment that has invalidated the necessity for the practice of “respecting the office” of our Congressmen and Congresswomen, of our Senators, of our County Commissioners and of our Commander in Chief.  In a world where the only outcome is that I must win and you must lose, civility’s days are certainly numbered.

The obvious flaw in this thinking is that it is simply not true. Life is not a zero sum game. Over our lifetimes, wins and loses are not balanced out in such a way that we have accomplished nothing on the eve of our final day on earth. Our gains do not ultimately equal our losses such that no value is generated.  Humanity has moved forward because of the great leaps and bounds taken when people come together to achieve more than the individual outputs of a single person. In America, it is not about “us” versus “them”. We are a nation founded, very explicitly, on “we”. During times of great cataclysm and catastrophe, “we” the people have shown that regardless of our thoughts, ideals or beliefs that life is win-win, not win-lose.

So, think about that word mentioned above; compromise. If your gut reaction to that word is that it is unacceptable or that it suggests weakness, maybe you’re part of that population that believes there is only one right answer, one clear path, one simple solution. If the idea of our elected officials compromising for a better outcome for everyone in our country is distasteful, then maybe you’ve bought into the belief that life is a zero sum game.

Me? I still believe in a win-win America.

The New (Un)Cool – Bullying As An Ugly Art Form

June 2, 2010
Time for Bullying to Stop

Photo Credit - Virginia Youth Violence Project

The media has been polluted with an abundance of teen and pre-teen bullying cases over the last few weeks. What is troubling is not the amount of bullying that makes the press these days, but the outrageous direction that bullying has taken and how little is being done about it.

Bullying is a terrible early manifestation of incivility that is all too frequently waved off by parents as “just a thing that kids do as they grow up”. I’ve always found it interesting that the parents that have a nonchalant attitude about bullying are rarely the parents of a child that is being bullied. I’m not sure whether that suggests that parents are simply not in tune to what their children are doing outside of the home or if it implies that parents may empathize with casual bullies because they were once bullies themselves. My apologies for such a pointed remark; bullying has touched my life personally and I admittedly have challenges remaining objective about the subject.

While this is strictly a personal observation, I think that the escalating culture of violence and irresponsible behaviors that have been broadcast through every media channel over the past 10 years or so has created an environment where children to young adults are encouraged to engage in ever more outrageous forms of bullying. As an adult, I find activities like mixed martial arts (MMA) or Ultimate Fighting to be entertaining. I find shows like “Jersey Shore” ridiculous, but like many viewers I find it hard to not watch. I see court jesters like Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera and Steve-O on “Jackass” and, like most folks, I shake my head in disbelief (and often laugh) at what a half dozen guys with a shopping cart and very little common sense can do to injure themselves and others.

The problem is our children view these shows and activities almost as an art form; albeit an ugly and twisted form of performance art. The more insane and over-the-top a behavior seems on television or on the internet, the more that our children want to emulate it. When a trained fighter like Georges St. Pierre uses a devastating choke hold on an equally trained opponent, teenage boys think “hey, I’ll try that on Billy”. Well, actually they don’t think – they just do.

When the cast of “Jackass” engages in the activity of “sack tapping” or “junk punching” (pardon the graphic descriptions – but we need to deal with the facts on this subject) on unsuspecting buddies who are asleep or unprepared for the sneak attack, our kids feel entitled to take this “game” to the same level of intensity in the school yard. On May 29th, the media reported on a 14 year old boy being hit so hard in the groin that he suffered from a ruptured testicle that needed to be removed. Bullying has moved from merely terrorizing others to attempting to inflict serious damage. Our kids are watching Snookie get punched directly in the face on “Jersey Shore” by a surly, drunk and very large dude while on a night out at the bar. What message is that sending to young minds – and not just in influencing bullies but in suggesting how men should interact with women that are supposedly bothering them?

I’m no puritan when it comes to violence on television and in film. The difference is that I am not influenced to model the behaviors that I see on television or in film. I don’t watch the latest James Bond film and think “Okay, I need go buy a Walther PPK and an Aston Martin and attempt to infiltrate the world’s largest weapons-for-drugs cartel – and I’ll shoot anyone that gets in my way.” But, I know that my own sons are as susceptible as all other children to seeing an activity on television and thinking “Okay, I’m going to go down the street to my buddy’s house, get on his roof and try to bounce off the trampoline and into the pool.”

There can be no tolerance in our society for the forcible tattooing (or better described, torturing) of a learning disabled child by a group of bullies. In this event, we see the very worst of outrageous behaviors coupled with a complete absence and abdication of personal responsibility. This terrifying example of bullying showcases the two distinct types of bullies that our children face every day; the psychopathic bully and the copy cat bully. The psychopathic bully is pre-disposed to being a bully for any number of mental health disorders or issues they may be struggling with. The copy-cat bully emulates the behaviors of bullies they know or that they themselves have been bullied by. As an example, one of the first boys to apologize in the tattooing case readily admitted to the New Hampshire media that he had been bullied by others in the past (although he appears to never have apologized directly to his victim or the victim’s parents).

As you think about talking with your own child about civil behaviors and bullying, I want you to stop for just a moment before that conversation begins and get this vision in your mind. Put yourself in the shoes of the young man who was tattooed. You are surrounded by people you thought were your friends. They invited you to hang out with them. Then they pinned you down to a bench. You are threatened repeatedly that you will be beaten or worse if you move or tell anyone. You are tattooed multiple times with crude equipment, feeling the bee sting-like pinches over and over for what seems like an eternity. No one is there for you.

Are you getting the picture on how these outrageous bullying events contribute to the acceleration of incivility in our society? Can you see how this single situation has damaged every child involved? Do we continue to leave these behaviors unchecked, only troubling ourselves to feign interest when bullying gets national attention because another teenage girl has been bullied mercilessly on the internet and committed suicide? Do we tolerate the continuation of these bullying behaviors by adults when they enter the workforce and belittle, assault and even kill co-workers?

There are now more resources than ever available to identify and combat bullying. Yet, the pervasive nature of media both as an input device to our children’s behaviors and an output channel (think of students putting video of their beatings of other students on YouTube) seems to be negating all of the solid research and mitigation methods being suggested to defeat this problem.

Civility begins with one person; us. Each one of us must take that step towards our children and frankly, towards the children around our children, to instill that most important defense against incivility; teaching our children that every single life has intrinsic value and that value must be respected. Nostalgia for the “old times” is rarely a helpful model for changing behaviors today. But I think that one dynamic from when we were children would go a long way to fixing the problems of bullying. Many of us remember the time when, if we did something wrong and a neighbor or family friend saw it, no matter how fast we ran – that news would beat us home. When the entire community cares about the health and behaviors of all of our children, it makes it much more difficult for entrenched behaviors like bullying to be programmed into our kids.

If we don’t take these steps now, it might be your child or my child, but it will definitely be someone’s child who is pinned to the ground and beaten, or sitting alone in a closet thinking about hanging themselves or living with the shameful regret of having hurt someone so badly that they will never be able to walk again.

Civility matters.


Stop Bullying Now!

Dealing with Bullying – Teen Health

PBS Kids – Bullying

Love Our Children

Personal Responsibility: The Engine that Drives Civility

February 22, 2010

Which one is the water glass again?

Like all subjects, when we commit ourselves to a course of study and thought, we realize new discoveries almost every single day. I’ve written about anonymity, technology, sportsmanship, political protocol and garden variety manners. Obviously it is easy to point out the incivilities within our personal relationships, communities and even amongst the nations of the world. But my purpose was never to be solely a social commentator. First and foremost, I want to find pathways and solutions to re-position civility as the framework of choice for our behaviors. An observer is interested, but a participant is committed. I don’t want to sit back and write about the obvious, I want to participate with you in finding a better way.

I haven’t focused a great deal of attention on the most obvious outward manifestation of civility; manners. Limiting the conversation about civility to manners is like to trying to understand the subject of mathematics by focusing only on subtraction and addition. But there are definitely lessons to be learned by considering what manners mean in the larger context of civility and incivility.
There is a unique characteristic about manners that few of us recognize. Which fork to use? What salutation to use when greeting someone? How soon after an event do you send a thank you note? Manners are not about how others are supposed to treat you. Manners are not a guide for others to follow when they interact with you. Manners are about me. Manners are about what I do. How I react. How I respond.

This is a terribly important truth. If manners are about how we are supposed to behave on an individual level, then when we complain about the decline and sometimes complete evaporation of manners in day-to-day life we are really pointing out the failure of personal responsibility; the failure of what I am supposed to do. We are saying that the people around us have walked away from their personal responsibility to monitor, manage and modify their own actions.  When people say that manners are not important, they are abdicating others and themselves of their personal responsibility for their own behavior.

Many readers might quickly suggest that the “golden rule” and the many variations of it expressed in several religions and philosophy must have been a guiding force in the development of each civilization’s rules for manners. But I am not so convinced. I am not ashamed, in the least, to say that I am an evangelical Christian, a follower of Christ – even when I know that many readers may immediately apply an unfair stereotype or expectation to who they think I am. The reason I bring my personal faith to this discussion is in the context of my conclusion that the “golden rule” is actually an inborn part of the human spirit, and not necessarily a guiding principle driven by religion; any religion.

I could point to the moment when Jesus Christ schooled the Pharisees and Sadducees on the greatest commandment and on the second ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ in Matthew 22:34-40 and say ‘see, Christianity is all about the golden rule’. Obviously the flaw in my statement is that the force of Christianity and even the words of the Bible have been used to justify two millennia of decidedly uncivil behaviors; from the absolute power of monarchy to slavery. Even though the texts of many of the major faiths have a variation of ‘love your neighbor’ not all of them do. And, whether Hebrew or Hindu or Buddhist, it is difficult to attribute all the good things in manners and interpersonal behaviors to faith without acknowledging all the bad things in manners and interpersonal behaviors done in the name of faith.

The driving force for manners, then, can’t be fully explained by religion. In fact, you can’t convincingly argue that manners are even guided by ‘do naught unto others”. Manners, when executed with pure intention, are more closely aligned to something not recorded in any text that I’ve found – “I will do the right thing regardless of what you do”.

Ultimately, maybe this is why we perceive there to be such a decline in manners. Maybe our collective cultural obsessions with consumerism, power, control, winning, dominating, subjugating or demanding that our opinion or belief is better than your opinion or belief has short-circuited our very nature; the inborn nature in all of us to sacrifice just a bit of our self-interest to honor the intrinsic value in another human being. Maybe we, as individuals, have decided that what we want has become so all important that sacrificing any of it is no longer worth our time or effort. Subduing our desires by conforming to some archaic rule about soup spoons is simply too much work. We can’t be bothered or troubled with even the simple manners of holding a door or saying thank you.

The next time you find yourself irritated or chagrined by another person’s lack of manners, take a second to remember that bringing manners back is about what I do. Regardless of what they do.

Terminating Civility – Rise of the ATM Machines

January 9, 2010

Bet that phone was a "must-have" in 1987

For a number of months, with so many other events to write about on the world scene, I have not fulfilled my promise to discuss the second pillar of incivility. Several readers have kept me honest by sending emails to remind me of this and I want to take the time to complete the picture of the three key components of incivility. Once we’ve identified the root causes, we have a higher probability of finding solutions together.

Initially, I identified the core of incivility. The rise of the “I” centric world has been a destroyer of community, of personal relationship and ultimately of civility. If we extend the pillar analogy to include the foundation laid by the “I” centric position, we’d call “I” the stylobate of our temple of incivility. The stylobate is the uppermost step of the base used by the Greeks to provide a level footing for their columns.

On top of this base, we’ve identified the first pillar – the setting of the intrinsic value of life to zero. Our desensitization to the effect of inhumanity reinforces this notion that the value of human life is a zero. And, many events of the last year have raised a personal concern for me that we may be careening into a repeat of many points in history where the value of human life is considered to be a negative integer. This possibility should really give all of us pause. Think of what it means when someone, some government, some regime decides that the value of a single life is a negative number. To put it in non-mathematical terms; can we recall times in history when a body of people has been seen to add greater value to society if they are eliminated from this world? The result of life being assigned a zero is bad enough; an assignment of a negative value to life leads to entire villages, ethnicities, tribes, cultures and religious communities being hunted down and eliminated.

The second macro event that has led to the rise of incivility has been the explosion of consumerism, beginning slightly before the turn of the 20th century. To read about the beginnings of consumerist behavior, as practiced by the nouvelle riche and first robber barons, I highly recommend “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt”. The book does a fantastic job of documenting the rise of a new breed of wealthy American; the self-made man. The explosion of wealth in this era led to a level consumption not entirely different from what we’ve seen in the 21st century. The successful man in the later 1800’s was defined by a massive home in Manhattan, a stable filled with prized racing horses, art from Europe lining his walls, a stunning wife turned out in the latest fashions and a penchant for playing the stock market as well as a card game or two.

The similarities to today’s consumer should not be discounted in the least; even if these gentlemen were buying carriages instead of Ferrari 458 Italia’s some 140 years ago. This time in American history was truly the beginning of an acquisition-oriented culture that eventually had Gordon Gekko as a poster child. Little did we know that a 1980’s fictional film and its villain would pale in comparison to the type of consumerist anti-heroes we’d see in Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff and Ramalinga Raju.

As I say so frequently in these postings, it is a very easy thing for us to look at these “bad guys” and wag a finger of shame. It is a much more difficult proposition to look at ourselves and see the same consumption-in-mass-quantities behaviors. But we have been a nation living on borrowed time and money. We have financed every conceivable trapping of excess with our home equity, our credit cards, revolving credit lines and unsecured loans. In the last 25 years, the need to have MORE has far surpassed the need to have enough.  We stopped listening to our grandparents, who survived an economic disaster exponentially greater than the one we find ourselves mired in today. We forgot the lessons of history, where rampant speculation led to short-term material happiness but longer term financial misery over and over again.

Consumerism is a torpedo in the hull of civility. Now, don’t misinterpret what I am suggesting here. I love capitalism. I am just as guilty of riding the more-more-more wave. Seriously, when did I determine our family needed an Xbox 360, PS3 and a Wii? The problem that rabid consumerism creates is the belief that, much like a shark needs to keep swimming to survive; we must keep buying to live. And not just buying, but possessing. We must have the “it” Christmas present of the year. We have to have the latest super-star endorsed basketball shoes for our 3 year old. We need a faster boat, a faster car, a bigger house. How is it that our parents and grandparents were perfectly happy in an 1100 square foot ranch with a carport, but some couple just bought that ranch and sheared the roof off, added 4 more floors and a heli-pad on top – because it is in the “new” up and coming neighborhood?

People are dying in order to buy what they want. While it seems so absurd as to be impossible, people have gotten in to full blown fights and stores have dissolved into anarchist riots over $149.00 flat screen television sets. Guns have been drawn over dolls, toy hamsters, shoes and video games. Store employees have been trampled to death on Black Friday and consumers haven’t even stopped to wipe the blood from their sneakers – let alone try and help.  Consumerism is simply the fiscal manifestation of the phenomenon I’ve already described; “I” versus “you”.

Beyond the impact to civility, the consequences of people buying and consuming multiple times more processed foods, manufactured vehicles and square feet than our very recent ancestors are nearly incalculable in terms of damage to our environment, communities and our fellow man.

I know someone is rolling their eyes right now. “Blah, blah, blah – people dying over basketball shoes, who cares? It doesn’t have anything to do with civility.” Stop rolling them, and consider conflict diamonds. The rampant increase in demand for diamonds directly contributed to the development of the illicit diamond trade in Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Billions of dollars in diamonds were mined in forced labor camps, populated by enslaved children as well as enslaved adults. Around the world, men and women are wearing diamonds that were basically pulled from the graves of more than 500,000 dead men, women and children. These people weren’t in those graves yet, but they were digging their own every single day. If the opposite of civility is inhumanity, you don’t need a jeweler’s loupe to see the incivility inside that rock.

The economic downturn is, thankfully, causing many people around this country and the world to assess what is truly important and necessary. We are learning the lessons of our grandparents, because we refused to learn from their experience. We have fulfilled George Santayana’s prophecy – we ignored history and now we must repeat it. As we have started buying locally, we remember that small business owners are our friends and neighbors. As we clear out closets, garages and attics and give away clothing, toys and furniture; we remember that we can make a difference in the lives of others in a very material way. As we remind our children that saving to buy something means so much more than buying it on credit. As we look at our home and say “it is a good house” instead of “lets add another 2200 square feet”. As we recognize that enough is not a bad thing, we are abandoning a pillar of incivility.

But, will we remember long enough to keep our desire for the next big Christmas fad from inspiring us to elbow another shopper in the face at 5:00 a.m. in the doorbusting-deals morning?

When Did Business Casual Become “What Not To Wear”?

October 22, 2009
What NOT to wear to the company Christmas party!

What NOT to wear to the company Christmas party!

Civility in the work place is one of those subjects that most of us don’t put much thought towards. With all the rules, policies, guidelines, expectations and training, we usually are hypnotized into a false sense of comfort in our respective work environments. And yet, incivility in the work place is a real problem – with small incivilities stacking on top of each other until truly awkward or dangerous eruptions of uncivil behavior manifest.

Time and again, news stories snap us back into a reality that is much more dark and troubling than worrying about what the latest watercooler gossip is or guessing who is next to be let go. Just like in our schools, our courts and our Little League baseball diamond, there has been case after case of individuals walking into an office building or factory and opening fire on their co-workers; committing the ultimate act of incivility. I am certain that all of us have personally experienced the time-warp like transportation of the typical school yard bully, and their behaviors, to a corporate conference room filled with colleagues. We’ve witnessed behaviors in the workplace that range from petty insults to spit-slinging screaming matches. As with all other aspects of our society, the work place is just as vulnerable to uncivil, as well as inhumane, behaviors.

As I’ve stated many times in this blog, I am convinced that what we experience in the way of incivility in any environment isn’t an instantaneous phenomenon. Instead, incivilities that drive us to exasperation are iterative; small incivilities lead to larger incivilities and so on.

Which brings me to a business environment incivility that probably seems trivial to most people. While walking through the halls of a large corporation recently, I had to ask a colleague if it was “dress down” day. I’m not suggesting that I asked if it was “business casual day”, as the attire that I was seeing was several notches below casual. I saw everything from rumpled flannel shirts to day-glo fuschia thong tops peeking above a jeans waistline. I saw what has apparently become the official “bro” or “dude” uniform; flip flops with terribly worn jeans. This look gave me the distinct feeling that way too many middle-aged middle managers watch “The Big Lebowski” every weekend. There was certainly a “club” variation on the theme too, where the attire looked perfectly suited for an after party in the wee small hours of the morning. While dressy, the look came off as distinctly not the right kind of dressy.

So, I’m certain your wondering about what clothing has to do with civility. A lot more than we might care to admit. One of the key reasons for an increase in incivility has been explosion in the idea that we all know each other; I referred to this effect earlier in Familiarity Breeds Contempt for Civility. Many “old timers” lament the demise of professional attire in the workplace, without being able to articulate why. “It just looked better” or “I love neckties” aren’t really strong arguments to bring back the power suit and everything in your closet being a shade of navy blue.

When I dress like I’m raking leaves – and I am, in fact, holding a conference call with a key client, I’m setting myself up for a litany of uncivil behaviors from friends, colleagues and enemies. When we dress like we are going out dancing, or running off to the greasy burger joint down the road, or like we simply rolled out of bed and came to work we are exposing our personal selves to our professional colleagues. We are inviting people into our personal realm by dressing like we would if our friends (real friends) were coming over to watch the game, eat nachos and drink beer. Which serves as that jumping off point to being too familiar with each other. And, once we become familiar, we feel entitled to share opinions, glances, gestures, language and attitude that pushes the boundaries of civil behavior in the work place.

It isn’t that someone’s underwear hanging out of their pants is skanky. It is that someone’s underwear hanging out of their pants breeds a comfort level with that person that opens up a potential Pandora’s box of bad behavior – on both parties part. Okay, so I have to admit. It is skanky.

Clothing informs culture and behaviors. Before anyone gets overly concerned that bringing suits back to the workplace, or uniforms back to the shop floor will lead to a regimented and totalitarian dominated career experience – ask yourself if the “live and let live” business uncasual approach hasn’t caused the civility pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction. I’m not asking for the resurrection of gray flannel (although it would be nice to see men’s dress hats make a comeback). I’m just asking that the “dudes” hang up their flannel and low rider jeans for sensible khakis and an iron.

Civility is about boundaries. Fashion in the workplace is an important,albeit overlooked, component of civility because it helps to subliminally enforce barriers that make us understand that we are at work to …well, work. Not bowl, cut the lawn, do the nasty dance, hunt turkey, root on our favorite NASCAR driver, collect phone numbers or go water skiing.

Now, put on a belt, get a haircut and get to work!

Anonymity – Familiarity’s Ugly Cousin and the Bane of Civility

October 7, 2009
Is being invisible a good thing?

Is being invisible a good thing?

The availability of information, in both volume and speed, has been one of the key contributions made by technological innovation in fostering incivility. Familiarity, as the old saying goes, does breed contempt. But, the greater threat to civility and civil behaviors is most certainly the cloak and veil that technology now provides to each and every one of us in our dealings with each other.

It is a fascinating condition of the human race; that we embrace both the best and worst that a technology has to offer. While I will spend some time today writing about chat rooms, avatars and hate-speech camoflauged as political commentary – the tendency for humans to use and misuse an innovation applies to stone wheels just as much as it does to bits and bytes.

The lowly hammer; it is most commonly used to build things. Hammering nails and framing houses, or fixing the dog house are natural activities for this technological innovation that took us beyond pounding some form of a peg with a large rock. But, that same hammer on many occasions, has been wielded and brandished as a weapon. Pounding a nail or bashing a skull – humans seem to find the light and dark within every single implement. Guns, axes, dynamite, atom smashing, oxycontin; the list of innovations that we corrupt is as long as history itself.

Computer based technology is no different, but the consequences for civility are just as concerning. The darkest aspect of technology, even darker than our continuous exposure to on-line fraud and theft, is the lack of responsibility and accountability that the anonymity of a virtual personality provides. The disconnectedness of being constantly connected manifests in the tendency for human beings to say things in an internet chatroom or on a comment string associated with a news story that they would never, ever say in the presence of a real live human being.

I’ll use an example to highlight how frightening the veil of anonymity has become, and how easy it is to be uncivil in the virtual world. I could link this posting to hundreds, if not thousands, of comments to news stories. But, a recent story in my hometown is certainly as good as any to drive home the point. On September 23, 2009 the Columbus Dispatch reported on a local speech given by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood took issue with conservative talk show hosts, suggesting that their analysis and rhetoric (“trash talk”) had contributed to a decline in civility.

As I have written before, I don’t find that I learn much about civility by observing or researching politicians or political analysts. We live in an age where conservatives use inflammatory words and phrases but deny that they have any responsiblity for the potential consequences should things get out of control. And, in this same age, liberals are screaming for a more civil discourse and the complete elimination from memory of any of the bad behaviors and vitriolic rhetoric that they leveraged when they were in the minority.

I’m reminded of what Will Rogers had to say about the state of political behavior in the United States some 80 years ago – “I bet after seeing us, George Washington would sue us for calling him “father.””

What I would ask of you is that you read the comments to this news article, as many of the 1265 as you can stomach. Rather than addressing whether Mr. LaHood’s argument is defensible (are conservative talk show hosts contributing to a decline in civility), the comments immediately focus on demanding that the reader subscribe to one political ideology or another. Since I am in the mood for quotes today, the seething anger and vicious statements made by commentators on this news story recalls a point by Oscar Wilde “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

Hate, racism, rants, venom – all of these uncivil aspects of discourse, and more, manifest themselves in the comments to this news story. Many of the people on this comment thread could be your neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, your boss or your community leaders. Unfortunately, we can’t tell, because no one knows for sure who they are really are. In fact, one of them might be you. With names like “theTruth”, “Troll”, “Legal American” and “Master Yoda” not only are we denied the opportunity to know who is writing, the writer is given carte blanche to be as uncivil as they want to be. Read some of the most antagonistic postings in this thread, and then wonder on whether the person who wrote it would be inclined to say the same thing – verbatim – in church or at a PTA meeting. Would they be so bold to stand up in a meeting of Rotarians, a Chamber of Commerce or a school board meeting and share the same sentiments? Not only is the answer a resounding “no”, most of these writers would be personally embarassed to make such offensive comments in any public setting.

But, the internet changes everything. The upstanding citizen within our community that deems the anonymous “tagging” of a train box car with graffiti that points out any number of social ills in our inner city as a blight on society, sees no parallel to their own anonymous “tagging” of news stories and blog posts in the same light. The graffiti artist is a social misfit (as opposed to an artist), but an anonymous commentator spouting a hate filled response is not? The anonymity of the internet has created an environment where the absolute worst aspects of our human nature manifest themselves; stalking, pedophilia, bullying to the point of driving someone to suicide, revenge postings of nude photographs of former girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses.

If you were invisible, and could not be held responsible for what you say or do – what would you do with such power? Maybe you don’t need to think about an answer to this thought experiment. Maybe all you need to do is re-read some of the postings you have made in the vast anonymity of the internet. Maybe being invisible has made us much less civil.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt – For Civility

September 24, 2009
Cartoon Credit - Hubspot

Cartoon Credit - Hubspot

I have recently received a lot of requests to write about the effects that technology has had on civility and civil behaviors. Technology alone, or the innovation of new technologies, hasn’t had much of an impact on civility at all. But, the adoption of those technologies and how they are utilized has definitely contributed to incivility. As an example, the technological innovation that created the gun resulted in a device that could be used to feed and sustain my family through hunting, or fight a war. How a technology is used is the principle thing.  The way that we use technology today has resulted in a phenomenon that can lead directly to incivility and bad behaviors.

I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this point.

A couple of years ago, I created a Facebook account. My original purpose for doing so was to stay in contact with immediate as well as extended family members. Sharing photos and updating aunts and uncles on the latest accomplishments of our children was a low-effort activity through this social networking tool. But, then I started to get requests from friends and acquaintances. Who was I to turn down a request from a neighbor or a friend that I participated in community events with?

Then, the circle expanded. People started connecting to me that I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10, 15 or even 20 years. High school classmates and community theater colleagues, as well as their friends that I could barely remember. (Hi – I’m Billy’s 2nd cousin twice removed and we were at a party together once when we were 17 and I waved at you from across the yard. Friend me?)

Virtual communities and relationships have been in existence for a very long time. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are simply the next generation of social interaction enabled by a faster disassociated medium. There have been many technologies that have displaced face-to-face interaction. While ink and paper is an older form than electronic bulletin boards, email, chat and networking sites, even this medium is young when compared to other ancient methods of communicating without standing in front of each other. The virtual relationship is nearly as old as man. What is different is the speed of the technology, the information made available by that technology and most importantly, the false sense of community and relationship that the adoption of these new virtual forums has created.

The problem that technology utilization introduces, in relation to civility, is the problem of familiarity. Which brings me back to my personal Facebook experience.

Many of the folks that I connected to that were old school mates from 20+ years ago have lived an entire lifetime without any interaction between us. Our entire worldview, if it has not changed dramatically, has at least been influenced by 20 additional years of experience and age. Some of us have lost parents, children and spouses to accidents and illness. Some of us battled drug or alcohol addictions successfully. Many of us married, then divorced, then remarried. Some of us have blended families of hers, mine and ours when it comes to children. Some of us survived traumatic events and all of us have navigated a course through life that has resulted in the changing or modification of our core beliefs and values.

So, we post little tidbits of information and updates to our Facebook pages. Since we do not have the context of the prior 20 years to consider, our understanding of a person comes from these fragments of data that we synthesize into an assumption about each other.

Then, it happens. We believe that we are “familiar” with our old classmate. We think we know what they believe, how they feel and what is important to them because we have followed their Tweets for a year. Familiarity can be a dangerous thing. Because I believe that I know someone, I tend to act as if I am entitled to give them advice, comment on their situation or question their beliefs. When I become familiar, the taboo topics that Grandma and Grandpa told us were inappropriate for dinner conversation (sex, religion, politics) become fair game for discussion. This familiarity isn’t just limited to old friends. We develop this same sense of familiarity with celebrities, political candidates, religious leaders, bloggers, cult personalities from YouTube and a myriad number of other people. Because we have known them in a virtual world, we truly believe that we know them in the real world.

Familiarity breeds a sense of entitlement. When we feel entitled, we don’t feel bound by any constraints or limitations when we interact with each other. Without constraints or limits, we run the risk of being uncivil. If I make a rude comment about organized religion or personal faith to an old friend on Facebook, without the knowledge that religion or faith played an integral part in my friend’s personal journey and survival of the death of their child – I have applied a framework of virtual familiarity to a social interaction, with the result being a very uncivil behavior.

Technology enables a level of virtual interaction that is faster, is saturated with more information and can be cloaked in anonymity. Separately, none of these technological improvements foster incivility. But, when taken in a combination that allows a technology user to assume that the familiarity they have gained in a virtual realm is of equal weight and quality to a true relationship with someone; this is where incivility can, does and will continue to rear a very ugly head in our society.

Real relationships based on an unshakable respect for the value of each person in that relationship creates an environment where being uncivil is very difficult. Virtual relationships based on snippets of information that create a false sense of community with a person simply results in a roadway without the guard rails necessary for consistently civil behavior.

Disagreeable and Civil – What is Incivility?

September 21, 2009

Incivility is inexcusable.

This simple statement that serves as a guide for all of my thinking, writing and speaking on civility, elicits a large number of emotional and intellectual reactions. Sometimes these reactions are surprisingly negative.

Frequently, I am either asked or demanded to accept that incivility is excusable and justifiable when the situation warrants it. I have been told that civility “is not an absolute”. I have been told that I simply do not understand how complicated the world is, and that incivility is not only acceptable but it is to be expected. I have been told being uncivil was the reason for the successes of our colonies in fighting the British, fighting totalitarians, and combating communism.

And, and to all of these points I must respectfully disagree.

First, saying that incivility is inexcusable is not the same as saying that incivility is intolerable. We tolerate incivilities every single day. We even engage in incivilities ourselves, feeling either guilty or justified when we do so. But, tolerating incivility is different than excusing it. Communities and individuals alike will tolerate incivility to a point, and only when a threshold is reached will they act. Sometimes civilly, sometimes not. If we excuse incivility though, we support and endorse a society where civility has no meaning or place over the long term.

If we look back on the etymological roots of the word civility, we will remember that “people” are at the very core of the term. When civility has completely collapsed, we are placing ourselves against people. We are on the short and potentially bloody road to inhumanity.

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Second, if we serve as apologists for small incivilities we will be more prone to cover our eyes, ears and mouths when those incivilities grow. In a future post, I am going to dedicate time and effort to a post about Hitler’s strategies that eventually led to the establishment of the Third Reich. Suffice it to say for this article, Hitler’s tactics started with sending his followers to disrupt meetings and businesses using rude and incivil behavior – which eventually became more and more aggressive until it resulted in merchants, citizens and political opponents being openly beaten in the streets of Germany.

There is no sensationalism in this claim; if you inspect the footprints of tyrants in history, you will find that all of them started their climb to inhumanity by engaging in small incivilities, first.

Third, and finally, incivility and protest are not to be confused. Civility is the fundamental respect that we accord to each and every person, in order to have a functioning community. If I disagree with you, that is not uncivil. If I demand that you believe what I believe, that is uncivil. Demanding that you subscribe to my world view is not an exercise of that fundamental respect mentioned above. If I act rudely, but I ask for your forgiveness by way of an apology, I am not acting uncivilly. I am acknowledging the value I place on our community by abiding by the fundamental respect required to keep it functioning. If I act rudely, and continue to press this rudeness to the point of aggression, I am being uncivil. In fact, I am declaring that I am not interested in being a part of this community that we’ve agreed to respect each other in.

Protest against an unjust system is not incivility. When King George III determined that colonists were not entitled to representation, that they must provide natural resources to England but purchase manufactured goods only from the British and that they must provide housing and food for British soldiers against their will he was declaring that the bounds of civility did not extend from the British throne to the shores of America. The heaping of incivilities on the colonies, when stacked one on the other, moved the needle to injustice. Injustice can, and frequently has been, met with civil disobedience. In many cases though, injustice is met with violence and war.

Incivility is opposition to civility. Inhumanity is the absence of civility in its entirety. But, protest is the response to injustice, perceived or real. Being uncivil doesn’t lead to protest, it leads to inhumanity. The goal of protesting isn’t to be uncivil, it is to correct a perceived or real injustice. In many ways protest is about supporting civility, not condoning incivility.

The terms and concepts are certainly interrelated, but in the end, it all starts with respecting the intrinsic value in each and every person. It all starts with civility.