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!