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.

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The Core of Incivility

February 1, 2009

So – what is it that is at the very root of incivility?

I have a personal theory connecting the 50 year decline of civility with two key macro-events of the 20th century. I will write more on that observation soon, but for the moment I want to focus on what is at the very core of incivility – not the contributing causes to a worldwide decline, but the very essence at the individual person level.

It is often said that the most painful image for us to look at is our own reflection. I’m expecting that a discussion about the root cause of incivility is going to invoke that same kind of awkward feeling that we’d rather not expose ourselves to. The root cause of incivility is us.

I’m not trying to be cute or trite with this statement. I’m not co-opting Pogo and simply stating that “we have met the enemy and he is us”, and expecting anyone to walk away from this post with something they can actually use. There is more to this “us” than meets the eye.

Over the last 50 years, primarily through the actions of two distinctly different generations – the world, particularly the American world, has become “I” centric. Not only has our society become “I” centric, it is a cultural shift that has been demanded, endorsed, expected, promoted and advertised by countless means through the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations. The Baby Boomer produced a cultural tsunami where all things were acceptable, all experiences were achievable and it was all about the individual gaining unfettered personal, spiritual, political and corporeal freedom. Gen Xers took this individual freedom into the realm of consumerist expression – there are no experiences or achievements, successes or trappings that can’t be bought, bartered, earned or …well, stolen.

And I want it all. George Carlin’s masterpiece of comedy, “Stuff”, was a brilliant illumination of how “I” centric our world is.

A veritable black hole for civility

A veritable black hole for civility

So what? There is no “I” in team -who cares?

“I” is the destroyer of civility. Civility is practiced when “i” is in small case, and “YOU” is in large case. Incivility is nothing more than the physical manifestation of “my needs are more important than your needs”. Think about the person cutting you off in the morning on your driving commute to work. This person (and I’m sure it is you on some days) truly believes that their need to be somewhere is more important than your need to be somewhere, or even to be safe. To continue the traffic example, what is it that causes you to take a moment to let someone cut in before you in a traffic jam? Is it not just a brief moment where you say “what difference does one more car make, we will all get there at the same time, let me let this person in”. In an instant, you have just subordinated your needs to the person that you offered the courtesy to. And that is civility.

To further argue that the core of incivility has been the rampant rise of the “I” centric world, let me leave today’s writing with a thought experiment for you.

Imagine what your behaviors would be like if you found yourself invited to a reception with heads of state, superstar athletes and your personal heroes. You, my friend, are the lowest person on the social totem pole in this room. As far as you know, no one cares what you have to say. You have no advantage of wealth, power or position in this setting. Your “I” has no value at this party. How would you act? Many of us have been in similar situations, and we find ourselves in awe of our fellow party goers. We are overly courteous and overly kind. We use “yes sir” and “no ma’am” as our responses. We go out of our way to make our best impression on people, and we are grateful for the opportunity. Now, carry this thought experiment a bit further. What if everyone is absolutely thrilled you are there? Presidents and Prime Ministers ask about your ideas. Power brokers ask after the health of your family. Grammy award winners are interested in what you think about their music. As they focus not on the “I”, but on the “you”, and you have focused on the “you” and not the “I” – the benefit and reward, and the recognition of everyone’s intrinsic value results in a truly wonderful event.

So, you acted this way at the last party you attended, right? You focused on others, and not yourself. You asked after others instead of talking about your achievements, portfolio and wonderful kids who do nothing wrong, right? You were a model of civility because you focused on the “you” and not the “I”, right?

We are less civil, because we are “I”.