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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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!


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.


Kanye West – Enfant Terrible, much?

September 15, 2009

Alas poor Kanye, we barely knew thee.

Like many, I’ve become desensitized by the blatant and constant bad behavior of celebrities. But, Kanye West may have taken the Moon Man statue for all-time boneheaded-ness at the VMA ceremony this past Sunday.

We’ve seen the aftermath of hotel room destruction and the punching of camera men. We’ve heard expletive filled tirades by models, actors, musicians and authors. We’ve heard of, and read, performance contract riders demanding everything from pure water melted from Nordic glaciers to M&Ms that must be served at precisely 52 degrees Fahrenheit.

But, Kanye’s on-stage antics were like watching someone club a baby koala to death. Taylor Swift was obviously shocked and surprised. The audience responded with catcalls and boos, and chants of “Taylor” every time that Kanye’s name was mentioned throughout the evening. Something tells me that when an entire auditorium filled with self-absorbed celebrities starts booing you for your behavior; you can say definitively that things are going badly.

Kanye’s incivility really can’t be tempered or rationalized. I think Mr. West is dealing with a lot of personal demons and probably a level of career exhaustion after 4 albums in 5 years, constant touring and the passing of his mother. All that said, as I’ll always maintain, incivility is inexcusable. Celebrities have always been amongst the least self-aware of our citizens. If Kanye was getting to the point where the pressures of his career and personal life were bearing down so heavily on him, he should have recognized the warning signs and taken some time off in Ibiza, or at least Myrtle Beach.

Without a doubt, the saving grace of the evening was Beyonce Knowles. Once again, an ugly event still provides an opportunity for an exercise of civility that can serve as a beacon and guide for us. I don’t put much stock in the histrionics of celebrities, and like most people I question the motives of many celebrities who “do the right thing” as a part of a press opportunity. Certainly Bob Geldof and Bono have shown how celebrities can do the right thing on an impressive and grand scale. I largely considered her to be in the group of celebrities well down the scale from the likes of George Harrison. It was certainly my failing in considering her to be such a lightweight.

Beyonce’s call to Taylor Swift to return to the stage and have her moment was as classy as Kanye’s actions were crass. Beyonce not only felt empowered to correct a wrong, she actually took steps to correct a wrong. At the end of this episode of rudeness and bad manners, the golden lining is that Beyonce showed 27 million viewers that the thing to do when things go wrong is make them right.


Be Nice – Get Free Stuff!

September 12, 2009

Getting back to the more mundane day-to-day of being civil, I think it is time to address the question of “what is in it for me”? Why be nice?

First, let me state clearly that I believe we should be civil for the sake of being civil, not for an expectation of  a reward or compensation. Being nice is an end unto itself, not a means. But, I have found time and time again that practicing overt civility in public yields tangible benefits as a side effect. And, I’m not just talking about going home at night and feeling good about myself.

I have had many occasions where my courtesy, kindness or attentiveness have resulted in the receipt of some form of recognition. I’ve called a maitre’d or head waiter over to my table to compliment the truly exemplary service of a staff member and received free desserts. I have told a friend and business owner that I have brought my project to them because I know the end product will be high quality, and I’ve received a discount (or happily, a bottle of good wine). Or, football tickets from friends who remember me saying something kind about their son or daughter.

But, one particular event sticks out in my memory as the pinnacle of my free-stuff-for-good-manners history.

I had the good fortune of attending a conference in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of years ago. The conference was great, and as it finished up I packed to head home. I totally failed to read my travel itinerary, and the chain of events that followed was entirely my fault. I showed up at the Zurich airport at 9:00 a.m. for my flight back to the United States, and jumped into the mass of people that passes for a check-in line in Europe. When I reached the desk, the agent looked at me with disdain and informed me that I had missed my flight. I was shocked, but upon reading my itinerary I realized that my travel office has booked a connecting flight. I always took direct flights home when I worked in Europe, so I didn’t even bother to check to see if I had a first and second flight.

I sulked my way over to the airline desk and stood in another line. I was really put off, even though it was my fault. Standing in the line, I realized that I needed to own my mistake. I really, really wanted to be ornery and mean. I wasn’t a happy camper. But, when I stepped up to speak to the agent, I explained that I completely screwed up and I understood if it might take me an extra day to get home. The young lady shook her head and said it would be very difficult to help me. As I was speaking to her, a really aggressive gentleman pushed his way past me and demanded to know where he was supposed to check in. Over the course of the next half hour, the agent worked on my situation but was repeatedly interrupted by the same man coming to the counter and getting more and more agitated. Because he kept leaving the line, the airline actually closed out the flight before he checked in. And then the fireworks started. Eventually he was escorted from the ticket desk by security.

After the drama subsided, the ticket agent said to me “You know, I’m not really authorized to do this, but you have been so nice to me, and patient. And that other guy was such a jerk. I can get you on a connecting flight from here to Frankfort, Germany. When you get there, I have booked you in the First Class section on the second deck of the airplane.” I’ve traveled a lot, but I have never before or since gotten to ride in the top deck of a Lufthansa 747. And I have to tell you, it was awesome!

99% of the time, acting in a civil manner doesn’t result in anything other than a warm feeling. But, there is no denying that there are tangible benefits to being nice; whether it is a free extra shot of espresso or the use of a friend’s vacation home for a week of relaxing.

So, go out there and be nice – and get free stuff!


You Just Want Me to Conform

January 29, 2009

The biggest obstacle that we need to overcome is the perception, belief and expectation that being civil means following rules. While rules of etiquette and manners are nice; whether or not we use an oyster fork correctly has no bearing on the collapse of civility in the world. For many people, civility means conformity – but this is simply not the case.

I expect that someone will wish to disagree on the place setting point, reminding us that back in a time when oyster forks, dinner jackets, ascots, no pants for women and business casual meant a slightly loosened necktie; that things were much more civil. To clearly illuminate how distracting the idea that civility dressed up by manners and rules is; bear in mind that when all of these nostalgic throwbacks were considered the height of civility, racism, sexism, xenophobia, class-ism, colonialism and a great many other anti-civil “isms” were abundantly in practice.

Civility is not a book full of rules. Long gone are the times when we can hang our expectations on a virtually unreadable, and impracticable, set of dicta. Again, those who are nostalgically inclined will recall the quaint stories of George Washington translating and copying “110 Rules of Civility” from French to English.  While some may think that we can reclaim a civilized society by copying rules set down by Jesuit priests nearly 500 years ago – we are better served in seeking ways to identify a 21st century civility. Civility is not about rules; it is about ideals, beliefs and trust.

Civility, in the 21st century, begins with an understanding that every person’s life is valuable. Whether a person is occupying a mud-walled, two room house in Western Kenya, or a 20,000 square-foot mansion in Reston, Virginia; there is an equality of intrinsic value within both. At our very core, when stripped down of all we possess and all that defines us – we are abundantly, beautifully and wonderfully equal. Civility is no longer the courtly manners of the colonial power, exercised over a conquered people. Civility is an exercise and practice among individuals with value to offer to each other.

While there are books and writings on appropriate manners and behavior, they serve as a guideline only. Adopting or adapting the correct civil behavior in a formal setting is window dressing only, and does not address the foundations of what we need to adjust within ourselves to bring civility, as a practice, into this new century.