The bride and groom look lovingly at each other, savoring their special moment. Guests listen with quiet attention as the priest begins to read the wedding vows. And…is that the theme from Super Mario Bros. or just one of Samsung’s standard ringtones?
Not only did a guest’s cellphone ring in the middle of wedding vows, according to a post on the Facebook page of The New York Times weekly etiquette column “Social Q’s,” but the guilty party went ahead and answered it. This anecdote prompted a series of tut-tuts, jokes and OMGs from the page’s followers, including a comment from one woman who sheepishly admitted that her own phone had recently gone off, to her mortification, at a memorial service.
We can laugh, shake our heads and discreetly check to make sure our own phones are on vibrate—but the fact is, lack of civility has become a staple of modern life. In Civility in America VII: The State of Civility, an annual survey by the PR firm Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research, 75 percent of respondents agree that incivility has reached crisis levels in America. Whether at work, waiting in an airport security line, on social media or when dealing with neighbors, rudeness, bullying and obnoxious behavior are ever-present. And if you are an immigrant, woman or person of color, according to the report, you’ll probably get more than your share.
We can do something to turn the tide, however. With our discourse and behavior as a model, we can create ripples of kindness, compassion and civility that radiate outward to family, co-workers and the community to counteract the stress hormones from negative interactions that wreak havoc on happiness and health.
When we interact with others, we make a choice about how to comport ourselves. Will it be a neutral exchange, a microaggression of incivility or what psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., calls “positivity resonance,” a positive moment shared between two people.
In her book Love 2.0, Barbara, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, explains that these moments of positivity resonance can release the hormone oxytocin in the brain, and have the potential over time to change your life. “They forge new coalitions with strangers, advance your acquaintanceships into friendships and cultivate even deeper intimacy in your most cherished intimate relationships,” she writes.
Alternatively, if you approach these small moments with incivility or lack of empathy, you unleash anger, contempt and the hormone cortisol, which can lead to stress, social isolation and a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Looked at through this lens, civility is essential to our health.
The word civility comes from the Latin word civitas, or “good citizenship”—the set of rules and mores that binds together a community. According to Daniel Buccino, director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative, “much of our quality of life depends on the quality of our relationships at home and at work. Civility gives us the skills to be a good person, a good employee, a good family member. When civil discourse starts to break down, the sense of community can erode; people get more disconnected.” This kind of disconnect can happen anywhere, whether you are traveling, at home in your neighborhood or interacting online or at the workplace.
Sideline Work Stress
Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University and author of the book Mastering Civility, researches incivility at work and its costs in productivity and profitability. Uncivil behavior at work has become more pervasive in recent years, Christine says, due in part to the rise of digital technology. “Email is a huge issue. There are a lot of misunderstandings that can happen because you don’t have tone of voice or eye contact,” she says. On top of that, “people feeling like they are not being listened to because bosses and co-workers are looking at cellphones instead.”
But the main driver of rude behavior, says Christine, is not technology, it is stress. “When I ask people why they do it [behave in an uncivil manner], more than 60 percent say they are stressed or overwhelmed. When you are feeling that way, you are not going to be as mindful.” Many employees, says Christine, “feel belittled, undermined or disrespected by their bosses.” This in turn has a negative impact on productivity. In a 2016 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Michigan State University professor Russell Johnson, Ph.D., and colleagues found that those who experienced rude behavior at work felt depleted, and “this mental fatigue, in turn, led them to act uncivil to others.” In other words, incivility is contagious and costly. The same study found workplace incivility has doubled over the past two decades and cost companies “an average of $14,000 per employee due to loss of production and work time.” Companies lose out when workers expend an inordinate amount of time and energy processing and responding to these incivilities, while teamwork and collaboration suffer and turnover increases, Christine says.
While one-third of people surveyed in the Civility in America study say they have experienced uncivil behavior at work, 56 percent say they have experienced incivility on the road.
“Road rage is the classic example of how stress and anonymity are two of the main drivers of incivility,” says Daniel. “Everyone is locked in their own little car, everyone is stuck in traffic and can’t get anywhere.” And it’s not just rush-hour traffic that brings out the worst in us. Airplane behavior has become so bad that it is now fodder for viral videos and late-night punchlines.
Long security lines, delays, overbookings and anxiety about flying contribute to an overwhelming amount of stress, which then erupts into a shock of uncivil behavior. On one flight from Dallas to Montreal, according to a Live Happy business traveler, a man who needed overhead compartment space simply tossed other passengers’ luggage to the floor and dared anyone to defy him. On a flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco, Heather Puerzer’s tearful 5-year-old daughter had to sit by herself when a woman refused to switch one window seat for another so her mother could sit next to her. The layer of anonymity—knowing that we will not see these people again, or be held responsible for our actions—lends itself to a level of incivility you would not see in other situations.
Be a Good Neighbor
When it comes to your neighbors, you will have to see them again. And yet there seems to be a disintegration of discourse in our own communities, as well. According to the Civility in America survey, 25 percent of respondents have personally experienced incivility in their own neighborhoods.
“It’s worth reaching out and getting to know the neighbors,” Daniel says. Yes, we are busy, we are working and don’t have time to hang out chatting on the front stoop. “But people are still making the effort to have a sense of community,” he says, “because at the end of the day, people feel a need to belong.”
One way neighbors can easily do that is through social media platforms like Nextdoor.com and private Facebook pages. But according to Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the Digital Era, these platforms can be spaces not only for connection and sharing but also of dissent and bullying.
A neighborhood social media page, like a neighborhood itself, is a place where a disparate group of people are thrown together, linked by nothing more than geography—not kinship, not political allegiance, not musical taste. “People are finding lost dogs or making friends [on these pages], and that is beautiful,” says Amy. “I would never want to give that up.” But things can go sour, online and off. Most of us have experienced incivility close to home. According to Margaret Pearson, when one of her neighbors in suburban Boston grew tired of his other neighbor’s dog doing his business on his lawn, instead of speaking to the neighbor, he scooped up the poop and put it in her mailbox.
“I believe it’s very important to stay civil, even in the face of other people’s incivility,” says Daniel, who calls this “living one step beyond the Golden Rule—thinking about others first.” What does this mean in practice, when it comes to our neighbors’ barking dogs, our street’s limited parking spots, the tree hanging into our yard? “Think of it this way,” explains Daniel, “even if I would not mind someone practicing drums at 10 p.m., my neighbor might, so maybe I should restrain myself.” Try approaching your neighbor with compassion and the benefit of the doubt. “We want to aspire to not give our power away to someone else and not get pulled down to someone else’s level.”
Keep Calm Online
How can we pull ourselves out of this spiral of incivility? Some things, such as the stress of work, a mobile society and new technology are here to stay. But the way we respond and engage with them is up to us. On social media, Daniel says, “Don’t participate, don’t instigate, don’t inflame. When tempted to write that angry email, try to not say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.” In real-life discussion, if things get heated, “you should back away,” Daniel advises. “If someone says something offensive, you can say ‘Ouch. That hurts me.’ Or ‘I didn’t appreciate that comment about me, or my co-worker.’ You don’t have to let it slide by unnoted.” But don’t escalate it into a fight.
One thing you can do right away to increase civility: unless you are waiting for a kidney, put away the phone. “In the workplace, just having your phone in your field of vision decreases your focus, productivity and connectedness,” says Amy, citing a study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. In fact, we often relate to our phones instead of each other. A 2013 survey of cellphone users found that 72 percent of respondents were never more than 5 feet from their phones, and 33 percent thought it was OK to use on a dinner date. We use it in the shower (12 percent), and even during sex (9 percent). Suddenly the phone ringing at the wedding doesn’t seem so crazy. “We need to put these devices down to get that face-to-face contact,” Amy says. “It’s a new challenge.”
Putting down the phone is the first step toward being present with each other. What Barbara found (and documented in Love 2.0) is that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) regularly also greatly increases the chances of having a deeply positive interaction with strangers and loved ones alike. When you are at work and get a terse email, get cut off in traffic…stop and take a deep breath.
“Just because someone else is rude and disrespectful doesn’t mean we should be,” Daniel says. “It’s difficult not to…but because we respect ourselves and others and are trying to teach our children a virtuous way in the world, we want them to see us choosing civility.”
Think the situation through: Is it really that important? What if you let the other driver go ahead of you? If you don’t respond to the email?
“We stay civil, not because others always are, but because we are,” Daniel says. People always say incivility is worse than ever, he says, but don’t necessarily think of ways they could help the situation. Instead, we could focus on being part of the solution.
Simple Ways to Spread Civility
1. Smile and greet people warmly.
2. Listen and be present.
3. Say “I’m sorry.”
4. Don’t blame others.
5. Find possibilities, not problems.
6. Respect others’ opinions.
7. Be willing to explain your point of view.
8. Express thanks.
9. Say “You’re welcome” and not “It was nothing” or “No problem” when someone thanks you.
10. Exercise empathy.
Source: Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative
Emily Wise Miller is the Web Editor for Live Happy.