Why Civility Matters!

The time has come to remind ourselves that civility matters.

It is the grease that allows the squeaky wheel of humankind to move along smoothly. A giant dollop of civility will reduce the annoying screech of feuds, thereby enabling societies to evolve and change smoothly and harmoniously.

We must be able to have civil conversations about difficult topics.

So what is this word—civil? It comes from Latin and means befitting a citizen. Incivility means not a citizen. Our modern understanding of it is something along the lines of being courteous and polite despite the behavior of others. In other words, you take the high road. When you come upon someone who holds vastly different views to yours, you listen, treat them politely, and respond in a socially acceptable way.

In recent years, civil discourse has been seen as a form of political correctness. (When you speak and behave in a way to avoid hurting certain groups.) Some leaders and role models, believing this to be a sign of weakness, take the opposite route. They say and act exactly how they want regardless of how it affects or degrades the conversation or hurts those around them. 

This is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

About a decade ago, I ran a coaching business focused on teaching etiquette; modern manners for the 21st century. Although my services were well-received, I was surprised at how many people asked if etiquette was still a thing people did? Others pushed back, letting me know that they believed manners were something people fell back on to reinforce class or cultural superiority. 

My response was along the lines: if you are acting politely to show people you and your culture are better than them, then you are doing it wrong! The whole point of behaving courteously is to put those around you at ease—not at a disadvantage. 

After months of being asked what does it mean to have good manners, I boiled it down to one sentence: You are showing good manners when you consider how your behavior impacts those around you—with the added reminder that “around you” will differ from place to place. What is socially acceptable in Lisbon may not go down well in Lusaka.

I see so many similarities between these arguments and those aimed at civility. We don’t behave in a civil way because we are weak; we behave civilly because it allows those around us to express their opinion without fear of being attacked, mocked, or demonized. 

Looking at the world, it seems the notion of civility has fallen victim to this same assumption. People think that being civil, speaking, and behaving in a civil manner, is a way to keep people in their boxes. They believe that civility is a sign of weakness and a way to prevent people from speaking up. 

But, just as with etiquette, civility is not a rule set in concrete. It is behavior conforming to accepted social convention. It is the respect we show others, with a shared understanding of what that respect should be.

I doubt there is a person alive who doesn’t feel social media and digital telecommunication has made it easier to be rude and hurtful. Before these platforms, it was impossible to send a vile remark in a split second. When we had to take the time to write a letter, wait to see the person, or wait for them to be home to answer the phone, the resulting message was already washed through our social filters. It was also almost impossible to scale up the number of receivers of that message; there wasn’t a “reply all” option on a letter. For all its wonderful connectivity to friends around the world, social media made bullying and vitriolic attacks accessible to any poison pen—or finger tap.

As these barriers fell, people became emboldened, and it became easier and easier to attack someone and then simply walk away. You didn’t have to hear their response or see their expression. You didn’t even have to be on the same continent to do so. You stand in your own echo chamber, screaming out your opinion, and if anyone dares to respond, you simply condemn them or walk away. 

Many of us were appalled at the lack of civil discourse, but we looked to the leaders and trusted they would set the right example. They would reinforce what we were teaching at home. The rabbi or headmaster, the coach, or mayor, would set the tone and uphold the norms of civil behavior. 

How quickly we were all proved wrong!

As we know, some of the worst offenders are the most powerful and influential people. Slowly we began to acknowledge that a societal version of Lord of the Flies was here to stay; humankind’s inherent savagery laid bare.

But, now we have proof that people prefer living in a civil society. That decency, kindness, humility, empathy, and compassion will triumph, and—no surprise—we all exhale when we see people treating people with respect.

Let me emphasize, being civil does not mean never disagreeing or never holding different points of view. Humans will continue to disagree until the last person on earth switches off the lights. What I am saying is that we can listen without attacking. We can disagree without fear of being attacked. We can and must be civil to each other.

The only way our world will continue to grow and prosper is if we take the time to get to know each other. Build relationships with those you don’t agree with, and I guarantee you will find common ground. It is up to each one of us to act in a civil way to each other.

So, when you see a post or tweet, an article or comment, that makes your blood boil, stop and take a breath. Reject the temptation to dash off a blunt reply. We have to learn how to speak to people with whom we don’t agree. We have to leave our echo chambers and listen to others.

It has to start with each of us. It has to start today.

Let’s put civility on top of the agenda. 

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