BOULET: Has civility become a quaint and obsolete concept?

Larry S. Boulet
May 29, 2010
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BouletAmericans are not as civil as they used to be.

Last fall, as President Obama spoke to the members of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and a nationwide audience, Rep. Joe Wilson, a four-term GOP congressman from South Carolina, interrupted the president’s speech by calling him a liar.

Not too long ago, such behavior was unthinkable. Regardless of political differences, members of both parties minded their manners as a show of respect for the president.

In last year’s U.S. Open semifinal match, Serena Williams berated and physically threatened a lineswoman for calling a foot fault on the tennis star. No, it’s not unusual for tennis fans to witness bad behavior from a few star players (remember John McEnroe?), but Williams took her outburst to a new level of intimidation. And even more troublesome, her eruption came after the chair umpire had warned Williams about similar behavior.

Daily, there are doses of uncivil behavior reported by the media. And bad behavior isn’t limited to highly visible people. A recent Reuters poll reported that adults in the United States believe they are the most likely of any in the world to witness parents becoming physically or verbally abusive toward coaches or officials at their children’s sporting events.

So what if Americans aren’t as civil as they used to be?

The Institute for Civility in Government (www.instituteforcivility.org) is a not-for-profit focused on improving the civility of people in government. The institute cites the loss of civility as a primary reason for “persistent (and growing) polarization in our society along the lines of race, socioeconomic groups, religion, age, politics and special interests.” The institute views polarization as a key threat to the effectiveness and efficiency of our governing process.

Based on his remarks in a recent commencement address at the University of Michigan, President Obama agrees. He said, “We cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down.”

He called for “a basic level of civility in our public debate.” Like many of us, President Obama does not always practice civility. Nonetheless, can we simply ignore warnings from the president of the United States about the dangers of incivility to our governing process? Or should we instead give some consideration to the president’s call for a return to at least a basic level of civility in our public debate and elsewhere?

It’s not surprising that polarization and ineffectiveness are the products of uncivil behavior. Whether in politics, sports or the workplace, people simply don’t like working with those who treat them with disrespect, resort to name-calling, and fail to listen. But if, on the other hand, people on opposite sides of an issue feel they can safely express their views without fear of insults, threats or abuse, they are more likely to be willing to work toward finding solutions.

What really is civility, anyway?

P.M. Forni is professor and co-founder of the John Hopkins University Civility Project (later renamed the Civility Initiative) and the author of two books on civility. In “Choosing Civility,” Forni uses words and phrases collected from participants in his workshops to define civility. His list includes “consideration,” “kindness,” “trustworthiness,” “respect for others’ opinions” and “good citizenship.”

You may be thinking, “Yeah, civility sounds fine, but it’s just not practical in today’s highly competitive society, where good manners have given way to rudeness.” Or maybe you think civility is for “pushovers” or, “Nice guys finish last.”

Eric Hoffer, an American social worker and philosopher, on the other hand, says, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” And Forni adds that, “Nice guys don’t have to finish last. Not if they are also smart, imaginative, dedicated and persevering. Niceness works as part of a winning combination.” Far from being the foible of nice guys, civility is powerful.

How do we become more civil?

Civility can’t be legislated or mandated. Its rebirth must begin as a grass-roots effort that starts with you and me. We can simply choose to be more civil. A good first step is to be better at listening. And this means real listening, not pseudo-listening, when you’re really just thinking of what you’ll say when the other person finally stops talking. To listen well, you must focus intently enough on what the person is saying to understand it fully.

And you can test that understanding by expressing the other person’s viewpoint in your own words. Consider it, then respond. It’s that simple, but the dividends can be huge.•


Boulet is a former PricewaterhouseCoopers partner and a consultant to public and private middle-market companies.


  • Growing a civility movement
    Mr. Boulet, Thanks so much for mentioning our work in your article. The Institute is growing steadily as more people become aware of what is at stake if civility declines. Please become a member and add your voice to the civility movement. Every person counts, and you will receive the resources and benefits of membership. Also, as you may be aware, we just held a Citizens' Civility Symposium in Washington, DC. If you send us your email address, we will be happy to alert you when the recording is posted on our website. Our thanks, Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder
  • Civility Means Business
    Dear Mr. Boulet, I wad delighted to see that you found my work relevant to your column on civility. The new issue of One, the magazine of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins, includes a column of mine on civility, leadership and business. May I send you a copy? Would you please email me a mailing address? Cordial regards, P.M. Forni

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  1. I had read earlier this spring that Noodles & Co was going to open in the Fishers Marketplace (which is SR 37 and 131st St, not 141st St, just FYI). Any word on that? Also, do you happen to know what is being built in Carmel at Pennsylvania and Old Meridian? May just be an office building but I'm not sure.

  2. I'm sorry, but you are flat out wrong. There are few tracks in the world with the history of IMS and probably NO OTHER as widely known and recognized. I don't care what you think about the stat of Indy Car racing, these are pretty hard things to dispute.

  3. Also wondering if there is an update on the Brockway Pub-Danny Boy restaurant/taproom that was planned for the village as well?

  4. Why does the majority get to trample on the rights of the minority? You do realize that banning gay marriage does not rid the world of gay people, right? They are still going to be around and they are still going to continue to exist. The best way to get it all out of the spotlight? LEGALIZE IT! If gay marriage is legal, they will get to stop trying to push for it and you will get to stop seeing it all over the news. Why do Christians get to decide what is moral?? Why do you get to push your religion on others? How would legalizing gay marriage expose their lifestyle to your children? By the way, their lifestyle is going to continue whether gay marriage is legalized or not. It's been legal in Canada for quite a while now and they seem to be doing just fine. What about actual rules handed down by God? What about not working on Sundays? What about obeying your parents? What about adultery? These are in the 10 Commandments, the most important of God's rules. Yet they are all perfectly legal. What about divorce? Only God is allowed to dissolve a marriage so why don't you work hard to get divorce banned? Why do you get to pick and choose the parts of the Bible you care about?

  5. Look at the bright side. With the new Lowe's call center, that means 1000 jobs at $10 bucks an hour. IMS has to be drooling over all that disposable income. If those employees can save all their extra money after bills, in five years they can go to the race LIVE. Can you say attendance boost?