BOULET: Has civility become a quaint and obsolete concept?

May 29, 2010

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.

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