Countering The Incivility Crisis

Civility.  Formally defined as politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech, civility may initially conjure visions of high society – aristocrats sipping champagne in a grand ballroom and the like.

While some may view civility as antiquated, it would appear that the idea continues to weigh heavily on the minds of many today, as evidenced by the release of Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey.  

In 2010, Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, released the first annual survey in an effort to gauge America’s attitude toward civility in a variety of realms.

This year marks the seventh iteration of Civility in America, and the results are undeniable.  Three-quarters of the American population believe that incivility has risen to crisis levels, a rate that has significantly increased since January 2016.  The same proportion (approximately 73%) believe that the United States is losing stature as a civil nation.

According to the report, incivility is a common affliction among Americans, with the vast majority (84%) reporting that they have personally experienced incivility.  The highest rates appear to occur on the road (56%) and while shopping (47%).  In addition, one-quarter of Americans (25%) report that they have experienced incivility online.  Ultimately, on average, Americans report that they encounter incivility nearly once a day.

When the respondents were asked what they felt was making the incivility worse, three-quarters (75%) cited politicians as the largest perpetrators, followed closely by the Internet/Social Media (69%).

Interestingly, despite the ubiquitous incivility in society, Americans appear unwilling to take responsibility.  Respondents overwhelmingly believe they, themselves, are always or usually civil (94%), followed by individuals they know (78%), those they work with (73%), and those in their community (57%).  Least civil, according to respondents, are all the other people in the country, who are reportedly civil less than one-quarter of the time (24%).

While I do not know of a comparable survey conducted in Canada (though I am searching), I anticipate that the sentiments of at least certain segments of the population would be similar.

For me, the most intriguing finding from this report is how quickly the respondents were willing to cast blame for this problem elsewhere.  It would appear that only a select few had the self-awareness or the humility to identify that they may have, at one time or another, contributed to the problem.

While many of us may not directly contribute to this “crisis of incivility”, we do not always take action to counter it either; and yes, contrary to popular belief, there are ways to counter such a thing.  Below, I offer you a few of the many ways to counter the incivility crisis:

Practice Equanimity 

Managing uncivil or rude behaviour may be difficult, and as much as we would like to, we cannot control the behaviour of others – good or bad.

So, what’s to be done?  Well, according to Christopher Bergland, a regular contributor to Psychology Today, one of the most effective ways to break the vicious cycle of rude behaviour is to “keep your cool, bite your tongue, and avoid being rude in response,” a practice also known as equanimity.

Equanimity is defined as, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a trying situation.”  By reacting to a rude advance in kind, we in effect perpetuate that behaviour in the world.  Conversely, when we are met with incivility, and react in a calm and composed manner (after a few deep, cleansing breaths), we starve the incivility of its greatest resource – negative energy.

Granted, practicing equanimity is not effortless.  Rather, it requires a great deal of work and commitment to the cause; however, practice makes perfect – it will become second nature in time.

Remember – It’s (likely) Not You, It’s Them

I will be the first to admit that when I am on the receiving end of rude behaviour, I tend to take it personally, and this reaction has done me no favours, nor does it combat incivility in anyway.

Unless you have truly done something to provoke this kind of behaviour, then take a few deep breaths, and after the sting has worn off, repeat this phrase – it’s not me, it’s them.  Doing so may not necessarily stop their future behaviour; however, you will not be contributing to its continuation by further engaging, nor will the experience stay with you, festering until you unload on some other poor soul.

Empathize With The Perpetrator

Now, you may say, “Ashleigh, you have gone to far with this one!  You can ask me not to react negatively to rude behaviour, but don’t you dare ask me to empathize with the perpetrator.”

I know, I know.  This one requires that we make an effort to override our urge to slap this person back to last Tuesday; however, if you are a follower of Pearls, Lace & Grace, and are committed to combating the crisis of incivility, then it is simply your cross to bear.

Alexander Pope once said, “to err is human; to forgive, divine”.  Perhaps the person who just slung a load of rude in your direction is normally someone of sound character, and their indiscretion was preceded by upsetting news.  We all have bad days from time to time; days when our patience and our composure are greatly tested.  So, if this is their first offence, at least to you, I say give them the benefit of the doubt.  Recall the last time you were feeling strained, and try to empathize with their situation.  As I said, it will take effort, but the more you do it the easier it will become.

Now, while I know Alexander Pope was responsible for the adage above, I am unsure who was responsible for the equally-applicable adage, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” (though, I believe the foundation is rooted in an old, Italian proverb).  If you have been blindsided by this person before, and their behaviour has become a pattern, then stay tuned for my next suggestion…

Confront The Issue

While not every uncivil encounter is worth summoning the “Polite Police”, if you experience a continued pattern of incivility from someone, you have every right to confront the issue.  The key to success in this pursuit is rooted in the approach.

Firstly, do not confront the perpetrator if you are not in an equanimous mindset.  If you are still boiling from the encounter, step away from the issue until you have gained a more objective perspective.

Next, after having gained a more objective stance, then you may now approach the perpetrator in a calm manner.  Ask if they have a moment to speak, and do so away from prying eyes and ears.  It is rarely (or never) tasteful to call someone on their behaviour publicly.

Once you and the perpetrator are together, rather than immediately assume the role of judge and jury, let them know that the interaction bothered you.  If it offended you, tell them you were offended.  If it lingered and you analyzed it over and over, tell them the same.  Let them know, in a calm way, that it affected you.  Next, ask them how they felt about the interaction.  Many people are unaware of how they come across to others.  If they did not mean to be rude, or did not see their behaviour as rude, they may quickly apologize.

If however, they offer you no reason, no apology and refuse to take even partial responsibility for the interaction, then thank them for their time and walk away, knowing that you cannot force anyone to be kind.  If you are able, limit your interaction with this person ongoing.  Your life is far too valuable to waste on those who chose to do nothing but cause others difficulty.  If you are unable to limit interaction, then you will simply have to muster the strength to be cordial.  Anything less, and you will become a contributor to the crisis.

Editor’s Note: Incivility, at least the type I am referencing here, is not the same as harassment nor discrimination.  If you are experiencing behaviour that makes you feel uncomfortable or in danger, bring this to the attention of someone immediately, like human resources in your workplace or police services in your community.  In these instances, I would not recommend confronting the issue alone.  

Keep A Mirror Handy 

My final offering on how to counter the incivility crisis is perhaps the most important.  As evidenced by the respondents in the above survey, it is quite easy to find fault in others; however, much more difficult to realize one’s own shortcomings.  Admittedly, I have been there more times than I care to admit – quick to criticize others, slow to critique myself.

As mentioned, while you cannot control the behaviour of others, you most certainly have  control over your own.  If you are committed to treating those around you civilly, then do not allow the behaviour of others to lower your standard or change your values.  Do not allow yourself to get caught up in the fallacy of fairness.  Rather, stand firm in your commitment, knowing that the treatment you receive will not always be fair or warranted; however, take comfort and pride in knowing that you starved that line of incivility.

I would also suggest reflecting on your behaviour at an interval that seems reasonable to you.  While I tend to reflect on my interactions daily, that frequency may not be appropriate for you.  The goal is to become comfortable with critiquing your own behaviour, and by critiquing, I do not mean punishing or demeaning yourself.  Rather, I see this as a route to self-evolution and improvement.

If you experience an uncivil or rude interaction, take a moment to self-reflect and determine if you contributed in any way to the negative interaction.  If so, then in keeping with your commitment to civility, apologize, or at the very least, make note of your behaviour.  The next time you encounter a similar situation, make a conscious effort to refrain from engaging in the same way you did.  While this may be difficult at first, our behavioural patterns can be changed with effort.

What are your thoughts on incivility?  Is there a crisis in society?  Or, have we all become too sensitive?  I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter via the comments below.

Editor’s Note: While the above suggestions may apply to the broader population, they may not necessarily apply to the small subset that do not have the cognitive capacity to understand their behaviour.  In these instances, we must continue to show continued compassion.  

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  1. Dear Ashleigh,

    What a wonderful post. You put so much thought and time into your posts.

    My husband and I were just talking about this very subject, recently. Our particular city is not a very “civil’ place to live. We have lived in other regions of the country and there is much more civility practiced on a regular basis in these areas. We were lamenting how difficult it is to keep ourselves up to good standards.

    A recent experience comes to mind. I was returning a large box (RL mattress pad) to the P.O. and had to go through three sets of glass doors to get inside. I had a plan and I was slowly making my way. There were two men inside just talking to the P.O. worker (male), all watching me, as if it were a show, as they continued their conversation. As I reached the last set of doors, a white haired lady rushed over to me saying “Oh, honey let me help you, you’ll hurt your leg”. (I was holding each door open with my leg and pushing the box through). Only then, did one of the men start toward me.

    As I walked out, the lovely lady was also leaving. We lamented the loss of good manners and she put her arm around me (I loved that) and told me to never stop being gracious, because it is so important in life. It was such a rewarding conversation with someone who had seen days when people were well mannered and thoughtful and she encouraged me to continue this way of living.

    Well done, Ashleigh.

    Warmly, Kathleen

    1. We always seem to be on the same page Kathleen! Your experience sounds familiar to me – I have seen it all too many times before. I’m unsure when the courtesy and graciousness fell away, and it saddens me. I’m glad you and your husband continue to practice good manners in the face of those that do not. Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. Hello Ashleigh, what a wonderful blog you have. I have wandered nearly the whole morning through your posts and I have enjoyed them immensely. Your photo is the epitome of Pearls, Lace and Grace and I adore your writing. I am so glad that I have found you- PS I have taken a glance at Audrey’s blog! Thank you. Catia

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and for taking the time to sift through the archives. Pearls, Lace and Grace is very dear to my heart. I’m glad to have found you as well. Take care xo.

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