Civility in America – It Matters

civility in AmericaIt’s been a year since President Trump was elected. As expected, as an outsider to politics, he is not conducting business as usual. And his style? Decidedly “unpresidential” some would say. Others would say downright uncivil.

As Executive Director of an organization created to promote civility and professionalism, I tend to separate professionalism from politics, and we stay away from politics in promoting professionalism.  As a lawyer, I have an obligation to uphold the legal system, the rule of law, and the office of the presidency.  But I am troubled because incivility is increasingly a feature of the public discourse and seemingly is embraced by the current administration. Labeling anyone who has a different viewpoint as unpatriotic, or “libtard” or “conservatard” or another term designed to demean, diminish and/or silence, turns Americans against one another and has other real world consequences.

Research Shows Incivility at a Crisis Level

Surveys show the state of civility in America continues to decline. As of December 2016, Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey showed that three-quarters of Americans believe that incivility has risen to crisis levels, a rate that significantly increased since January 2016. The same proportion feels that the U.S. is losing stature as a civil nation (73%).

Nine out of ten Americans –87 to 89 %–in the Civility in America Survey say that incivility leads to intimidation and threats, harassment, discrimination, violence, and cyber-bullying.  We certainly see all of this reported in the news. A whopping 75% of respondents blame politicians for the erosion of civility.

Specifically with respect to the President, 97% believe it is important for the U.S. President to be civil; 86% say a president’s tone and level of civility impacts the reputation of the U.S.; 79% think the 2016 presidential election was uncivil; and 59% of people who did not vote for president in 2016 said that incivility played a role in that decision.

Andy Polansky, Chief Executive Officer of Weber Shandwick noted in the Report, “Without a doubt, public discourse was challenged in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the public is divided about whether we will see an improving environment for thoughtful dialogue in the public sphere. We need to find common ground to ease our civility crisis.”

Incivility Inhibits Civic Engagement

The Civility in America Survey confirms what I have heard reported by many over the past year: the tone and content of politics is distasteful and hurtful and leads many people to turn away from engaging. Our country is founded upon the notion that we have an engaged citizenry. Disengagement is a problem.  It is a problem that lawyers are exhorted to counter-act in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct.  The Preamble states, “…[A] lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

We in the legal system should not accept behavior that intimidates or bullies citizens from voting or otherwise participating in the legal system. Our democracy is complex and challenged regularly by controversies, complications.  We should not allow the natural tendency to grab a headline or obtain a click, a retweet or retort, to undermine the need for thoughtful and respectful problem-solving.  As members of the legal system, we have an obligation to uphold the Constitution and the ideals it memorializes such as making the legal system more inclusive and effective for the citizens.

Promote Civility as a Survival Tactic

Let’s not just bemoan the lack of civility as if we have no role in the evolving social culture of our country.  Let’s actively promote civility in America and strengthen our democracy for the future.  Wherever you are, here are some first steps

Be self-aware. Think carefully about what might lead you to be less than civil. Do certain people push your buttons? Do you think you’re gaining something by being uncivil? Do you find yourself less capable of managing your emotions at certain times of the day? Over certain devices? What are your triggers? Stress? Once you understand better when, where and how you’re inclined to behave rudely, the forms such rudeness takes, you can be more mindful when you’re in the danger zone–and better able to respond to incivility with civility.

Reprogram your mind to the positive. Like acts of kindness can have a ripple effect, so can acts of incivility. As Christine Porvath wrote in Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, nodes in our brain are activated by such acts—positive or negative—and then spread throughout our neural network to nearby nodes.  (Hence that “sinking feeling” or spread of elation.) She suggests that after you witness or are a victim of rudeness or other incivility, you should “reprogram” your mind by purposefully exposing yourself to something positive.

Listen don’t label. We’ve written many times on this blog about the importance of listening. In this era of partisan hostility, it is more important than ever that we actually listen to one another with an open mind, open to the possibility that we might learn from one another. As David Brooks recently wrote, quoting civility expert Stephen Carter, even when someone is espousing beliefs we find abhorrent, we may learn something from them. And refuse to label someone with a different viewpoint.  They are not their ideas.  And neither are you.

Connect on a human level. Weird and simplistic though it may seem: smile. Smiling makes a huge difference. As Christine Porath wrote, Kids smile as often as 400 times a day; only 30% of adults smile more than 20 times a day. The act of smiling lifts your mood, boosts your immune system, decreases stress, lowers blood pressure and reduces risk of heart attack. It also forms a positive human connection that may defuse name calling and incivility.

Speak up and reframe. If you hear pejorative comments, slurs or statements you consider unfair, unjust or uncivil, say something. As I wrote recently, lawyers are in positions of leadership across local, state and national organizations and community groups.  Members of the public look to lawyers for guidance. In performing their duties as judges, judges have an obligation under Rule 62 Canon 3 to be “patient, dignified and courteous” and hold others to that same conduct.  Now is not the time to sit silently by.

Change your organization’s culture. Because emotions can spread, so can civility.  Everyone is in a position to change the tenor and content of interactions they have.  Some people may be able to institutionalize those changes across the organization. Most companies’ and firms’ mission statements contain language about how employees should treat customers, but how many include language stating how employees should treat one another? A simple statement “we expect our employees to treat each other with respect” can set the tone. For example, Porvath wrote about:

  • A large healthcare organization that developed a policy designed to leverage the viral effects of civility. You smile and make eye contact if you’re within ten feet of someone and you say hello if you’re within five feet. When the policy went into effect, the organization saw civility spread.  Patient satisfaction scores rose, as did patient referrals.
  • An executive at Motley Fool issued a challenge to all 250 employees: In order to get the 20 percent annual bonus the company normally gave, each employee would need to know the name of every other employee by year’s end. Instead of issuing a proclamation about “treating one another like family” or the importance of collegiality, he focused on strengthening relationships between individuals.  As a result, Motley Fool received Glassdoor’s number one culture rating in its class and boasts a turnover rate of less than 2%.
  • Law Firm Bryan Cave went through a workshop that included asking them to identify rules/norms for which they were willing to hold one another accountable. In about an hour, employees agreed on ten. The firm embraced them and bound them into a “civility code” which they prominently displayed in their lobby.  The managing partner reported that the civility code was directly responsible for the firm being ranked number one among Orange County’s Best Places to Work.

It would be nice for our children to grow up in a world where civil engagement is the norm, not the exception.  But the pace of interactions has quickened. And the depth is shallow.  Social media leads to quick and casual communication. We have instant access to information. Often, we are satisfied with a two-second Google search rather than spending time in deep research and reflection. And then we rush to post talking points on social media feeds rather than engaging in dialogue supported by critical thinking.

The challenge for each of us, knowing all of this, is to continue being civil and to create more civil cultures in our work and community environments. Try those individual civility strategies.  Try those organizational civility strategies.  Actively work toward more civil engagements. Because it is work, now more than ever. That work may include holding your elected representatives accountable for uncivil behavior. Please speak up. As P.M. Forni wrote, “The crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another every day of our lives.”

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