On rising incivility

The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2018, selected “to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year”, is “Toxic.

 It seems to me that the word “incivility” is a close competitor. A quick scan of Social Media conversations will provide ample evidence to back my view. Indeed, dialogues on every conceivable topic, this past year, seem to have descended to brawls of crude verbal abuse. It is hard to dispute the Georgetown Academic, Christine Porath’s, observation, in Mastering Civility, that “by all accounts incivility has….gotten worse”.

This does not bode well.

As work-outcomes become more and more results of collaboration, incivility has an economic cost. A joint research initiated by Thunderbird Professor Christine Pearson and Christine Porath to determine early indicators of workplace homicide turned up the revealing fact that stress resulting from incivility costs US companies about USD 300 billion a year — yes, you read that figure right — USD 300 billion! In their book chronicling this research, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, they hope that readers draw one vital learning for themselves and for their organizations — “There are costs for bad behaviour.”

There is, of course, the cost paid by people. The Stanford Professor, Robert Sutton, based on studies of incivility and rudeness, makes the point that they “undermine a victim’s mental and physical health for days or weeks” with abusers wrecking “their target’s physical and mental health.”

Incivility is not really the preserve of “others”. The British Psychological Society’s essay of conclusions drawing from various research studies points to negative traits that each of us are likely to have. Most of us could be churlish.. Add to this the findings of research on trolling that indicates that most of us succumb to “herding behaviour” — in other words, social and psychological environmental factors are such that each of us is inclined to misbehave. The bare fact of the matter is that each of us has the potential to be nasty. Each of us is also likely to mirror what goes on around us — the nastier things get, the nastier we are likely to be.

As the untrammelled freedom offered by the Net amplifies the spread of incivility, it is important for each of us to be on guard. Each of us could, under provocation, stoop and spread the contagion. However, it is also a fact that our brain is plastic. There is ample evidence that we are capable of “rising above” some of our base tendencies. Indeed, one of the central messages of Stanford Neuroscience Professor Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, is that human beings can change — society can change. If we seek a world that is pleasant to live in, we would do well to not “pay it forward” when it comes to incivility.

At its core, civility is more than good manners or behavioural etiquette. It is about communicating and behaving in ways that demonstrate empathy, and respect for others. As the world gets more complicated — weaved together owing to various factors such as Technology and Globalization but torn apart owing to Inequities and Culture — we would do well to acknowledge that people see with multiple lenses and, therefore, world-views will collide. The ability to include others in the journey as companions (rather than see them as nuisances) is a vital trait for each of us to cultivate. Christine Porath sums it memorably in Mastering Civility.

“In the end it’s relationships that truly matter, and civility is the foundation of relationships….Whatever your age or circumstance, you can master civility. So what are you doing today to connect with others? What kind of legacy are you leaving? Are you lifting people up or holding them down?

In each moment we get to choose who we want to be.

Who do you want to be?”