The United States Has a Civility Problem and Here’s How to Overcome It

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By Dr. Laurie Moroco, Ph.D.

They are scenes most of us have looked at with at least a bit of curiosity, if not some entertained glee. TikToks of arguments between cashiers and customers, outbursts on airplanes making headlines on the evening news, or verbal clashes between neighbors filmed and put on social media for all to see. 

For several years now, even before the pandemic, civility in the United States has seemingly taken a nosedive. In a 2019 report entitled “Civility in America,” 93% of respondents reported the country has issues with civility. Of those respondents, 68% felt the issue was “major” while 74% of the respondents felt it was getting worse — and the civility breakdown surrounding the pandemic hadn’t even occurred yet. 

Indeed, many Americans seem to need more skills to effectively communicate, handle more difficult situations, or accept varying viewpoints on a subject. This disconnect between the civil and the uncivil has created an environment built on anxiety and tipping points, where you just never know what may make a person “snap.” 

The commonality of these uncivilized occurrences has led many to theorize on what could turn the tables and bring a return to civilized behavior in all areas of life, be it neighborhoods and communities, social interactions, or within the workplace. 

Modeling civil discourse 

Civility is an attribute of society that is borne out of influence. Many could theorize that one reason why society seems so uncivil is that we are watching video after video of fights, arguments, and upheaval — day in and day out. At a glance, it seems uncivilized behavior is being modeled for us and our children everywhere we look.

In order to teach people how you expect to be treated and model better behavior, you have to remember how to keep yourself in check first — even if your ire is raised. Avoid personal attacks or raising your voice where it’s not appropriate or necessary, don’t interrupt people during a discussion (even if you disagree with them), don’t make assumptions about the intent of others, and work to keep your emotions and reactions under control. 

It may be a difficult hill to climb, but if more of us begin to model better behavior, we could realistically overshadow the amount of publicized uncivilized behavior being fed to us daily in due time. 

Civility in the workplace 

The workplace is one area of life where many of us have run up against an issue regarding inappropriate behavior, language, or a disagreement that got out of hand at one time or another. Those who work in the service industry, in particular, likely all have a horror story or two to share. Putting people of different backgrounds and viewpoints into one community and making them work with one another toward a common goal is sure to create some friction — it’s human nature. 

So, how can leaders be proactive in acknowledging the country’s issue with civility and ensuring that it doesn’t start to negatively impact their teams or entire workplace? It all boils down to education, leading with respect, and setting expectations. 

Leaders must create the expectation of a respectful, civil working environment from day one. Employees, team leaders, and even C-suite executives must be briefed and trained on what is acceptable and what is not within the workplace. Diversity, equity, and inclusion training plays a significant role in fostering civility in the workplace. When all people within the organization feel recognized, heard, and equally respected, there is less of a chance of discourse. 

Conversations of opportunity 

Not all conversations are comfortable, especially if there is a disagreement between the parties. Yet, there are ways of approaching difficult conversations that create opportunities for understanding, not further conflict. 

When parties in a conversation feel mutually heard and are able to establish common ground, the urge to be confrontational lessens. Although one or both parties may come to the table with a lot of passion behind their feelings, setting that passion aside and instead placing civility and understanding as the top priority more often leads to a positive outcome in the conversation.

Many of us have watched conversations and conflicts devolve into all-out brawls online. Typically, you can see where the communication breakdown happens, or where one party stops listening and simply starts reacting. When we approach each conversation as an opportunity to learn, listen, and understand, civility comes more naturally. 

Self-reflection and self-regulation 

The reason so many feel that the United States has a civility issue may point back to some self-reflection. Many of us can often opine about what we would do in certain situations and how we react when we are angry, and we can even be guilty of a little chest-puffing when we are around others. If we reflect on why we feel the need to react with anger or aggression, we can then find ways to better regulate our behaviors. 

We may never completely get rid of angry feelings when faced with a perceived slight or injustice. Still, we can evaluate our response to those situations and go with the response that is most likely to result in a positive outcome for everyone involved. You may not be able to control the other person, but you can place a focus on your own actions and civility. 

A recent study showed that, overall, the people of the United States are not strong communicators. Most civility issues in society stem from a breakdown in communication. Self-reflection includes evaluating how good we are at communicating with others, and adjusting our behavior if need be. Perhaps we are not good listeners, or believe being loud translates to being right. Whatever our negative peccadilloes may be with communication, we can correct them once we recognize them.

According to the Washington Post Op-Ed by Jennifer Rubin, a growing sense of entitlement and narcissism within the United States — attributed by writer Tom Nichols to a period of relative prosperity and improved living standards — has greatly contributed to the civil discourse in our country. Add to this having all of the world’s information at our fingertips, causing a rise in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it can be easy to see why a large majority of surveyed people believe Americans to be uncivilized, argumentative, well, jerks. 

We are not, however, beyond hope. It is going to require taking a good, hard look in the mirror for society to recognize where we have strayed and start to get on a path toward a more empathic, understanding, and communicative society. 

In the meantime, it may be prudent to turn away from the clickbait of angry outbursts and meltdowns that normalize uncivilized behavior. It is time for society to recognize that we can — and will — do better, because we all deserve to live in a civil world. 

About the Author: Dr. Laurie Moroco is an Assistant Dean of Instruction at a college in Colorado, a professor, a certified master business strategist, a corporate leadership trainer, and a working mom of four children. 

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