Rudimentary Behavior

Finding hope amid America’s crisis of civility

A few months ago, a fellow meeting participant took a personal call without leaving the room and consistently engaged in text exchanges throughout the gathering.

Countless times, I’ve been in meetings or on phone calls with individuals who interrupt me and/or others repeatedly and without apology.

These situations occurred right here in the historically polite South and are indicative of a sweeping, nationwide lack of civility. It turns out I’m not the only one noticing a decline in the practice.

According to “Civility in America,” the ongoing poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research, “Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, say civility is a problem, with 74 percent saying civility has declined in the past few years and 67 percent saying it is a major problem today. In the online poll conducted among 1,005 adults 18 years and older during the second week of January this year, 70 percent also say that incivility in this country has risen to ‘crisis’ levels, up from 65 percent in 2014.”

It’s easy to blame a decline in civility on a variety of factors — this being an election year, the media, parents, kids, technology, the patriarchy, feminism, information overload and a host of other probable causes. My guess is that each one played its part, but finger pointing only serves to make things worse. Whichever way you slice it — whether in personal dealings, online or in business — our culture needs a time-out.

It might seem like an ill of modernity, but concerns over civility go back to ancient Greece and Rome. The June issue of Town & Country Magazine features the ominously titled (and R.E.M.-song referencing) piece, “Is This the End of Civility As We Know It?,” by Daniel Mendelsohn. The writer traces “the connection between good manners and good citizenship” to arguments by Aristotle and, a century later, Cicero, pointing out that for his efforts, the latter’s “attempts to preserve the Roman republic and its civil society … ended up getting him assassinated.”

So much for civility.

Humans are, of course, nothing if not complicated creatures capable of both virtuous and horrific acts. Just peer into your office kitchen’s refrigerator — an allegory of human behavior. Philosophers, religious leaders, mothers and etiquette columnists the world over have spent lifetimes trying to get you people to act right. Is it time for us to wave the white flag in defeat? Have the jerks won?

While I agree, incivility is at an all-time high, rather than pegging it as a crisis point, I’m holding out hope that we are at a tipping point. Call me naïve, but I believe in the inherent goodness of mankind and maintain that if enough of us operate with empathy and compassion, we can get back to a place in which the majority operates with respect to our fellow humans. The tricky part is that everyone thinks someone else is the problem.

The “Civility in America,” survey asserts, “Americans tend to absolve themselves from contributing to the coarsening of society, saying uncivil behavior is more prevalent the farther they get from home.”

If that were true, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

You could say our inaccurate perceptions of our own “correctness” and of ourselves are a product of “myside bias,” which according the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center is “the pervasive tendency to search for evidence and evaluate evidence in a way that favors your initial beliefs.” Open-mindedness is the opposite of myside bias and is considered a beneficial trait. We can open our minds via travel; surround ourselves with people who hold different points of view; respectfully listen to those points of view; let go of our incessant need to always be right; and be present and learn self-awareness.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution and as cultural divisiveness and uncivil behavior continue to rise, I keep returning to a concept that can certainly be applied at the office during meetings and other interactions, but it also is an effective tool (or better yet philosophy) for all facets of life. In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to

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