Why Civility Sucks

December 5th, 2009

By now, it’s difficult to escape the trio of bad kids who have made their marks on U.S. social discourse over the past couple of months—U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, tennis star, Serena Williams, and musician and entertainer, Kanye West. In case you’ve missed any of this, each has been criticized for public outbursts of rudeness and incivility. Wilson blurted out to the President of the United States “You lie!” during the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress. Williams, berated a tennis line judge with profanity during a match at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, and West leaped onto the stage of the MTV Video Awards ceremony and interrupted the acceptance speech of winner Taylor Swift proclaiming that Beyonce, another nominee for the award, actually created the best video and (by implication) should have won.

The Downside of Being Nice
What interests me about these incidents is not that they are harbingers of the end of civility in our society; I really don’t think they signal the downfall of order in the republic. Rather, I’m alarmed by the knee-jerk reaction that the appropriate response to these indicators is to buck up and discipline ourselves to be nice to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I like to be nice to people and I like them to be nice to me. And indeed, a dose of niceness and restraint probably would have been very helpful in each of these situations. But I get worried when we move swiftly to the conclusion that being nice is the remedy to an interpersonal conflict because invariably, these movements toward niceness and interpersonal comfort often mask the reality of the discomfort and discord that are really present in our relationships. This is especially true in relationships that cross identity differences.

Each of these incidents pitted people of significant differing social identities (in the U.S. context) against one another. Although there has been some discussion of the issue of race in the example of Congressman Wilson and President Obama, the fact that racial and gender differences were evident in the other examples has been largely overlooked: Ms. Williams (African American woman) is rude to Ms. “Line Judge” (Asian woman whose name has been withheld); Mr. West (African American man) is rude to Ms. Swift (white woman). And each of these identity conflicts has a rich and painful narrative in the U.S. socio-historical landscape. Blacks and Asians are continually matched against one another as minorities vying for legitimacy in the U.S. cultural and economic context. Black men have been vilified (even murdered) for actions that appear to disrespect white women.

Now I don’t believe these specific incidents were consciously or directly motivated by any of this: Ms. Williams didn’t yell at the line judge because she was reflecting on how Asians are seen as model minorities who, in the eyes of the white majority, makes African Americans seem less worthy contributors to society. Mr. West didn’t jump up on stage based on the decision that a Black man had not publicly disrespected a white woman for some time, so it was his turn. But research on implicit bias bears out that we are all subject to deep-seated biases that subtly influence our attitudes and behaviors. Is it unreasonable to assume that some of those biases might have been at play in these incidents? Is it unreasonable to assume that even if those biases were not relevant for the actors in the incidents, that some of the millions of us who observed the incidents might be affected by the biases?

The Power of Real Civility
We cannot escape the fact that we react to race and ethnicity and gender and that we are prone to incivility as a result. The important question to me is how do we navigate the incivilities across difference that have and will continue to emerge in our interactions?

Erika James and I took a stab at this challenge in a chapter that appeared in Dutton and Ragins’ volume, Exploring Positive Relationships at Work (you can read more of Erika’s perspective at her Blog) [1]. We argued that strong, generative relationships between people of differing social identities are only forged when positive intent and expectation for the relationship is combined with the ability to engage and learn from constructive conflict that is raised in the relationship. In particular, we argued that you have to be able to talk about the identity differences that separate you. What are the differences? What do they mean? What significance do they have for each of you? You can’t build an enduring relationship across difference if you can’t get your biases and antagonisms out on the table in constructive ways.

Robin Ely, Deb Meyerson and I add some texture to what it means to engage constructively in our Harvard Business Review article, “Rethinking Political Correctness” [2]. In this article, we argued that a serious impediment to building resilient relationships, both at work and at home, was the difficulty we encounter in having honest and frank dialogue together. We proposed that an effective way to step into these dialogues (as opposed to covering them over with niceness) is to cultivate five core skills:

  • Pause to short-circuit the emotion and take time to reflect;
  • Connect to others through goals and intentions that affirm the importance of the relationship or the larger goal that you are trying to achieve together.
  • Ask yourself questions that help you identify blind spots and discover the source of your defenses. Ask yourself how your desire to be proven right about a perceived threat or to be proven innocent of offending someone, might distort your view of the situation.
  • Get “genuine” support that doesn’t simply validate your own point of view, but rather, helps you gain a broader perspective on the issue. Bounce your thoughts and reactions of friends and colleagues who are not simply your cheerleaders, but who will help you confront your own blind spots.
  • Shift your mindset from “you need to change” to “what can I change?”

Being civil and being positive are not one in the same. The nicest gestures can be the most cutting if they are undertaken without clear intent, skill, and caring. Real civility takes into account the humanity of the people with whom we are engaged. Real civility challenges us to embrace—rather than flee from—the discomfort and anxiety we may feel when we face those people (read more about other positive forces in organizations at Ryan Quinn’s LIFT Blog).

6 Responses to “Why Civility Sucks”

  1. Tolu Ahaghotu says:

    Hi Martin,
    I enjoyed reading this article and found it very informative. The 5 core skills particularly got my attention. They make absolute sense, the difficulty of mastering those skills appear to be the real challenge.
    The 5th point, shifting one’s mindset from what one “needs” to change to what one “can” change, poses a question, does that mean we accept those “needs” and work on the “can”s? In a world of fairness and pep talks, there seem to be no “needs” that “cannot” and with renewed vigor we revisit over and over. If peradventure we are to accept the “needs” have we condemned ourselves to a sub par life perhaps (when needs are met by simple masks, are those not considered successes also? The fortitude to mask that is) or cheated the other party in that conversation who continues to uphold his/her “needs”?

  2. Charles Behling says:

    Dear Martin,
    I have long admired your HBR article, and I think the chapter you posted from “Curb Cuts and Canaries” is a brilliant supplement to the HBR ideas. In our program at The University of Michigan, we want both to normalize conflict and to frame it as a learning opportunity, and I think your work offers crucial tools toward these goals. Can’t wait to read your entire book!

  3. Mark Klarich says:

    Hi Martin and Tolu,
    This is a great place to start and I thank you both for your insights and wisdom. Your words speak to a constant problem, not only between ethnicities, but also between individuals of differing classes.
    Anyway, what little experience I have had suggests that some formalities are very helpful. For instance, it helps to have a “parking lot” where issues that arise in the interaction that are important but would lead the parties away from the present problem/solution are “parked” for later. Also, a request for a “time out” of some sort not just at the beginning, but whenever emotions and defenses are overcoming reason and care, seems to be very necessary. Finally, the actual formation of a “request” and/or an “apology” both do better when formalized.
    Continuing on that line of thinking, I suspect that in most situations a number of formalities must be established in an effort to get past the “language” differences that plague us.

    As for conflict — I know I grow when in carefully managed conflict. However, I am absolutely terrible at it. Any conflict produces large safety issues with me and my defenses become manifest, potentially ruining any possible benefit. For me, at least, that means I must learn to make conflict my friend before your wisdom will help. I have been working on it and it is a difficult road. If I am successful it is often because I eventually become able to empathize and keep that frame of mind/heart open and at the top.

    Doubtless, these are all “first grade” comments. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

  4. Hi Martin:
    You have given me some additional ways of looking at these incidents. We certainly need as many perspectives as possible. Since I have been deeply involved in polarity management (Barry Johnson’s work), I am wanting to model and teach getting the upsides of both candor and diplomacy as the basis for civil discourse. Too much candor and we have brutal truth—emphasis on brutal. too much diplomacy and we fail to have accurate information. It is possible to have the best of both and since they are interdependent, we can only have the best of both if we manage both. a virtuous cycle rather than the viscious cycle that we now have.
    In addition, I just wanted to say hi and that I like your website very much. so nice to see your face. Elaine

  5. Supriya Desai says:

    Excellent site, Martin! Kudos to you. I’ve shared this with our diversity office here at PwC as I think it will provide some great insights and learning opportunities for them.

  6. Prolawn says:

    Thank you so much, Great information… You keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

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