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Webgrrls Wisdom » Can’t we ALL just get along??? The rise of incivility

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Welcome to Webgrrls Wisdom, a blog to find commentaries about women's careers, business, technology, and the industry.

Can’t we ALL just get along??? The rise of incivility

written by Maria Botta
Maria Botta
Topics: Business, Career, Education, Leadership, Mentors & Motivators, Technology
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Civility in America should be an inalienable right. Americans have a right to defend their names and explain their actions and opinions, but the increasing unruliness in the public square is worrisome and demands attention and new solutions.
~ Jack Leslie, Chairman of Weber Shandwick

This time of year tends to bring out the best and worst in all of us, we are constantly reminded to do good throughout the holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving and ending somewhere around New Year’s Day. These holidays remind us that we are ALL humans, sharing this little planet we call earth.  

However, lately I have noted a disturbing trend of incivility, at the workplace and everywhere. Sometimes, the consequences of these acts culminates in injury and the loss of life, as we have witnessed during Black Friday’s most popularized incidents of pepper-spray and blood in the shopping aisles. These type of incidents where not isolated, and in fact there are reports of this happening from coast to coast, one of the worst was in a mall parking lot near Atlanta, GA where two men got into a parking spot altercation and one shot the other dead. 

YouTube Preview Image

Watching this video makes me think of how sharks react during a feeding frenzy.

In fact, according to the study “Civility in America 2011″ conducted by KRC Research, most Americans report they have been victims of incivility (86%). Their most common encounters with rude or disrespectful behavior come while driving (72%) or shopping (65%).

The study also reveals that Americans admit to perpetrating incivility — approximately six in 10 (59%) Americans acknowledge that they themselves have been uncivil.

It’s not only in the shopping mall, but also in professional exchanges that I have noticed ruder language and uncivil behaviors, on occasion leading to violence. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines incivility as “seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional workplace conduct.” The study found that 86% of Americans report they have been victims of incivility. The same survey also found that over a third of the respondents believe incivility in the workplace is on the rise.

I have also heard from jobseekers who are experiencing a tremendous amount of incivility from recruiters and employers alike – and it’s not just the unanswered phone calls and questions, it’s just plain rude responses, with a total lack of compassion. Often times people mask their rude behavior by saying something like “it’s my honest opinion” “I’m going to give it to you straight” etc.

Incivility can come from co-workers or the public sector, in the 2009 Institute of Education Science (IES) School Principal Survey on Crime and Safety, approximately 11% of school principals reported that students were verbally abusive to their middle and high school teachers.

The cost of rudeness and incivility

In the 2009 book The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What To Do About It, my former Thunderbird Professor Christine Pearson and Christine Porath say that the problem of incivility in the workplace has been compounded by our increasing tolerance of nasty behavior as a culture.

Surveys by researchers Porath and Erez, indicate that in the workforce, after experiencing rudeness most people lose time and focus, work less and slack off more, and think more about leaving the organization. In addition, 94% of people get even with the rude person or with their organization (88%). 

Does this have a deeper meaning?

The latest scientific research backs up with detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms what June Cleaver (and we) always knew intuitively, that through adolescence, the human brain is molded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.
~  Neurobiologist; Author, The Other Brain


  1. Are common courtesy civility, manners, and politeness a thing of the past?
  2. Are Americans becoming ruder as the economy is spiraling downward?
  3. What happened to our society?

According to Neurologist Dr. Douglas Fields – people (and animals) living together in large numbers must develop strict formalized behaviors governing interactions between all individuals in the group, or there will be strife and chaos. …. “The formal “Yes, Sir, Yes, Ma’am,” is not a showy embellishment in the military; strict respect and formal polite discourse are the hub of the wheel in any effective and cohesive social structure. Stress is a neurotoxin, especially during development of a child’s brain.

During the last 2 years I have traveled extensively, and I am always “shocked” when I encounter a polite culture – it would seem that even the French are far more civil and polite than we are. But it wasn’t always like this, when I was in school we where taught manners and etiquette at a young age, and respect for adults – this is unheard of today – so I hold little hope for the pendulum to swing back any time soon.

So what’s the answer?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. ~ Mark Twain

Even though our “society” is becoming ruder, I am trying to stay on track leading with kindness, consideration and respect in business – OK, I don’t always succeed. Not only does this feel right to me, and is in line with my core values, but I believe that people who demonstrate decency and kindness have better relationships. In the end, the kind person wins over the people who have a continual “attitude”. 

When people are consistently rude, it’s important to call them out on it. If it entails common courtesy, it’s usually best to deal with it one on one, but if it involves actions potentially perceived as bullying or harassment, it’s a good idea to get human resources, involved.

Take a moment, smile and be kind – it NEVER hurts. 


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Did you enjoy this post? Comments (6)


Comment by Jesus
2011-12-01 16:40:57

Thanks for the advice – I try to live by it – but “mea culpa” I do seem to switch into Mr Hyde (Or was it Jekyll) when I travel – mostly at boarding and disembark time – is there any hope for me?

Comment by Maggie
2011-12-01 19:46:54

Great post Maria – couldn’t agree more, sort of sad when you think about it and especially when you experience it.

Have to share a book that immediately comes to mind written by my dear friend John Sweeney of the Brave New Workshop. It is called – “Return to Civility” and is all about the little things we can do to be more civil!


Every little bit makes a difference!

Comment by francesca
2011-12-01 23:40:18

I’ve been in some challenging professional environments most of my life. I’ve seen amazingly talented people have full on meltdowns, slap actors and engage in other outrageous behavior. Somewhere along the line, the double standard for ‘on-set’ behavior began to creep in, were because someone is exceptionally talented they become the exception to the golden rule.

Old time producers we have a saying “don’t take it personally, its just production”, and I often counter that with a saying of my own, “even the best projects have difficult people, just make sure you’re not one of them.” How we are treated by others is their problem, how we respond to that treatment and our reaction/response is the only thing we have to keep us sane and healthy.

Comment by Tim Weaver
2011-12-02 11:42:04

Part of the challenge is that each of us has our own internal definition of what constitutes incivility. Even the research paper you cite doesn’t define incivility, yet comes up with statistics of how 86% of people believe they’re a “victim” of incivility…with the majority of those claiming the instances were while driving or shopping.

No kidding.

I am suspect of the research methodology used in the report.

” The second wave of Civility in America was conducted by KRC Research in late May 2011 using an online survey of 1,000 U.S. adults.”

How were these people selected? Was it random? Most survey companies indicate whether or not respondents were randomly selected. Did people refer others to the survey? If so, then selection bias might come into play, where people who believe they’ve been ‘victims’ of uncivil behavior contact others who were likewise “victimized”.

I am not saying that uncivil behavior doesn’t exist, or that it’s not as bad as claimed…I don’t know. I just view reports like these…without standard definitions or truly random survey administration…with a suspicious eye.

Aside from the unknown nature of the survey administration, the big issue I see is the definition. What I consider uncivil might not be to a friend of mine, and might be abhorrent to another friend. Since the definition of this behavior is a moving target, trying to nail down a definition is very difficult, because rude behavior to one person isn’t rude behavior to another.

We can all speculate on the causes, but it will take more than a thousand respondents to nail down why any increase in incivility is occurring.

As for politics, it has ALWAYS been uncivil (at least in the U.S.). If you really want to see “rude” behavior, go back to political campaigns of the early years of our Republic. You will be shocked at how tame we are in comparison.

Comment by john chambers
2011-12-02 13:10:53

Experience leads me to suspect that what has become the commonality of easy travel and of easy migration from the lands of one cultural tradition to another are at least among the root causes of what passes for, or triggers, today’s ‘incivility’. Too many of earth’s peoples now have caught trains and ships and aeroplanes to jump regions, countries, continents, and even hemispheres, to insert themselves and to try to establish themselves — and the mores of their birth-lands, their birth-cultures and the styles and expectations of their birth-cultures — into regions, countries, continents, and even hemispheres which have quite, quite different, often millennia-old, community cultures, styles and expectations of their own.

I have a gentle, very caring and very loving Scots son who has married a very lovely, supremely well-educated and talented young Arab girl. I think they truly love each other out of their minds. Twenty-first Century travel took him so easily to her north African country and, after marriage, they jointly and easily migrated to a third, quite-different country. It was what so many of their friends had done before them.

Now, a handful of years on, every now and then they have quite unnecessary, sad, bad spats with each other. They will survive (I so much hope). But Ian can get truly impatient and downright angrily frustrated with Caliana because she will accept (and then only on mega-sufferance) very little of the help which, by upbringing, he wants to give her around their home, because that was the way he was brought up by his mother and me. And it is exactly this which makes Caliana very uptight. “The home”, in her Arab culture, inalienably is women’s business, Big Full-Stop, even if the women … like her … have very good degrees. Men stay completely out of it. She once asked her father to call Ian out of the kitchen because he was trying to help her prepare lunch for 14 people … not because he wasn’t doing anything helpful. But because her visiting aunts and female cousins were “watching with great disapproval”. Caliana felt so ashamed. But it definitely was not her place to tell her husband to get out of any room, kitchen or not. That had to be a matter for her father.

And yet they both find some aspects of the culture of the lovely country in which they have chosen to live, and the berhaviour of its very civilised ‘native’ peoples, to be definitely disagreeable and outrageous and impossible to understand … “how can they”…”how could they”… “surely they don’t — surely not the women”.

Looking at that piece of YouTube video with which Maria Botta starts her blog, I wonder how many different nationals of how many different cultures, from the north and south hemispheres, were in that heaving crowd, manhandling each other aggressively, not necessarily because they intentionally were being “uncivil”, but simply because each was acting in accordance with his or her own ‘ignorant’ birth-land rules and despite the desperate conflicts to which that was giving rise in that crowd.

Sad, really. Beyond hope? Very likely not. Within the lifetimes of many of us we have seen great in-roads made into the desperate blight of racialism. We have seen the totally aggressive doctrinaire head-to-head between the West and the East wither and fold. The UN is doing better and surviving better than the League of Nations managed. And there is much more blending like it.

Very likely our children’s children, or their children, will see a totally new strain of multi-cultural “civility” take root across the planet. But the question then has to be: how will that sit with the expectations of any visiting Martians? Oh my!

Comment by Maria Botta
2011-12-02 19:17:57

Maggie, thanks for the book reco!

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