The Consequences of Incivility

Back when I was a kid and we travelled in horse-drawn carriages our parents never hesitated to wash out our mouths with soap if we used crude language or said things that were otherwise inappropriate. I was always glad when Mom reached for the Ivory rather than Zest because Zest left a really bad aftertaste.  We learned quickly to not use such language, or at least to be careful of the company in which it was used.

I often long for those days (the civility, not the soap). To be clear, I use off color language on occasion when I’m alone and (for example) running a chainsaw, watching college football with my wife, or in the company of my very closest friends. I try very hard to not use language that others might find offensive in public or on social media. There are certain words I NEVER use in public because my Mom and my Dad (who could use salty language with the best) taught me better.

So you can imagine how I cringe when I read comments on Facebook or on news websites. It is like some people are willing to grab a megaphone and shout obscenities from the highest mountain top and they could care less who is reading those comments. To be honest I’ve removed as many people from my Facebook news feed for dropping the F-bomb as I have for obnoxious political posts. And I often overhear such language in restaurants or walking down the street.

I know I sound prudish but those who know me well know better. I’m just offended by public displays of crudity. Have these people no shame or sense of propriety? Did their moms not know how to effectively use a bar of soap? It seems that good behavior and manners are no longer important to a portion of our population.

My unscientific observations have been validated by studies of workplace behavior. In a poll lasting fourteen years researchers found that 98% of America workers had experienced uncivil behavior in their workplace and the study found that incidents of incivility essentially doubled in ten years.

2013 survey found that 70% of Americans believed incivility had reached crisis levels. Respondents stated that they experienced incivility, on average, 2.4 times per day. Further, 81% of the respondents believed increased violence was a consequence of incivility. Interestingly, more than 90% of each generation (millennials, Gen Xers, boomers, etc.) believed there was a civility problem in our country.

Of course this incivility has increasingly worked its way in to American politics. And yes, I know American politics has always been nasty, but the 24-hour  media outlets and social media exacerbate the problem. We hear every crude or outlandish comment immediately and repeatedly until the next news cycle pushes it aside only to replace it with more of the same.

And the troubling thing is that we as a society seem to accept it. Even worse, we excuse it. In my mind that leads to excusing all sorts of other unacceptable behaviors. In fact it is almost as if no behavior is forbidden, no language or behavior is condemned. And what’s strange is that quite often those whom one would expect to most loudly condemn such language and behavior are precisely the ones excusing it. And yes, I’m referring to those who continue to excuse the totally unacceptable crude behavior of President Trump, Roy Moore, Bill Clinton, Kathy Griffin, Al Franken, and others. If you excuse any of these people you are part of the problem. Psychologist Jim Taylor said it best: “…the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences”.

Here are a few behaviors I consider uncivil: bullying (including internet bullying), cutting in line, road rage, humiliation, overt racism or sexism or any other “ism”, intimidation, disrespect, rudeness, belittling, lying, gross sarcasm, exaggerating, using crude language in public, inappropriate tweeting.

And the consequences of incivility are tangible.

  • As many as 25% of parents have changed a child’s school because of uncivil behavior.
  • Incivility in the workplace leads to lower productivity, lower job satisfaction, and employee burnout. There is also evidence that uncivil behavior is often returned in kind, leading to a downward spiral. Rudeness leads to other rudeness which eventually destroys the work environment.
  • An unhappier home life. Research indicates that when people work in an environment of incivility they often bring that anger home.
  • Incivility can devolve into violence. According to the Department of Labor there are 1.8 million incidents of violent behavior in the American workplace each year, for example. And there’s no way to count the number of violent incidents resulting from road rage or other uncivil behavior.

If you want to read the depressing truth about the prevalence of American incivility you might want to read through this recent survey on the topic.

So what do we do about it? As I’ve said many times previously, stop excusing uncivil behavior.  About 75% of Americans believe politicians are the main drivers of unacceptable behavior, and I agree. We should expect our leaders to display respectful behavior.

About 69% of Americans believe social media promotes incivility, so block people who use crude language or who belittle or bully others. I no longer follow some people of all political stripes because of their obnoxious use of social media. The same is true of news media outlets; don’t read the comments where internet trolls spend their days trying to start fights.

Finally, kindness and civility begin with the individual. I know students on my campus get tired of it, but I never meet anyone on the sidewalk or in the hallway without speaking to them and giving them a smile.


I used a quote by Jim Taylor earlier. Here is the rest of that passage: “Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those strictures.”

I hope we can regain that respect and willingness.