Incivility in America

  One of The New York Times’ most emailed stories last month was an article by Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, entitled “No Time to Be Nice at Work.” Porath made a powerful case in her piece that rudeness and incivility in the workplace have grown dramatically over the past twenty years, during which she’s been studying and collaborating with organizations. And she posits that we as a society are paying the price for this rudeness with our emotional, physical, and mental health. Throughout the course of my research for Mean Men, I’ve noted the same alarming trends. Professor Porath’s work is only the tip of the toxic iceberg.

The 2014 annual report on “Civility in America,”—a national survey of Americans conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, public relations companies, with KRC Research—showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans across four generations—Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation—perceive incivility to be a major problem.

A 2010 Allegheny College survey, for example, on Americans’ views of civility in politics was revealingly titled “Nastiness, Name-Calling & Negativity.” Professor Porath’s 2011 workplace survey found that just over half of employees reported that they experienced rude treatment from fellow employees at least once a week. A 2012 Rasmussen survey found that some 75 percent of Americans felt that people “are becoming ruder and less civilized.”

Much of the discussion generated by reports of increasing incivility focuses on its negative effects on democratic discourse or its direct costs to individuals. Various research initiatives have popped up to promote more thoughtful, less rancorous political engagement, while new “civility projects” and other programs aim to encourage people to “choose civility” and thereby reduce stress in their life.

The findings of these reports are generally consistent with other research published in recent years on the frequency of disrespectful speech and behavior. Though everything from anonymous Internet commenters to politicians was cited as contributing to the issue, most Americans regarded common actions of their fellow citizens as uncivil, such as the way they use cell phones in public or conduct themselves on social media. But the concern with incivility was really driven home by direct personal experiences of rudeness and disrespect, daily experiences of which were especially common at work and online.

Here’s the problem: data from the “Civility in America” project don’t seem to indicate any “incivility cycle” among the general public. Very few people acknowledge having an uncivil behavioral reaction when confronted by the rude, mean, and inconsiderate actions of others. But there was one consistent reaction to rude or mean behavior: tacit avoidance. And avoidance constitutes a problem of its own. In unpleasant face-to-face situations, people often either leave, simply ignore the offender, or suffer in silence under a torrent of abuse. Encountering online ugliness, they often respond by “defriending,” leaving a site or online discussion, or dropping out of an online community. Incivility at work leads people to quit their jobs due to the perception that there’s nothing that can be done to effect change. Although all of this is understandable, avoidance may be cumulatively fostering the incivility problem. The “art of living together,” to borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr, requires interaction. Take that away and incivility may be self-perpetuating.

There’s reason to believe that Millennials may represent a part of the solution to this issue. While their older counterparts believe the rise of rudeness is rather hopeless and unstoppable, Millennials are up to four times as likely to believe that civility will improve in the near future. They are vastly less pessimistic than the preceding generations.

Rather than quietly avoiding uncivil situations, Millennials tend to speak with their wallets. Because of how they were treated by someone in an organization, nearly half (49 percent) have either stopped buying from the company and/or advised others not to buy (44 percent). They have stopped attending pro and college sports because of uncivil behavior they witnessed on the field or in the crowd.

Word of incivility can spread with incredible speed via social media—the domain of Millennials—and it can have real costs to those who make missteps, such as in the case of the new media firm that sent out a crude tweet on behalf of Chrysler or any number of brand fails that have damaged companies’ reputations, in some cases beyond repair. Loyalty is essential to maintain a stellar brand, and Millennials are very aware of their power of choice and are equally as willing to exercise their power and hold companies and public figures accountable. Social media users have also shown that they can unite for good causes and spread the word about events where abuse or unfairness might be taking place, such as they did during the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri. Millennials also make good use of sites like Glassdoor to anonymously share the unfiltered truth about what goes on at a company, and particularly how fairly employees are treated, making it harder for bosses who behave badly to recruit new talent.

With social media giving the individual unprecedented ability to make their voice heard, there may yet be hope that the uncivil amongst us will be left with no place to hide.