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The Uncivil War

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Civility costs nothing and buys everything. -Mary Wortley Montagu

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, he had been completely paralyzed from the waist down, following a bout with polio, for more than ten years. The recent PBS series "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" explored his significant disability and how it was largely hidden from the public. FDR was wheelchair-bound, but managed to appear standing during speeches and public appearances by the use of metal leg braces and heavy podiums.

In Roosevelt's day, the media did not photograph him in his wheelchair, and did not mention his condition. As one commentator in the PBS series speculated, he would not have been as protected today in our 24 hour endless news cycle. In the commentator's opinion, FDR would likely have been ridiculed and considered unfit to govern by today's extreme media and political opposition. I wonder if that's true. Would we, as a nation, miss out on such an extraordinary leader based on physical limitations and narrow public opinion? Have social norms changed that dramatically that only the physically attractive and able-bodied among us are truly electable to the presidency?

I've been thinking about civility and the changes in acceptable social behaviors. Are humans becoming increasingly uncivil toward one another? If so, what does that mean? Think about some of the changes in acceptable behaviors as you go about your daily routine. Consider what your mother might say about some of the words that you choose or the body language that you display. I know I'd be in trouble over every eye roll! I'm sorry to say that we all seem to be in the midst of an uncivil war, culturally, that needs our attention.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that people are inherently social and cooperative beings, looking for positive connections with others. We all want to be liked and accepted. Somehow, though, we have become more self-absorbed and are allowing our standards of civility to slide. One thing leads to another, and suddenly it becomes common to hear startlingly graphic profanity while waiting in line for coffee or to be in the presence of grown adults wearing Elmo pajamas at Wal-Mart. Where, then, is the line between respect for others and the great American right to express yourself as an individual and to say and wear whatever you'd like?

Maybe part of this is generational. I grew up living next door to my very old-fashioned grandparents. My grandfather was born in the late 1800's. He didn't use profane language in the presence of women and never left the house without a hat. For a trip to town, it was a gray felt fedora, circa 1950, and he continued to wear it right through the end of his years. Of course, times and fashions change, and I remember both he and my grandmother being more than slightly aghast when my sister and I wore Levi's to school. Perhaps that was just the precursor to Elmo pajamas in public, and we should have paid greater attention to Grandpa's warnings about the impending downfall of civilization.

Of course, clothes can be deceiving. There are plenty of Wall Street types in expensive suits who steal, and plenty more laborers with grease-stained work clothes who have large bank accounts and even larger hearts. What civility is, then, is so much more than appearance. Truly, it is about good manners, respect, politeness and courtesy. It always goes back to the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated. But, more often than not, we don't.

Consider your drive to work today. Like most people, you may have experienced some stress from other drivers in a hurry, or perhaps brought on by yourself because you were running late. We're not a nation known for our driving courtesy. There is something about being behind the wheel of a powerful vehicle, with loud music, and perhaps tinted windows, that brings out aggression and many an unfriendly hand gesture. Road rage is real, and it is dangerous. People have been killed over parking spaces and being cut off in traffic. That's a lot of anger.

Once you made it safely to work, did you experience any incivility in your workplace? It can present itself in many forms at work. Rudeness, bullying, blaming, and exclusion can make for an unpleasant work environment. According to their 2013 Harvard Business Review article "The Price of Incivility," Christine Porath and Christine Pearson assert that "...lack of respect hurts morale-and the bottom line..." because so much productivity is lost dealing with unpleasant situations.

Incivility is also on full display in politics. Battle lines are drawn based on party affiliation, there is constant bickering, and the lack of civility has led to political gridlock in our nation's capital. As November elections draw closer and the races for political office, including that of governor, gain momentum, the political posturing borders on ridiculous. I'd much rather hear a solid growth plan and some inspiring words about Maine's future than name-calling and mud-slinging. Of course, politics have never been completely civil, but the uncivil antics are hurting progress. Whatever happened to respect for an opponent and listening to both sides, or, better yet, supporting the best ideas for the common good?

Rudeness does seem to be rampant. Cell phones and the internet have fueled some behaviors that society can do without. It's rude and generally unpleasant be subject to other people's personal conversations while in a public setting like a restaurant or an airport. The conversations can be amusing, but mostly they are just an annoyance to those of us who enjoy our peace and quiet. If someone is carrying on a cell phone conversation while being waited on at a store or financial institution, how is anyone supposed to deliver great service? The workers certainly aren't getting any respect and I'm not sure why they should be expected to jump to help someone who can't disconnect from their phone for the duration of a transaction.

Why are we so uncivil toward one another? Is the level of competition and judgment in our culture driven by the pace of technology and change? Or do we just need to stop, take ownership, and be more understanding and considerate as we move through our days at work and at home?

There are a few things we can all do to help end the uncivil war, both at work and at home. Teaching our kids empathy, respect, tolerance and good manners is a start. It's also a good idea to monitor our own behaviors. While I generally don't use profanity in public, there probably isn't any need to use it at all. Being friendly in most situations is helpful. Smiling, saying hello, and listening attentively will go a long way. Practice behavioral awareness, such as positive body language, and avoid negative statements and judgments. Think before you speak or write. And please, leave the Elmo pajama pants at home.

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

4.75 (4)


Deb Sparrow
Maine State Credit Union
Senior Vice President/CLO

Deb is Senior Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at Maine State Credit Union. She directs the retail functions as well as serving as a cultural champion and development leader. She still owns, and uses, the 1987 Rolodex given to her on her first day in banking and has that much experience in all types of lending. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series.



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