The vanishing civility*

* The game of jerks, bozos and assholes

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Respect, decorum and civility are not only disappearing from the political discourse. It is not just about the incessant demonization of immigrants, criminalization of dissenting views and assaults on reason.  It is also about the public and private interactions among workers of the so-called “knowledge economies”, which include scientists and entrepreneurs (or their wannabes).

Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule defines the “Dirty Dozen”, a top-12 list of everyday actions that toxic, abusive workers exercise. It ranges from personal insults and threats (verbal and nonverbal) to “status slaps” and public shaming. I would also add various creative uses of passive aggression, distortions of reality, bullshitting tactics and shameless lies thrown in your face or behind your back. You also have those individuals who are “not rude” but keep telling people to “suck it up”, to get “their act together” or to believe that disrespect is just a question of interpretation.

This type of behavior is not only inappropriate and unfortunate. It can have negative consequences on individuals, organizations and societies. It is not only about ignoring rights and dignity, which should greatly matter anyway, but also about destroying trust and productivity. This “way of life” can be witnessed in physical and more virtual settings, including emails, discussion forums and social media.

A polite asshole is still an asshole

Civility is more than being polite. I have encountered a good number of “polite” and smiling fools, who have mastered an astounding capacity for incivility. Politeness can be manipulated to befriend the hypocrite and the conceited, who repeatedly destroy and vilify.

Civility means bringing discussion of problems to a ground where people emphasize arguments and the evidence to support or refute the arguments. I remember a particularly poisonous character who, when confronted with critical views of his actions, replied with statements such as “she said that because she is a woman” or “I do it because I am in charge”.  There are also those who exploit “friendly” appearances to backstab you and get away with it because of their status in the “authority” or ass-kissing heap.  What about those who condescend behind a mask of politeness?

Civility also requires (and benefits from) conversations that are based on facts or reproducible observations. Because of this, civility can enrich efforts to resolve conflicts or tough disagreements. Civility is also about making people feel safe in their work environments. Environments where privacy, diversity of ideas and fairness are more than corporate soundbites. Civility can also involve strong, argumentative and even witty deliberation, without having to recur to veiled threats. Civility also flourishes in organizations with a zero-tolerance to unfounded accusations, exaggerated claims and disregard for people’s basic needs.

 “This aggression will not stand, man”. The Dude in The Big Lebowski.

Disagreement and debate, and even a good dose of confrontation, are crucial in public discourse, especially that engaging scientists and potential innovators. However, this does not mean that we should accept incivility as a natural consequence of modern times, or that there is little we can do about it. This is actually too important to let a few noxious people to hijack public or more circumscribed interactions for their selfish gains.

Now, more than ever, there is a need to stand up to jerks and other self-centered dunces. This must be done in firm and rational ways.  I recently witnessed a good example of how to do it well.

A colleague of mine stood up to an instance of abusive (email-driven) behavior directed to a third person, and his response displayed features that are worth highlighting:

  1. Straight to the point. My colleague clearly and succinctly explained why an inappropriate behavior occurred and what motivated him to respond.
  2. Do not lose your cool. My colleague did not use expressions that could be interpreted as ill-mannered or derogatory.
  3. Separate people from the problem. My colleague’s response focused on the fact that a behavior was uncivil, without shaming or attacking the person behind the behavior.
  4. Reduce escalation. Although my colleague was quick and firm in his response, he made it clear (in words and with actual actions) that he did not intend to further add to the exchange. Moreover, he avoided threats or expressions of provocation.
  5. You are a decent person. You speak out because it is the right thing to do for the good of your community.

We cannot let incivility tear us apart. Incivility is in the road to destruction. We have had enough of that.

– I thank Alayne Smith for comments on an early draft.

5 thoughts on “The vanishing civility*”

  1. Do provide an example of dealing with this well (in a follow-up post?) — even if you can’t publish the one you saw, even if you have to make it up — but a well-chosen example is worth a hundred bullet points that just talk about what works without showing it.


  2. Where’s the evidence that any of this “emphasis” on civility actually works, on actual people, in actual workplaces? Here’s my opinion, equally lacking in evidence:

    If you have an asshole at your workplace, you need to respond in kind. Tell them they’re being an asshole and that you’re not having any of it. Call them out on their bullshit. Don’t be civil about it. In this way, you have a chance to settle the problem. If it doesn’t get settled in this way, it most likely can’t be settled anyway.

    If you can’t deal with an asshole in that way, that’s a weakness of yours and you *do* need to toughen up. Many humans will instinctively, subconsciously, prey on weakness. They do what they get away with. HR can’t solve that, nor can a bunch of guidelines solve it. It’s part of human nature and if you fire all the “assholes” to protect the weak, your business will probably fail.

    If you reprimand the assholes for breaking some made-up rules, they’ll find new and creative ways to remain assholes without breaking the rules. In fact, they’ll most likely figure out ways to weaponize the rules for themselves, to be even better assholes than before. As you say, being an asshole can be achieved in very subtle ways. I’d recommend looking into how assholes can be manipulated into being more torable, if anything.


  3. If you have not yet, I recommend reading the book “Crucial Conversations” then reviewing “The No Asshole Rule” to see if the book changed your perspective.


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