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.

Against all biases: Do we really need more diversity in research and innovation?

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There are reasons for achieving greater diversity in science. Diversity in the widest sense, including gender, ethnic and social background diversity. This is not simply a matter of justice, which by itself should represent a sufficient argument for defending diversity. Actually, it goes beyond such an “ideal” into the accomplishment of “practical” purposes. Prerequisites that are crucial for advancing knowledge and generating socio-economic advantages.

Scientific progress depends on openness. The openness that allows deeper examination of evidence against, or in favor, of a hypothesis. The openness needed to verify and reproduce results. A condition that is essential to understanding a problem and finding possible solutions without having to revert to notions of faith or ideological loyalties. Openness is strengthened by a diversity of ideas, and at the same time openness encourages new perspectives that are worth investigating.

Scientists, as well as all types of innovators, benefit from context awareness. This refers to understanding the background underlying a specific problem. This is also related to empathy: our capacity to be sensitive to the needs and experiences of others.  Based on such awareness, scientists and innovators can come up with new applications that are both novel and relevant to humanity. These abilities are less likely to be developed in highly homogeneous or uniform organizations.

Scientific research and innovation are cooperative enterprises. Discovering and exploiting new knowledge typically involves interactions among people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds and cultures. Challenges of local and global significance, such as those concerning human health and the environment, demand the combination of resources and expertise that cannot always be linked to a single institution or geographical region. Moreover, intellectual and economic outputs may target varied stakeholders worldwide. Therefore, improving diversity is a necessary step towards properly framing complex questions and identifying what is needed to reach a solution.

Do we understand this problem? Is this the right technique? Should we move in this direction? These are questions that researchers address on a daily basis. To answer them, scientists pursue their own perspectives and methods, while simultaneously considering competing approaches and explanations. Thus, finding “truth” entails a persistent effort to reject partial views influenced by individual assumptions, historical circumstances or particular organizational settings.

To better understand the world and bring greater benefits to people, researchers must fight preconceptions that are imposed by the narrowness of their own knowledge and experiences. The restraints forged from our ignorance. However, to effectively struggle against such biases, we need more diverse research environments and leaderships, not less.