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.

Mentoring young researchers

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Confidence nurturing

Around the time I entered the second half of my undergraduate studies, I joined a research group as a trainee or sort of apprentice. Despite my eagerness to become more involved in research- and teaching-related activities, I was entirely ignorant of the day-to-day dynamics of a research environment. Soon I learned that the links between advisers and advisees, or between mentors and mentees, were more complex than those between conventional teachers and students.

It rapidly became clear to me that our advisers led the group, first and foremost, through their moral authority. I learned that advisers can positively impact their teams without relying on an authority given to them solely by hierarchy. They interact with younger researchers with courtesy and consideration, even when facing stressing or demanding situations. Such advisers do not trash talk about their advisees, or expose their vulnerabilities to others in an attempt to downplay the adviser’s responsibilities.

Even when they express their most critical assessments, inspiring advisers possess the ability to make you feel free and secure. Responsible advisers do not have the need to control through fear. Truly good advisers thrive in large part because they promote accountable freedom, and because they earn the trust and loyalty of their teams.

Long after graduation I came to more deeply appreciate another guiding principle: Effective learning requires an unavoidable interplay between progress and failure.

When a learning opportunity arose my advisers did not give me reasons to doubt the potential value of the new experience. They did not ask me to overthink whether I was worth it or not. They told me to go for it and get it done to the best of my abilities and resources available.  When the challenge became bigger than one could have anticipated, they did not regret it or tried to find excuses in preparation for a possible failure. If failure occurred, we were allowed and guided to try again, harder, better. Repeating mistakes learned from previous failure was the only mistake to be afraid of.

At a relatively early time in my research experience, I was asked to give a presentation for the group. Initially I thought that I did not deserve such an invitation. I felt that I was wrongly appropriating a place that only graduate and more experienced researchers were entitled to. Fortunately, those thoughts gradually became irrelevant. My mentors did not use this presentation as a mere test of my work performance or skills, they did not ask me to do it just to satisfy some internal procedure, and they never questioned the significance of the occasion. They had simply given me an opportunity to advance my learning experience, to strengthen my connections with my work and that of others.

That first presentation provided me with a profounder message though. An explicit reminder of something that had been encoded around me all the time: I belonged and was welcomed to a community. Furthermore, all those student presentations and discussions allowed us to understand that mutual respect and support were the glue that kept such community advancing together, despite material obstacles or other difficulties.

This was confidence building as a patient nurturing of intellectual growth. Mentoring seen as the unselfish gardening and sculpturing of young minds. Those were our advisers. Incessantly, almost imperceptibly, exercising an unpretentious brand of leadership based on ethical conduct and professional integrity. A generous exemplification of respect for the efforts and capabilities of others, in triumph and in adversity.

For that and more, I will always be grateful to the mentors of my early years in academia: Gianfranco, Guillermo and Fernando.

This post is also available at Medium.