A Wake-up Call for the Civility-Deficient – by Terry Howard

Hello there! I sincerely hope that you and yours are doing well and are in good health. I’m being very nice. That’s the stage-setter for where I’m about to take you, some willingly and others, the civility-deficient, perhaps begrudgingly.

I’ll say what many of you believe. And it’s this: In spite of the many pluses, there remains a certain harshness around the edges of many places we go these days. In restaurants, long lines at airports, during conference calls, you name it, insensitivity sometimes rears its head. Callousness and periodic bursts of nastiness occasionally creep into interactions.

Are civility lapses running rampant all over the place? Of course not. But there are pockets where this stuff lingers. (Hey, am I off the mark with this assertion? If you think so, fire off an e-mail to me. Just make sure that it’s, uh, nice!)

Now we could argue for days on end as to the extent and root causes of a general erosion of civility. Blame it on a culture of results at all cost, cutthroat competition, cold-blooded managers, etc. I’ll leave that up to you to debate around your nearest water cooler.

Whatever the causes and the symptoms, we reside somewhere in la-la land if we haven’t noticed that general civility, professional courtesy and overall genuine regard for others have been added to the endangered species list just about everywhere these days.

So what does this look like? Interruptions, foul language, gossip, flaming e-mails, unreturned phone calls, ill-tempered voice mails, chronic lateness for meetings, thank you and praise “amnesia,” condescending attitudes, temper tantrums, inattentiveness, information hoarding… and the list goes on and on.

So what’s the answer? Can we force civility troglodytes to start behaving right?

I like Stephen M. R. Covey Jr. and consider him a personal friend. In his new book, “The Speed of Trust,” he writes about how we all have the capability of “behaving” ourselves into the right behaviors. His lesson is this: “If you are not a caring person now – but desire to be a caring person – then go out and behave in caring ways. If you are not an honest person now – and desire to be an honest person – then go out and behave in honest ways. Just do what caring and honest people do. It may take time, but as you do these things, you can behave yourself into the kind of person you want to be.”

Does Covey’s lesson apply to civility – that we can behave ourselves into being civil? Absolutely! Now if that’s easier said than done, you may want to invest in one of those new “Jerk-O-Meter” gadgets writer Jim Shahin talked about a while back in a magazine article. In it he writes about the Jerk-O-Meter, an invention by some of the best brains the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has to offer. OK, so it hasn’t moved beyond the academic project stage to the marketplace, but don’t you just love the idea? Wow, who would have thought that the jerk business could be profitable?

“The Jerk-O-Meter analyzes your voice tone and cadence while you’re on the phone,” Shahin explained. “Based on your performance, the phone displays messages ranging from ‘Stop being a jerk!’ to ‘You’re a smooth talker.'”

That may work if you’re the one doing the jerking, but what if the jerk (or jerkette) is someone else? Shahin offered his own solution? The portable jerk device, or PJD. “When a guy cuts in front of you in line at the movies, pull out the PJD and it goes off like a siren,” he wrote.

Ah, here are other ways the device could work:

For those who don’t wash their hands after using the restroom: The PJD activates a water sprinkler that drenches them with hot water and soap when they exit the bathroom.

For people who fail to say thanks: The PJD blares out a series of volume-escalating “You’re welcome, Tom! You’re welcome, Tom! “You’re welcome Tom!”

For those who send nasty e-mails: The PJD releases a puff of smoke from the offender’s computer, dials the local fire department, then routes the e-mail up the sender’s management chain.

For those who disrupt meetings with inappropriate behaviors: The PJD releases an electrical bolt so strong that the offender’s hair shoots straight up (Don King style).

For screamers and cussers (#@xz^&*+%!): The PJD turns on this message: “This is a recording. Please repeat what you just said slowly so that we can get your comments into the minutes and into the court proceedings!”

I make this bold assertion: Being civil is good for your health! Don’t believe me? Just think back to a time when you did something nice to someone and how it made you feel. (If any of you have to work really hard to recall such an incident, go ahead and take a little extra time!) Now contrast that to a time when you felt lousy after generating an act of incivility.

For me personally and recently on a plane ride from Asia, I leaped up from my newspaper to assist a person who had been struggling to squeeze his bag into a crammed storage bin. Wow, not only was he so grateful, I was engulfed with warm feelings afterward. Once my flight landed, I set out to do random acts of civility for the rest of the day. And the interesting thing is this: My “feeling good” got exponentially better upon each new act of kindness.

And later, after a thorough physical, my doctor inquired about why my vital signs were so positive, my blood pressure in particular. My reply? “I’ve been walking a lot, watching my diet and being awfully nice to people, Doc!” I then told him that my recently purchased Jerk-O-Meter helped keep me in check along with the “nastiness reduction” prescription he gave me during my last visit.

In closing and in parting, try being habitually civil on one hand and, on the other, swallow your pride and meet every act of incivility that comes your way with a dose of civility. Just imagine the rippling effect when we all join in acts of civility. As author William Faulkner once wrote, “You move a mountain one stone at a time!”

Now go be civil!

© Terry Howard is a writer, trainer and story teller who reads, writes and revels in Douglasville, Georgia. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com

Terry Howard

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