Dr. Bjorn Mercer


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs, American Public University

Is civility important? Some people would say no. Others would say the time for civility has passed and only action is needed, which is a bit dramatic. Beyond revolutionaries or those who crave power, civility is the term that defines how we act in a functional society.

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Civility is also an integral part of soft skills, which are the “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.” Civility could also be viewed in other ways:

  • Courtesy
  • Courteousness
  • Politeness
  • Good manners
  • Graciousness
  • Consideration
  • Respect
  • Gentility
  • Urbanity
  • Cordiality
  • Geniality
  • Pleasantness
  • Affability

With civility being such an important part of workplace soft skills, why do so many people feel that American culture is uncivil? It’s not hard to be civil to the person next to you. Why are people not civil to each other while they are at work, shopping, driving or using the internet?

Civility Has Become a Major Problem in America

In a recent Weber and Shandwick poll, 69% believed that civility is a major problem in America today; this number is higher than in previous years. Why is incivility getting worse?

People experience incivility from day to day. For example, the Weber and Shandwick poll notes that 84% of people have experienced incivility, and most of these experiences occur while people are shopping, driving or using social media sites.

I have to agree that we have all experienced uncivil behavior while we are shopping or driving; people get upset for many different reasons when returning items, and they get especially upset when driving. Experiencing incivility in one form or the other is not uncommon.

The Expanded Use of Social Media 

The one factor that has changed over the years in relation to the Weber and Shandwick poll is social media. Social media and the sheer number of people that are on social media has matured since 2010.

In 2010, for example, there were around one billion people using social media. In 2018, that number grew to around two and a half billion.

Although social media allows people to connect like never before in human history, it is also a dumpster fire and can be used by con artists. Social media has many problems, does not encourage rational and civil behavior, and provides an easily accessible platform to people who espouse hate and extremist views.

Politics: Another Area of Incivility

Another place where the perception of incivility is rampant is in politics. Many people feel that incivility in U.S. politics has increased over the last few years.

One unfortunate reality is that the partisan divide has increased since the Clinton administration. From an analysis of Gallup polls, the partisan gap — the difference between the percentage of Republicans versus the percentage of Democrats who support the president — has increased.

From January 2018 to January 2019, for example, there was a 79-point gap for President Trump. This might seem huge, but Obama had a 77-point gap in January 2016 to January 2017 and G.W. Bush had a 76-point gap from January 2004 to January 2005.

Trump is unique in that he has only had partisan gaps in the 70s, while Obama and G.W. Bush had gaps that were closer to Clinton’s gap of 61 points in January 1996 to January 1997. So partisan divide has gone from horrible in the 60s to extra horrible with partisan gaps in the upper 70s for the last three presidents. These partisan gaps are especially disheartening when you look at the largest gaps under Reagan, which were in the 50s, and G.H.W. Bush, Carter, Ford, Johnson, Kennedy, and Eisenhower, who had gaps in the 20s and 30s.

Do these partisan gaps make political conversations uncivil? Maybe. Like encountering an uncivil person when shopping or driving, which is rare, encountering someone who is uncivil when talking about politics will happen because of the extreme partisanship of contemporary U.S. politics. To make things worse, if you spend a lot of time on social media and talk about politics, then you might have an uncivil encounter every day with people who are mad, judgmental and uninterested in civil discourse.

Many Workplaces Are Civil, but Not All of Them Are

The one place where uncivil behavior is not overwhelming people is at work. From the Weber and Shandwick poll, 92% of respondents stated that their workplace is very civil or somewhat civil in 2018. This is truly outstanding because the people whom we work with are incredibly varied; they are often liberal, conservative, moderate, apathetic and often diverse in their ethnic makeup.

Even though 92% of people feel that their workplace is very civil or somewhat civil, 29% of the poll’s respondents experienced an uncivil encounter while at work in 2018. This means that even though some people have experienced incivility at work, they still feel that their workplace is civil, which is a very different attitude than how people feel about public civility in general.

Another factor is the connection between diversity and inclusion and civility. About 37% of employees in uncivil workplaces feel that their work is not diverse and inclusive, while 15% of those in civil workplaces feel that their work is diverse and inclusive.

How Do We Demonstrate Civility?

So what is to be done? The only thing we can do about civility is to demonstrate it on an individual basis every day.

We cannot control other people, and we cannot make others civil. Also, we cannot change the social media habits of bitter people, and we cannot stop trolls. The only thing we can do is control ourselves.

In an excellent Psychology Today article about civility, Thomas Plante suggests the following:

  • Thinking before speaking
  • Focusing on facts rather than beliefs and opinions
  • Disagreeing with others respectfully
  • Showing an openness to others without hostility
  • A respectfulness of diverse views and groups
  • Demonstrating a spirit of collegiality
  • Offering productive and corrective feedback to those who behave in demeaning, insulting, disrespectful, and discriminatory ways

If each of us works on being civil day in and day out, our little piece of the world will be a civil place. If everyone does the same thing, day in and day out, then the world will be a civil place because of the work we all do individually.

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About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.