Civility, We Miss You!

Some 75% of respondents say incivility in America has risen to crisis levels, and 34% have experienced incivility at work, according to the Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey 2017, by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research.

What happened to “civility”? By civility, I mean being polite, considerate, and respectful even when disagreeing passionately with someone. It seems that civility is perceived by some as weakness, passivity, dishonesty, or worse, political correctness and an attack on free speech. Incivility may be manifested in ways such as:

“Unprofessional behavior, rudeness, shouting or swearing, intimidation or bullying, threatening comments or behaviors/actions, unsolicited and unwelcome conduct, comment (oral or written, including e-mail communication), gestures, actions, or contact that cause offense, humiliation, or physical or emotional harm to any individual.

—Workplace Civility and Respect Policy, Ryerson University

Here are a few numbers from Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey 2017, by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research. The third bullet in the list below should cause those in business to reflect:

  • 75% say incivility in America has risen to crisis levels.
  • 56% expect civility to worsen over the next few years.
  • 53% have stopped buying from a company because of uncivil representatives.
  • 25% have experienced cyberbullying or incivility online, up nearly three times since 2011.
  • 34% have experienced incivility at work.

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans (87%) who work in uncivil environments report that incivility has negative consequences. More specifically:

  • 55% - Hurts my job morale
  • 45% - Makes me want to quit
  • 40% - Leads me to be less collaborative
  • 38% - Causes me to feel anger toward my coworkers or employer
  • 36% - Reduces the quality of my work
  • 32% - Has a negative effect on my personal time away from work
  • 26% - Leads me to be less creative
  • 23% - Leads me to call in sick

Supporting a Climate of Civility

Managers and employees must be tasked with the difficult challenge of creating and maintaining the conditions allowing for difficult but civil conversations. When civility slips into political correctness and conflict avoidance, real issues about differences and expectations are subsumed and glossed over. When free speech plummets into a license to insult, conversations enter vicious spirals of attack and defend.

Part of our civility problem is best captured by the Latin phrase, ad hominum, meaning “to the man” or “to the person.” Specifically, it means that we seek to rebut an argument by attacking the character, motivation, or background of the person rather than the substance of the argument.

Being civil doesn’t trample on anyone’s rights. We can still have frank, honest, and even heated conversations without insulting, demeaning, or intimidating others. It does require, however, self-discipline and personal accountability, conscientiousness, empathy, and respect.

There are some simple things we can do to support a climate of civility:

  • Assume the best of people. We often “think the worst,” and too easily misunderstand, misinterpret, and take offense.
  • Think before speaking or acting. By recognizing our emotional “hot buttons,” we can become more self-aware and better manage our responses.
  • Avoid the use of labels, which depersonalize people, e.g. “liberal,” “conservative,” “racist,” “sexist.” Labels are sure-fire ways to spread the virus of incivility.
  • Rely on facts rather than assumptions.
  • Stay away from social media for difficult conversations

Embracing Digital Civility

This latter point raises the issue that much of the incivility we encounter today is online.

Microsoft now has challenged people around the world to embrace “digital civility.” Microsoft’s research in 14 countries relating to the attitudes and perceptions of teens (ages 13 to 17) and adults (ages 18 to 74) about online safety and risk prompted it to create a Digital Civility Index (DCI). Seventeen online risks were divided into four categories:

Behavioral: Treated meanly, trolling, online harassment, cyberbullying, swatting (see “Terminology” at the  end of this article)

Reputational: Doxing, damage to personal and work reputations

Sexual: Receiving/sending unwanted sexts, solicitations, sextortion, “revenge porn”

Personal/Intrusive: Unwanted contact, hate speech, discrimination. Terrorism recruiting.

The top five risks experienced were:

  1. Unwanted contact
  2. Being treated meanly
  3. Trolling
  4. Receiving unwanted sexts
  5. Online harassments

Two out of three respondents said they had fallen victim to at least one risk; that percentage rose to 78% when participants also accounted for the online experiences of friends and family.

In the DCI itself, the lower the percentage score, the higher the level of digital civility. The five countries in the survey with the highest perceived levels of digital civility are:

  • UK – 45%
  • Australia – 51%
  • United States – 55%
  • Belgium – 59%
  • France – 60%

The five countries with the lowest levels of digital civility are:

  • Brazil – 71%
  • Chile – 72%
  • Russia – 74%
  • Mexico – 76%
  • South Africa – 78%

The worldwide average score is 65%. What is concerning is that 30% of respondents say they have become less trusting of people offline because of digital incivility.

Commit to 4 Ideals

Microsoft would like to see digital civility based on empathy become a universal message and commonsense behavior. To help achieve this goal, it has set a DCI challenge by asking people to commit to four ideals, and share their pledge using the hashtags #Challenge4Civility and Im4Digital Civility. Their four ideals are:

Live the Golden Rule: Act with empathy, compassion, dignity, respect, and kindness in every interaction.

Respect Differences: Honor diverse perspectives, and when disagreements surface, engage thoughtfully and avoid name-calling and personal attacks.

Pause Before Replying: Take time to consider if what you post or send could hurt someone, damage their reputation, or threaten their safety.

Stand Up for Yourself and Others: Report activity that threatens anyone’s safety, and preserve evidence of inappropriate behavior.

The only amendment I might make to the above is to add the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not always the best guidance. The Platinum Rule of “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them” is sometimes more appropriate, especially in multicultural businesses.

Civility is priceless, yet it costs nothing!


Trolling: Internet behavior meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone to provoke a response.

Swatting: Tricking emergency services into deploying without cause.

Doxing (from “documents”): Researching and broadcasting private or identifiable information with an intent to extort, coerce, or shame.

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (, which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”



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