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Get Civil: The Office isn’t Your Living Room

August 16, 2012

“You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you’re trying to deal with, they will stop dealing with you…There are plenty of people who say, ‘We don’t care about etiquette, but we can’t stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don’t want him around!’ Etiquette doesn’t have the great sanctions that the law has. But the main sanction we do have is in not dealing with these people and isolating them because their behavior is unbearable.”

                                                                                                              Judith “Miss Manners” Martin


Some of you may be wondering – who is Miss Manners? 

Since 1978, American journalist Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) has written a nationally syndicated advice column on manners, politeness and the lost art of etiquette.  While the topics have changed, people are still asking – and Miss Manners is still dispensing all manner of advice.

Etiquette, often called politically correct behavior – a real misnomer – is based on respect, courtesy and consideration of others.  Etiquette, a word rarely used in today’s world, is essentially the unwritten norms that govern “societies.” These rules are different from culture to culture, and are reshaped, sometimes dramatically by social change.

While some people have always seen etiquette as class-based and stifling with its rules and formalities, the appeal of “manners” now appears quaint in most Western cultures.

I Didn’t Know it Was So Bad

I have to admit, I didn’t know how bad it is – out there.  I haven’t worked as a salaried employee in a very long time.  In my role as a consultant, I’m always an outsider, and people often put their best foot forward when I meet them.  I usually meet with managers, senior leaders and teams and don’t hear profanities and don’t get to see the office refrigerator.  Lately, I’ve been digging a little deeper into the work environments that so many employees are complaining about – and frankly, it’s upsetting.

Most articles I read focus on topics like engagement, motivation and leadership. These articles aren’t exposing the day-to-day nitty-gritty of office life – long, stressful hours filled with people who did not choose to work together – but in many cases must depend upon  each other for work to be successful.  Maybe it’s time to talk more about smelly gym clothes in the next cubicle, sick jokes in email boxes and “colleagues” who’ve never utter the words “thank you.”

The recently released 3rd annual poll of Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of the American people believe incivility is a major problem and three-quarters (71%) believe that civility has deteriorated over the past few years.

In the survey, respondents rated the level of incivility in the workplace at 31% and 34% reported that they have personally experienced incivility at work. 23% (two out of ten) said they have quit a job because of incivility at work.

Don’t call it “Civility”

A wise colleague of mine has often said, “Don’t call it civility. That implies simply being polite but doesn’t go far enough. People who work in close relationship to each need to find deeper emotions and values to guide their daily actions towards each other.”  While I wholeheartedly agree, I think in some circumstances a polite “How are you today?” could work wonders.

While dictionary definitions of civility refer to manners, tact and politeness as the essentials of civility, the root of the word stems from the idea of “good citizenship” and the “state of being civilized.”

Lack of “civility” is a broad umbrella term that covers everything from lack of courtesy to outright bullying. Author Daniel Goleman refers to the concept of “deep civility” as being fully present and attuned to the other person, empathizing and being prepared to do what you can for others.  This form of “social intelligence” is one of the cornerstone competencies in Goleman’s definition of emotional intelligence.

It takes above average interpersonal skills to navigate the pressures and demands of most workplaces today. For most people, these skills are were not formally learned.  We assume that families will do the “civil” rearing required to teach children interpersonal appreciation, tolerance and respect.

Since the basis of interpersonal effectiveness is self-awareness – the basis of civility is self-awareness.  Self control (aka impulse control) is the hallmark of self-awareness. It requires constant self-regulation – the understanding of the impact that others have on you – and that you have on others. Without these skills, the workplace, or any social group or institution, is the like Wild West – where anything goes and everything is in an underlying state of chaos.

In going beyond politeness, Daniel Goleman references to the Civility Credo of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center:

  • Conduct yourself with integrity, courtesy and respect toward fellow members of our community
  • Hold individuals accountable for their actions
  • Promote an environment where individuals feel safe and supported

Empathy. Respect. Consideration. Kindness. Caring. Integrity. Trust. Forgiveness. Patience. Humility. Humor. Compassion. Gratitude. Accountability. Honesty.  These are the qualities that create cultures of civility – of “good citizenship.”

PTSD is no longer confined to war zones

Globalization. Life changing technology.  Chronic economic uncertainty. Toxic politics. The decline of privacy and personal time. Generational differences. Major demographic shifts. The easing of formalities in all spheres of life.  24/7 global media. Social media. Climate change. A Me not We ethos.

Blame them all for the decline in civility.

Blame organizational and institutional leadership for terrible role modeling. Blame the schools that stopped teaching rules for etiquette thirty years ago. Bowing to cultural pressures and strapped by a shrinking commitment to public education, teachers can barely get through lesson plans. Blame parents, many of them struggling to manage financial challenges and harsh time schedules.

Blame the airlines. Those well-groomed, polite flight attendants of the past have turned into salespeople, safety guards, conflict mediators, overhead baggage handlers and terrorist watchers – all for less pay and benefits.

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is usually associated with serious trauma, exposure to war, crimes, mental and physical abuse and forms of social and physical trauma. When PTSD, was formally designated as a diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, it was associated with “catastrophic stress,” something beyond the range of normal human experience.  In the years since then trauma has been redefined as part of human life.  

 Although the term, PTSD, continues to be understood and redefined by psychiatric organizations, many experts concede that “work trauma” of different forms is real and on the rise.  One form may be brought on by the relentless pressures to meet unreasonable deadlines, do more with less and less while working long hours without rest.  Global economic uncertainties continue to create conditions that trigger fear and promote chronic anxiety.  Lack of job and economic mobility limits choice – and many of today’s workers feel a mix of resentment, anger and resignation about their work.

A recent study from the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in Germany demonstrated that the stress induced hormones hydrocortisone and noradrenaline shut down the brain regions for goal-directed behaviors. The study reinforces the knowledge that when we are stressed we fall back into old patterns rather than focus on new goals.

When individuals are unable to cope effectively with stressors and can’t regain “allostasis,” their systems experience allostatic load – the state where stress load exceeds available energy.  We all have experience with this – depending on your physiological state (rest, emotions, decisions, internal conflicts, and external demands) it’s easy to reach stimulus overload when we reach a certain tipping point.  These situations are magnified within work settings when the pressure to perform (well) is constant.

Allostatic overload results in an inability to regain physical and emotional stability. Many believe these high levels of stress are the new normal – meaning that many people in the workplace are chronically emotionally “triggered.” As Daniel Goleman points out, “Because the social brain makes emotions contagious, the danger comes when we take in the negativity, and fail to metabolize it – when the anger, for instance, stays with us, instead of our recovering from it. Over time this builds up to an emotional exhaustion – burnout is the end state.”

Civility is Our Mutual Responsibility

We can’t stop the relentless pace of change. We can’t fix the Euro or lower the unemployment rate.  Though we may tactfully try, we may not even be able to get our co-worker to clean up his cubicle and stop leaving garlic bread in his garbage can.  Every organization and institution, backed by the daily practices of their leaders, needs to adapt a Credo of Civility like the University of Massachusetts Medical Center – and live by it.

But in the end it’s about us. We’re all subject to stress – everyone has pressures and everyone has a story. Sometimes when we truly listen – the loads that our neighbors are carrying are surprising, and often, moving. Practicing civility is a constant commitment. We’re tired. We’re stressed.  Our projects are overdue. Our colleagues haven’t followed through. Some don’t respond to our emails.  The lines are long at the supermarket. The traffic is getting worse. People are fighting on television – and at home. It’s not easy.

But ultimately creating a civil world – being thoughtful and respectful citizens – is up to us. Action by action.


Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.


Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants


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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynn permalink
    August 16, 2012 3:33 pm

    Again, Louise, your thoughtful insights are uncannily well-timed. I am actually about to go into a meeting with an employee to talk with her about her treatment of others, and she seems to be simply unaware of the impact she has. It brings me back to a question I struggle with a lot: How do you teach empathy and self-awareness? Particularly in adults whose patterns of behavior are long-standing and well-entrenched?

    • August 16, 2012 3:46 pm

      Yes timing is often amazing.
      Wish you the best with a difficult situation. I genuinely believe that most (not all) people who behave in ways that alienate others are not aware of the impact they have. Now many people will disagree with that. In fact, I often find that people believe that all of this behavior is willful and intentional. Those beliefs often don’t serve changing outcomes. I am often reminded of the quote that we “judge others by the way they behave and judge ourselves by our intentions.”
      Rather than “teaching” others empathy and self-awareness (certainly a process) I believe we have to find ways to “remind” people of their own humanity and connect it to that of others. A lot of old emotional baggage often stands in the way of this, so helping people to develop their own emotional awareness is usually the way to begin.
      The reality of today’s society and workplace is that people’s brains are constantly being triggered – threatened or rewarded – so helping people to understand the basics of neuroscience is also valuable. Adults do have entrenched habits – and we’re starting to understand that habits can never really be eliminated but can only be replaced with new habits,
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. August 16, 2012 9:39 pm

    Louise, thanks for putting this sort of thing in the OD mix. Your consistent care and attention to highlight our emotional life at work is invaluable. Having been a therapist, this area is of enormous interest to me. I spent most of my therapist years working in the area of trauma and I believe that a lot of what you describe is down to a capitalist/industrial system that de-humanises us. We are left, in many daily situations, with our anxiety responses and not much else. Hardly progressive, we just cope. I strongly believe that we are now so innured to daily casual interpersonal violence that we have become blind to it. The kind of rudeness I witness in shops and restaurants, the kind of snarling that goes on when driving, the kind of blithe indifference to another’s feelings when criticising a work project or creative idea (in the name of honesty and being “results-focussed”) leaves us wondering where it all went wrong and, sadly, behaving in similar ways, even though, in the privacy of our quietened minds, we recoil at the idea that WE did that, too. While I might not go as far as to label these things as “traumatic”, they are certainly de-humanising and objectifying of other humans. This, to my mind, is not OK. And as you say, it starts with us. It starts with us learning to observe ourselves and short circuiting the impulse to swear at shop assistants or insult waiters or put down our co-workers (just because that woman over there is doing it doesn’t make it OK).

    • August 17, 2012 10:21 am

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your kind words. There is, I believe, a stunning lack of awareness of what really drives human behavior. That the majority of institutions and organizations still largely ignore, even dismiss, emotions is astounding. Organizations still referring to human communication as soft and persisting in a general ignorance about human dynamics in 2012 leaves me speechless (well nearly).

      Clearly, our current organizational structures lead to dehumanization, as you say. We’re not talking enough about that. Lack of civility is the tip of the iceberg. It seems a bit silly to be talking about things like keeping top “talent” and engagement when we don’t have the basics down when it comes to basic respect. This, of course, must tie into the economic system. What’s daunting is that now these systems are global – nearly completely interconnected. So what happens in China, reverberates in New Zealand. That’s why I feel strongly that the “movement” needs to be centered around workplace humanization, rather than the traditional focus of just systems. Emotional freedom reflects that humanity.

      I hear what you say about trauma – but with evidence from neuroscience, I think we are learning just how deep emotional wounding goes. The constant bombardment of stimulus is surely playing a role in it.

      Always appreciate your insights,

  3. August 17, 2012 12:00 am

    Louise – you have covered many excellent points. The decline of civility in the work place is reportedly on the increase with a commensurate increase in bad language from both men and women. There is now a cultural acceptance that this is OK and glorified as well in TV, the media and film.

    That’s before we even get onto abusive management styles and bullying which have always been there.

    But if interaction between peers is not civil, the ground is set for a tolerance of unacceptable behaviour which has far reaching negative consequences. Businesses lose millions from absenteeism caused by stress. This is a top which needs to be raised regularly.

    • August 17, 2012 10:29 am

      Hi Dorothy,

      Thanks for your insights. You’re right – the role of the media in sanctioning lazy, thoughtless language is enormous. I agree that abusive management styles have
      always been there, but the light and dark of the differences now is really stunning. Organizations have always been subject to the same dynamics as family systems but the adults have really been absent lately. Conscious, responsive and responsible adults.

      I also believe that the interaction between peers is critically important. That’s why I emphasize the point that civility starts with each one of us.

      Can you imagine the massive economic savings if we had more civil, humane workplaces?

      Thanks again!

  4. September 2, 2012 9:35 pm

    Very interesting and smart post


  1. Get Civil: The Office isn’t Your Living Room | digitalNow |
  2. What Business Should Know About The High Costs Of Uncivil Behavior | Mindful Matters

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