As an etiquette coach, I am frequently asked if Americans are less civil today than in the past. It’s difficult to answer this question without an accurate means to measure civility over the years.
Are Americans perceived to be less civil today than in the past? Then, I answer with an emphatic yes. The perception of our civility today is the key issue. If we think our society behaves rudely and lacks proper manners, then we need to address today’s civility. The past really doesn’t matter in this instance. What do we presently need to improve our society?
Our perception of civility is reflected in our media. In the past, if someone acted rudely at the annual hometown shindig, only the locals knew about it. Today, the instant an etiquette faux pas is made, the news spreads around the world. Etiquette rules were broken in the past, but we weren’t as aware of the indiscretions as we are in today’s high-tech world.
Media has created multiple avenues of expression to kindle a rhetorical war. We have access to 24-hour news, talk shows, blogs, and social Internet sites. Incivility in every sector of American society is magnified by our inability to unplug ourselves.
Whenever there is discontent, people want to be heard. This can be seen throughout history from religious expression, civil rights movements, troubled economies, to political unrest. The stress and anger generated by such expressions compromise our moral consensus. Constant exposure results in the deterioration of civility. What was once considered rogue behavior is now accepted in the mainstream.
Incivility has permeated all aspects of our society. Our moral filters are voided on social media sites. People say whatever is on their minds. Foul language is used frequently and casually everywhere. Road rage is flagrant. Basic manners, such as a simple “please” and “thank you,” are infrequent. Casual business attire has decreased the structure for proper business behavior.
Unquestionably, elections bring out some of the worst examples of incivility. Politicians criticize other candidates personally rather than the policies for which they stand. I received four unsolicited phone calls at home just this morning demonstrating this. Younger generations are learning by example to publicly berate and criticize others without concern for other people’s feelings.
When and how have we become so desensitized? It’s easy to blame the media and the shock value provided to increase ratings, curse technological advancements for better communication, or point to a poor economy having created stress. It’s difficult to dig deep within and blame ourselves for decreased moral standards.
The cost of incivility is high. It impacts organizations and businesses economically. Productivity decreases, work time declines, and the sense of belonging as a team player is lost. The cornerstones on which America was built are crumbling.
So, where will America stand when it comes to civility? Will we continue to settle for mediocrity or will we strive to create and maintain a society respected worldwide for its civility? The solution is easy. The process for change is difficult. The change must come from within. We must learn to respect ourselves and others, separate truth from fiction, and understand the consequences of our actions.
The Golden Rule must prevail and begin at home, but be present in all aspects of our society. Every citizen needs to step up to the plate to make change happen.
Good manners need to be a priority because life is more enjoyable when we are surrounded by polite and courteous people.
Sandra Hyde is president of the Etiquette School of Ohio in Beavercreek