The Power of (In)Civility

Apr 13 / Emily Vajjala, Ph.D.
Why can’t we just be civil?  I hear that question all the time, and at face value, I understand why people ask it.  The world has seen waves and waves of civil unrest since the beginning of… well… civilization.  It’s exhausting.  

But let me ask you… 

What is civility?  

Stop right there!  Don’t you dare pull out your dictionary.  Dictionary definitions are so basic.  They give you only the most rudimentary sense of a word.  Dictionaries simply do not tackle the years and years of layers of meaning that make up a word’s connotations.  Meaning is much, much more complicated than what we see in a dictionary.  

Okay, now that we have that disclaimer… let’s talk about the dictionary definition really quick.  And then we are going to move past it.    

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines civility as politeness. I'm going to tell you right now:  I cannot stand that definition of civility.  It leaves out so much.  Let’s unpack that. 

In 2018, Thought Catalog published a compilation from Reddit of “50 Polite Ways to Tell Someone to Screw Off." The list includes such clever comments as “I envy those who haven’t met you,” and “Lose my number.” Is this civility?  Can you politely say something rude or horrible to someone and still get to claim civility?  Where do ethics come in?

The more nuanced definitions will conceptualize civility as a combination of politeness and ethics.  These definitions tend to be provided by academics and experts who have studied civility in depth.  For example, Spence, Tyahur, and Jackson conceptualize civility as a triage of “awareness, acknowledgement, and respect for others.” Politeness isn’t enough.  We need mutual respect and care to practice civility.  And that must be grounded in awareness of others.  Simply put, as Lane and McCourt wrote, in 2013, civility does not exist outside of ethics.

What does this mean about how do we understand civility? 

Civility = Politeness + Ethics 

I prefer to think of civility like an equation.  Civility = Politeness + Ethics.  This means that you can be polite, yet also uncivil. If you are behaving in an unethical matter, even if politely so, you do not get to claim civility.  On the flip side, this also means that you can be ethical, but not civil.  The polite route is not the only ethical route. 

Consider the following example.  You are at the grocery store and you encounter a person screaming racist and sexist slurs at people.  Do you politely ask this person if they could, please, refrain from hurling slurs?  Or is it okay to get angry and approach aggressively?  What if instead of screaming, this person is being polite as they use racist and sexist slurs?  Does that change anything? 
The correct answer is that there is no correct answer.  Responding in a civil manner is fair, but when someone initiates unethical (and thus uncivil) behavior, we should not require or expect a polite response from those targeted by this misbehavior. 

Let’s get back to the age of (in)civility. 

As I mentioned in the opening of this blog post, I frequently hear people lamenting the lack of civility in our politics, and in how we speak to one another.  I frequently hear something like “why can’t we be civil anymore?”  It’s an interesting question.  And a flawed one.  When has society ever been civil?    

Some of the politeness of ages past may have been lost, but incivility is as prevalent as ever.  Why do we expect a polite response to unethical politeness?  Today’s increase in anger and outrage is often warranted.  We are seeing angry responses to unethical behavior where we once saw passivity.  Incivility isn’t more common:  But impoliteness might be.  Ask yourself the question though:  Why might we expect polite responses to unethical behavior?  Who does that benefit?  I’ll tell you. 

It benefits the status quo. 

I’ve outlined the problem with expectations of civility and the conflation of politeness and civility.  But I’m going to do you one better.   

What can we do about it? 

  • Don’t conflate politeness with civility.  While politeness is one component, do not forget about ethics.  This is vital.  Politeness can mask a lot of unethical behavior.  Be careful not to view a polite aggressor as more innocent than someone with an impolite reaction to the aggressor’s sugarcoated but hurtful words. 

  • Incivility can be ethically practiced.  If someone is angry, and that anger is justified, let them be angry.  Support them, don’t judge them. 

  • Remember that you are allowed to be angry in the face of injustice.  You don’t have to feign a smile.  You don’t owe anyone polite words or a passive reaction.
React how you need to react. That can be with civility… or not.  You don’t need civility to do the right thing.  Do the ethical thing.  Sometimes that will include politeness.  Other times it won’t. And that’s okay.   

Want more great communication tips?  Enroll in the Communication Leader Academy and take aggressive action towards building the world you want to live in, one word at a time.  We’ll be polite.  But you don’t have to be. 

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