The topic of civility has been on my mind a lot lately, inspired partly by a thread I’m enjoying on the new TED Conversations forum and partly by a series of recent personal experiences. Human interactions have always fascinated me, none more so than how we behave when we disagree.
Civility often gets a bad rap from the more contentious among us, who believe that it means we must always be “nice” to each other, and always in agreement. At the risk of sounding contentious myself, I civilly disagree. Civility can be the most useful precisely during times of disagreement and dissatisfaction.
Recently I heard that a friend of a friend of a friend was upset when her child didn’t receive a participation ribbon at a youth academic event that I’d hosted. I was aware of (and somewhat puzzled by) the fact that I’d come home with an extra ribbon. But no one at the event had said anything at the time, so I thought I’d simply miscounted.
I don’t begrudge the complaint. Elementary school children expecting pretty blue ribbons get upset if they don’t get one like everyone else. And moms are protective and want justice, even when it comes to little blue ribbons. But it was a complaint three degrees and a month removed from the situation, when there was an immediate first degree resolution the day of the event.
As it was, I reached out to the parent and told her I’d heard of her and her daughter’s disappointment and how badly I felt about it and informed her that I still had the extra ribbon and would get it to her promptly. I did, apologizing to both the mom and the child for the inadvertent oversight, and both were happy, however belatedly.
In another youth program in which I’m active, I’ve been hearing from parents disappointed by the judging process their children have experienced. Tell those who run the programs, I’ve urged, so they have an opportunity to correct the problems, or to at least help create a paper trail. But parents explain that they don’t want to seem ungrateful, or like spoil sports because their kids didn’t win. So year after year the locker room complaints continue and nothing changes.
Yet when I raised a similar concern with program administrators, as a result of my own personal experiences, they were immediately responsive, grateful I’d mentioned the problem and said it corroborated a few other complaints they’d gotten. The administrator acted immediately and set plans in place for improvement next season, to help ensure the problems didn’t happen again.
And we’ve all had bad service somewhere. Recently we had lunch at a chain restaurant where our server was less than hospitable, at one point chucking a plate of recooked food onto our table hard enough to rattle the silverware. When the manager came by to ask how we were enjoying our meal, we hesitated.
As much as complaints fill the airwaves and newspaper columns and countless blogs, as much as we grumble to each other privately, it really can be hard to look someone in the eye and say, “We’re displeased.” It’s confrontational. It exposes us. It potentially threatens them.
But we also felt the manager really wanted to know. Why waste the time she took to come to each table to take the pulse of her restaurant? So, we told her, gently, that the food was good, but the waitress was brusque and inattentive. The manager thanked us and apologized and when our bill came, she returned to our table and said lunch was on the house. We protested her kindness. She insisted. For the courage of speaking up curteously, we got a free lunch. And for the price of a free meal and a commitment to service, she got return customers.
Speak Up, Speak Out!
There are countless more examples that surely ring familiar to many, but the long and the short of it is that it’s generally better to speak up and speak out, to communicate honestly, civilly and clearly, than to let poor service, mistakes and inequities go unchallenged, or to at least appear unnoticed and thereby implicitly accepted.
Speaking out won’t fix everything of course. I’ve written countless letters to legislators about social ills, bills I like or don’t like and various issues. Most of the time, I get a form response. Now and again, I get an official letter from the heart. But I’ve said something and there, in the sea of opinions, I’ve placed my thoughts on an island of possible action, or at least on the shores of consideration.
The main reasons people often give for not speaking out, when and where it counts, are usually things like “It won’t make a difference,” “It’s petty,” “ I don’t want to make a scene.” But grumbling to others certainly doesn’t make a difference; increases the chances of the issue becoming petty, if it wasn’t already; triggers rumors (which are worse than “scenes”) , and reflects lack of gratitude anyway. So why not just speak out in the first place?
There are in fact, several good, civil ways to speak up and speak out effectively.
- Take an official, administrator or manager aside and briefly and politely express concerns, and then ask about the best time to speak about the issue at greater length.
- Write a letter to the responsible party a day or two after an experience that clearly and rationally sets out your concerns.
- Offer possible solutions, which enlists the person you’re complaining to as an ally instead of an opponent.
- Thank the person for listening.
- Follow up in a week or two if you don’t get a response, and gently persist if you get an inadequate response.
- Continue working your way up the chain of command if you don’t get a response or a satisfactory resolution.
- Send thanks for a satisfactory resolution, or even if someone just listens attentively and has clearly done his or her best to help fix a problem.
And pay it forward! If you get a good resolution, share it with others. That serves as positive reinforcement for those on both sides of the issue who have the courage and the character to deal maturely with conflict or dissatisfaction in a civil, constructive fashion, and who demonstrate the ability to use failure and disagreement as opportunities for improvement.
Dealing with issues up front, with civility and a true desire to resolve problems rather than to place blame, accomplishes several things:
- It opens opportunities for true dialog, which can lead to honest assessment, insights and improvements.
- It establishes expectations of communications and cooperation of all involved – and you often get of others exactly what you expect of them.
- It deeply improves the chances of resolving the problem in an enduring fashion.
- It makes collaborators of all involved, rather than combatants.
At the heart of civility lies what makes us human in the first place: the civic sensibility, our need for community and common ground. If we can master the art of civil disagreement, maybe we can finally master ourselves.