Monday, April 30, 2007

The Death of Civility

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend during the last few years: the death of civility. The first symptoms of civility’s demise showed when e-mail was born. The symptoms worsened with the introduction of instant and text messaging. Civility took to its deathbed with discussion boards and listservs. The final nail in the coffin was driven with the advent of blogging.

Let me back up a bit. Those under 30 may not remember life before e-mail. But way back when IBM Selectric typewriters roamed the Earth—before e-mail, instant messaging, iPods, PDAs, laptops, cell phones, Blackberries and all those other oh-so-essential gadgets—people communicated in three basic ways: face-to-face, over the telephone, and by letter.

When you wrote a letter to someone, you had to take some time to think about what you were writing (you didn’t want to have to use White-Out or correction tape). When you called someone on the phone (you know that thing on your desk with the light that flashes to tell you that you have a voice mail message) you spoke to a real person, usually either the person you were intending to call or a receptionist or secretary. You actually got to hear the person’s reaction to what you were saying, so you could adjust your tone (and your message) accordingly. And, of course, when you had to actually make the Herculean effort to get up from your desk and walk down the hall to speak to someone face to face, you didn’t want to come off as a jerk, so you were careful with what you said and how you said it.

Now, of course, we communicate primarily through the electronic media: e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, blogs, discussion board, listservs, voice mail messages, video conferences, and the like.

When e-mail first arrived, it was oh so cool. You could send a letter to someone, like, instantly. At first, many people treated it the same way they did writing a letter. Soon, though, particularly as young people who never used a typewriter entered the work force, e-mails began to deteriorate into quick-and-dirty rapid-fire messages.

I know that I’m a bit picky—hence the Quality Curmudgeon title—but I am constantly amazed at the misspelled words, poor grammar and carelessness of the e-mails I receive. I can forgive spelling and grammar errors, but I cannot forgive and do not understand the sheer rudeness of many of the e-mails I receive. People seem to fire off the first thought that enters their head when responding to e-mails.

It’s amazing that a medium that is so fast and so easy to use usually requires three or four back and forth exchanges. This occurs because even though you may ask two, three, four or more questions in your original e-mail, the person responding almost always only answers the first question. So, you have e-mail again and again and again.

This kind of communication isn’t limited to e-mails. Text messages and instant messaging is worse. Of course, nothing can match the smug, venom-filled screed that permeates blogs, discussion groups and listservs. Make a post to your blog that someone disagrees with or post something to a discussion board that someone doesn’t like (and I write from personal experience) and you’re in for it. Rather than send a well-written, thoughtful response, they feel free to excoriate you in public. I wonder if these people would stand up in the middle of a sermon at their church and publicly abuse their spiritual leader or speak to their neighbor/spouse/colleague in the same way.

By far the worst consequence of this phenomenon is how it has affected other aspects of our daily lives. I think people are much freer to be rude to your face because they are so used to being that way in their electronic communications. Look at the increased incidences of road rage, for example.

Another disturbing trend is the death of civility in corporate America. Remember when the customer was always right? Now it seems as though the customer is wrong until he or she proves him or herself to be right. Store return policies are increasingly restrictive and employees are increasingly indifferent and rude to customers. I’ve seen young, able-bodied flight attendants shriek at elderly, infirmed passengers who ask for assistance with their bags. I’ve been hung up on by “customer service” reps because they didn’t like my questions. I’ve seen politicians on both sides of the aisle behave so poorly to one another that it makes the idea of bringing back pistol duels appealing.

IBM had a famous one-word slogan that was in every one of its offices around the world for decades. I wish Microsoft would put the slogan on the send button in Outlook. The message? “Think.”

What do you think of the state of civility these days? Please, be civil. Your mother might be reading.