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.


At 5:45 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

An email is more likely to solicit a desired action, particularly since it is now "in writing" and traceable, so the denial of receipt is negated.

At 5:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally....a breath of fresh air. I was beginning to think it was purely my increased age that was beginning to make me sound like my grandmother. You forgot to mention how ill behaved and undisiplined children are free to roam, scream and howl in airplanes and shopping malls while their uninvolved parents calmly sip latte and ignore their jarring impact on everyone else. I also think a contributer to the overall lack of civility is the depth of crudeness we as a society encourage. Watch any music video to gorge yourself with tastleness and overwhelming disgust. As a society, we appear to be spiraling back to the dark ages missing only the broadsword and ax. But, don't listen to me. I'm an office anomaly for still having a dictionary.

At 9:37 AM , Anonymous Mike Buckley said...

There isn't much to add to your comments, except that cell phones are another contributor to this trend. Why anyone thinks I want to listen to them yelling into their phone while I'm trying to enjoy my dinner is a cosmic mystery. These people don't understand common courtesy or the principal of electronic voice amplification.

Thankfully I'm still civil enough to refrain from grabbing the $#@ thing and plunging it into their mashed potatoes. But, I make no long-term promises.

Great post!

At 11:59 AM , Anonymous Martha said...

You are right on.
So often I wonder why the person asking me the confusing question doesn't just pick up the phone and call me. Then we could get all the confusion cleared up in ONE phone call instead of several e-mails.
I'm glad I'm retiring in 2 months. I won't have to read stupid, pointless e-mails from colleagues any more.

At 4:53 AM , Anonymous Paula Brown said...

I also believe that you have stated a very valid point. I read a sci-fi book several years ago about a planet who absolutely would not talk face-to-face. They lived their lives thru vid phones. The longer I live, the more I feel that is fast becoming a reality. Sadly, we have created our own nightmare.

At 3:34 PM , Blogger Mary said...

Yep, civility is dead. I attribute it to the "special" factor as much as the other reasons you've listed. You know the "special" people -- the self-anointed folks who don't have to wait in line in their cars, and feel free to drive up the "turn only" lane until the last minute, then cut you off (as you've sat through three or my cycles of the light)? The ones who blithely ignore the "10 items or less" rule in the grocery store, holding up 5 other customers with a few items each, all so that they didn't have to wait in the longer, non-express line themselves? The ones who push and bully their way to what they want, and others be damned? We all know these folks -- and I work very hard not to BE one of these folks, every day.

They also see no reason to explain or apologize for their actions. Why should they? They're "special".

At 2:14 PM , Anonymous Wayne Stone said...

Scott, how could you leave cell phone use off your list? In our personal lives we become part of every public, easily heard (as opposed to "overheard" - these conversations are heard by accident - I'm talking about the conversations spoken so that everyone within earshot can hear what's being said) conversation. We stand in line for coffee and listen to a woman complain to her friend about her husband and receive "mind your own business" looks or comments from the cell phone user. If I can hear every detail, I've become part of a conversation that typically is non-of-my-business.

We have cell phone users and abusers in cars, in movie theaters, in restaurants - in every public environment.

But my biggest complaint and the one most supporting your lost of civility argument is the use of cell phones in the work place. Meetings are interrupted to answer an incoming call, often by the speaker, more often by an attendee. In my experience, most such calls are personal and should have been sent to voice mail. In all cases, the meeting is interruped to some degree.

Cell phones in the business world are so misused and abused. Their promotes poor manners, inpatience, and a complete disregard for the business professional and the civilized world around both the caller and the recepient of the call.

When asking how we survived without electronic media, be sure to include the cell phones used for more than sending text messages.

At 1:30 PM , Anonymous Conrad said...


Amen brother- It's interesting that in the same edition of Quality DIgest, there are comments from A 'Mike' who suggest we read "The No Asshole Rule: Building a Cicilized Workplace and Surviving one that Isn't" So perhaps it is becoming more of an issue.
Civility has gone the way of Saturday night cruising for fun not destruction. I still don't understand how some of the things I see in e-mail or phone messages come out of the people who say or write them. Do they think an e-mail makes them anonymous? I know where you sit you @#$%$#@, and I'm on my way.
Don't know the answer Scott, I just know that it's going away and being replaced by something mean spirited and impersonal. Could be that more people are tied to their jobs 24/7 with cells and blackberries and other electronic shackles and don't have enough 'down' time.
Remember down time, when you went on vacation with your family and actually went into the water or looked at the mountains? And if you were important, you went to a payphone and called the office on Wednesday?
Maybe that's it, downtime - people are wound tight as a spring because they can't find the time to unwind, relax or think things through.
Whatever it is, folks lighten up, we're all in this together (and I have your license plate number and I'm coming for you)

At 2:37 PM , Blogger Steven said...

Speaking as a 2nd generation Antarean whose parents arrived during the Roswell landing on July 4, 1947, the cause of crime and chaos on Earth, with of course the sub-harmonic of disintegrating civility is due to the fact that human beings are non-telepathic. Antareans THINK to one another, and we nurture and cherish one another. If one member of our society intends to do some anti-social act, we collectively step in and ask why. Humans are far too obsessed with nonconformity, as well as the genetic imprinting of living life after life thinking that they "have a soul" that they have to "save" rather than the truth of the fact that they each ARE a soul operating a body for each successive lifetime. Human beings have no global consciousness due to never having developed their telepathic abilities which is innate and fundamental to all forms of life structured and configured by thought energy. Civility can only come from taking responsibility for the person at the other end of the communication. When there is a lack of civility, there is a glowing disregard for the basic framework of human life. I just thought you might like to have the perspective of an outsider who found your article very appropriate and interesting enough to respond to.

At 7:27 AM , Anonymous Bill B said...

Mr. Paton,
My compliments on a well written, thoughtful article whose time was overdue. Thanks for exhibiting the courage to write it.

Here is one for you which is an "over the top" exemplification of your theme. I call it the "Caroline Syndrome" named after the young lady who exhibited the behavior.

I went to the video store to rent a movie. Their process is to ask for the phone number of the card holder. I did not have it so I was a little concerned that the clerk might ask me (Caroline).

When I got to the checkout, she was visiting with a co-worker. They were talking about a date she had the day before.

She did not greet me, look at me or even tell me the price of the video. I gave her my money and she gave me the change. After the completion of the transaction, I smiled and congratulated her. She looked at me curiously and asked why. To which I told her, "You have succeeded in completing the transaction and taking my money without acknowledging my existance." She was insulted and felt compelled to argue.

Then she proceeded to inform me that she had asked me, "Did you find what you were looking for?" What is your phone number?"

I told her that she was far too busy visiting with her friend to realize that she had done none of what she had thought she had done. To prove it I told her that I do not know the phone number. Here is the irony and why I call it the "Carolina Syndrome". There is absolutely no doubt in her mind that she had greeted me properly. She would have bet her life on it. But she was completely wrong and did not realize it.

We have slipped as a culture. How unfortunate! If you will send me your email address, I will send you an article I wrote a few months ago for my column, "Driving Quality". It is entitled, "Hot Towels or Paper Napkins" and expresses my opinion on why we have slipped.


Bill B

At 9:00 AM , Anonymous Becky said...


You've hit the nail on the head with this article. I returned to college in my late thirties back in 2001. In my technical writing class we we assigned various tasks from writing company memorandums to writing complex technical studies. I was the only student in a class of 50+ that received an 'A' for the course. It seems the younger generation (and I don't consider myself an old fogey) had no idea of how to even draft a letter that showed their intelligence and subject knowledge. This was mostly due to their impatience and as you so aptly coined, their lack of civility. There are so many people nowadays that would rather disturb everyone around them with their cell phone conversations than to sit down and think about what they're going to say to someone in a letter or e-mail.

At 12:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you forgotten that the world "owes" the people you are writing about. If you don't believe it, just ask one of them.

At 3:09 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, this topic of civility!!...What I'm finding once in awhile, is that people are writing bad English on purpose!...just to 'lighten up'...or to be not 'uptight'...Oh my goodness...That might be fine if it's to your good friends...But, if you are writing to a stranger?...I would be embarrased...

And I'm a cell phone hater...I can't stand how people have to constantly be plugged in...It's horrible I think...

What's really buggin' me is the noise problems!!...OH, those wooofers!...They are awful, and even parents play those things when kids are in the car...Even the mom to my goddaughters said, it was 'my problem' long as they are playing it before 10 pm...

Great, just even parents are teaching their kids it's an 'entitlement' to blast your bass as loud as you want as long as it's before 10 pm...Doesn't matter that this crud travels through cement, troubles the nervous system...and might reeeeeally be bothering someone else...

I'm getting more and more disgusted about this...It's happening everywhere it seems...I'd like to read about more's going to be up to individual communities, city halls and such on these more public nuisances...I think people need to get organized and start really ridin' on our local politicians, and reps. to do something about this lack of civility...

At 3:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the rise of 24/7 news with talking heads has also helped increase the acid and bile in how we react to those who disagree with our views. Both liberals and conservatives, myself included, have increased our hostility and rudeness toward our fellow Americans.

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At 7:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martha you right, but at the same time society sometimes misused it but in the aspect of learning is very useful and contribute to learning process in general.

At 7:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martha you right, but at the same time society sometimes misused it but in the aspect of learning is very useful and contribute to learning process in general


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