Quaker Universalist Conversations

A Quaker looks at incivility

Timothy L. Phillips, Ryan D. King, Incivility: The Rude Stranger in Everyday Life (2010) 230 pp., $30.00. A review by Larry Spears.

How recently and often has anyone pushed in front of you in a queue? Stolen your parking space? Stood too close? Raised their voice? Talked on their mobile phone during a concert? In our everyday lives we all encounter rude and inconsiderate actions. It is also likely that we too, on occasion, are rude and inconsiderate to others. This book by Philip Smith et. al., Incivility: The Rude Stranger in Everyday Life, provides a thoughtful investigation of typical human encounters with rudeness in daily life.

 Incivility is a universal characteristic of all human communities. Incivility is a universal experience of all persons in communities. All communities set standards against which incivility is measured. Political life is substantially affected by incivility within its deliberative institutions, like Congress. It is a part of universalismPhilip Smith to identify and recognize universals in human behavior.

 This book is of particular and timely use by Quaker parents. It provides a basis for Quaker parent and youth reflection and conversation on the appearance and consequences of incivility in daily life. What people experience as rude, where and when this rudeness happens and what takes place in the exchange between the participants is complex, subtle, broad in scope and rapidly changing. No wonder our children are confused. No wonder they participate in, even celebrate, incivility, since they have little concerted guidance in recognizing and dealing with rudeness.

 In traditional societies, most people lived in small groups. Their geographic horizons were defined by short walking distances in large spaces. Such familiar environments were largely devoid of strangers. Passing traders and migrants were noteworthy and uncommon. Consider the excitement stirred by the arrival of the traveling players in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

 By contrast, much of our lived experience takes place in close physical, daily presence of strangers. Urbanization and technologies for daily travel produce increased social densities and interaction with strangers in public spaces. If not absolutely a universal experience of incivility, it is nearly so and is likely to become universal in the near future of globalization. How we learn to avoid, mitigate and deal with incivility will be a universal challenge and skill in the future.

 The definition of incivility remains a problem. It is a rude, unpleasant psychological and visual interaction with strangers in the public forum. It is compounded by differential cultural perceptions of rudeness (Your cultural space violation in an elevator is my expression of openness. Your public burping satisfaction is an offense to me.)

 Workplace and leisure space incivility has been defined as low-intensity, culturally deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the targeted person. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically perceived as rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others. Examples of workplace incivility include insulting comments, denigration of the target’s work, spreading false rumors, social isolation, etc. Leisure space incivility includes public line budging, staring, nose picking and profanity. Newer incivility involves cell phone practices and music volume in public places.

 Incivility is distinct from harassment, bullying, violence, criminality and mistake. These are related, but separate, issues in our lives, but also worth clarifying and examining with youth. Road rage, bullying and gender relations each overlap with incivility. These related actions can be introduced and clarified by thinking and teaching about incivility. Teaching about incivility can be a helpful introduction to thee important safety issues.

 Criminal behavior, including harassment and meanness intended to harm others is at one end of the spectrum of social behavior. Examples of incivility at the subtler end of the spectrum include:

  • giving somebody a “dirty look;”

  • asking for input and then ignoring it;

  • “forgetting” to share credit for a collaborative work;

  • speaking with a condescending tone;

  • interrupting others;

  • not listening; and

  • standing impatiently over someone to gain their attention.

Somewhere between these extremes are numerous everyday examples of rudeness and impropriety such as:

  • sending a nasty and demeaning note (hate mail);

  • making accusations about competence;

  • undermining credibility in front of others;

  • overruling decisions without giving a reason;

  • interrupting and disrupting conversation;

  • giving public reprimands;

  • talking about someone behind the person’s back;

  • giving the silent treatment;

  • not giving credit where credit is due; and

  • giving dirty looks or other negative eye contact

 Until publication of this book, I knew very little about the distribution and expression of incivility in everyday life. Incivility is short of criminality, bullying and harassment and is more than mistaken behavior.

 We tend to be better teachers about bad behavior and the unlawful in our parenting. We do not focus on rude behavior or explain it to our children because we are less conscious, or dismissive, of its importance. In a changing culture and in the context of globalization, we need to be more reflective and helpful in acknowledging and benchmarking everyday incivilities as part of the parenting process for youth.

 The prevalence of low-level incivilities is a key symptom of the state of civic virtue and the strength of moral ties within civil society. The research in this area suggests that perpetrators of incivility are broadly distributed among social classes and ethnic groups. The range of “high risk” locales for incivility is identifiable, but often dismissed without reflection.

 The experience of incivility is growing with the growth of social freedom and the movement of people in contemporary urban settings, which expand, disrupt and transform social expectations. The introduction of global relationships through media and growing opportunities for communication are creating more occasions for interaction without the benefit of guidance in the social cues to distinguish civil and uncivil behavior. These accelerating changes in our lives have ambivalent implications, which not only invoke challenges to personal boundary maintenance and social withdrawal, but also offer much possibility for greater freedom through boundary expansion and tolerance of differences. We should be aware of the high risk contexts, what kinds of situations cause what kinds of rudeness, what victims do about it and what they can do about it.

 How much of a menace are rude people in public places? The research shows that the biggest problem is not when nice people venture into bad neighborhoods. Rudeness happens in ordinary public spaces where the foot traffic is heaviest. From the research on which this book is based, it turns out that the main rudeness culprits are middle class men.

 We must recognize incivility as a routine part of everyday life. Incivility generates much anxious comment in the moment, but little sustained reflection in personal interactions. Quick personal judgment and unconscious, instinctive retribution are most common, particularly for rudeness between strangers in public places.

What can, and cannot, be done by governments to produce civil social relations? There are corrosive effects of incivility on the quality and health of society. There are emotional and social consequences of rudeness and victimization that challenge community life. How do we parent our children regarding incivility as perpetrators and victims as we live our lives? Traditionally, incivility becomes a public policy problem to be fixed only at the margins of intentional harm and criminality. There is a range of strategies for reducing the level of incivility in everyday life, identifying some simple and innovative solutions. This is part of the cutting edge of education, particularly for Quaker parents.

How do we prepare young people to deal with incivility? How do we raise their awareness of incivility and its changing patterns in changing contexts? How can Quaker events for youth help parents in education about incivility in family and public life? This book is written not for children or youth, but for adults, particularly in adult work lives and in their education of children. This book is a good place for parents to start.

Research has had almost nothing to say about interpersonal incivility. Until recently research on incivility has been limited in scope. It has focused on problem urban neighborhoods and urban renewal. It has lacked benchmark comparative data. More research and reflection is needed to explore incivility in everyday life as experienced over the broader population in the course of daily routines involving the rude intimates and the rude strangers in our lives.

 This book is written by academics with an academic tone, but it the first of its kind to reach out to the public on this subject. It addresses an under-investigated dimension in all our lives and a dimension closely related to violence.

 This book appears primarily intended for an academic audience in its advocacy for redirecting incivility research into a broader, systematic context and the need for a clearer definition. It addresses the incidence of the uncivil encounters in daily life as diverse, trivial, public spaces related, travel connected and unintended. It describes the occasions of everyday incivility in our movements, routines and familiar places. It relates the brief, spiked emotional responses of surprise and anger to incivility. It describes the divergent experiences and responses based on gender, age, education, and class.

 This book is about routine rudeness among strangers in public places and the limits of government mitigation and solutions, but the importance of strategies and solutions remains.

 Incivility is related to particular locations, times (occasions) and consequences (social and emotional). There are new challenges of incivility on the Internet about which we are all groping for appropriate responses. The risks of incivility are in escalation and the threat of violence.

 The authors include a helpful index, a thorough bibliography to this growing area of discussion and research and a handy list of twenty questions that summarizes the book and the field for a quick read.

 The authors also address how we cope with incivility after the event has passed. They recognize that incivility is a subset of our general attitude toward the “other,” the stranger in our lives. They offer a context for thinking about whether and how to confront incivility through self-help, criminalization, diversion education and urban design. The book’s conclusion is that we must live with incivility and, at present, we lack good remedies, but with the recognition that incivility is a product of situations, not persons.

 These authors dismiss the significance of public policy in addressing incivility in public life. They do not sufficiently recognize the corrosive effects of incivility on deliberations in governmental bodies like Congress. They do not recognize the potential impact of public policy decisions on the incidence of incivility of population growth and global communications technologies.

 This is the first book to be available to the general public in pointing out the complexities and teachability of incivility for use in educating Quaker youth. Incivility is part of the universal experience of our youth and borders on the issues of violence in our lives. This is an important book for Quakers.


Person to person hostility... whether open, or covert (as in some of your examples) is hardly the problem, compared to the massive economic cruelties perpetuated in the name of sweet reason by nice people, nicely dressed, well-behaved-- and utterly indifferent to the sufferings of the vast numbers of (possibly-rude) people who live outside their little circles of respectability.
As an American living in Portugal, I have quite a lot of experience in the field of incivility based on cultural differences. For example, my little food vending business closes promptly at 4 a.m., as according to the law. Continuing to sell past 4 a.m. makes me subject to a large fine. Invariably, at 4:05 a.m., while I am closing, people arrive for something to eat (despite a large sign I have posted that says I close at 4.am., PERIOD). I explain that I am closed. People insist on something to eat. I explain again. They again insist, etc etc until I lose my temper and tell them to get lost. In the end, I deem them lacking in civility for not respecting my legally enforced hours while they deem me lacking in civility for my harshness. In Portugal, time is flexible, and there is no excuse for my inhospitable and harsh tone.
Forest's comment is important. We have a local group out of the DART Center (www.thedartcenter.org) training that is trying to do some direct action in our city by putting elected officials in the "hot seat" so that some structural inequities are addressed, but at our April public meeting several (of the almost 1,000) in attendance felt the group's tactics were "rude" to those officials. In response, one of the founding clergy sent a letter that reads, in part: "many in the church don’t understand what we in community organizing call the 'Seven D’s,' strategies used by public officials to preserve the status quo—Deflect: 'I’d love to support this, but I don’t have the authority to make those decisions.' Delay: 'We must wait until the economy has turned around.' Deny: 'I’m sorry I can’t attend the Action Assembly (or meet with you) because of previous commitments.' Deceive: 'This really isn’t as big of a problem in our community as you say.' Divide: 'The goals of [group] are laudable, but your leadership is guiding you down the wrong path.' Discredit and Destroy: '[Group] is a bully. Its tactics are too abrasive and confrontational.' There has to be a way to be respectfully insistent while turning up the uncomfortable focus on people who HAVE the power to make changes and yet refuse to use that power to address inequities.
If, in frustration or anger, and without thinking, strike someone with a stick and raise a welt how different am I than if I did the same with a baseball bat and break the arm of my victim? I believe that while there is a vast difference in outcome and a similarly vast difference in amends, there is no difference in the weight of my incivility. A wrong is a wrong. Attaching magnitude to a wrong is a concept more suited to the law than to thoughts of moral or ethical appropriateness.
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