The recent midterm elections have highlighted prime examples of the dark side of American politics — the lack of civility in political discourse. Today, political debates among candidates, pundits and even around the dinner table too often turn into shouting matches, name calling and insults. Social media has become a new frontier for ever-more-appalling insults. Compromise, once the backbone of American politics, has gone the way of the passenger pigeon.
As long-time Malden resident Pamela DeGroot lamented on a Facebook post, “First time in my 69 years that I am scared about the future of America …”
This echoes national trends. In a study conducted by Weber Shanwick, more than eight in ten Americans (84%) say they have at one time or another experienced incivility and in a wide variety of places and settings, most typically while shopping (39%), driving (39%) or while on social media (38%). Among those who report ever experiencing incivility, encounters are frequent, averaging 10.6 times per week. Online interactions slightly edge out in-person interactions (5.4 vs. 5.2). More disturbingly, the frequency of uncivil encounters has risen dramatically since 2016, according to the study.
How do we reach common ground? We reached out to an etiquette expert for answers. Marianne Cohen, a senior etiquette consultant and Assistant Director of the Malden Chamber of Commerce, said that we can “create pockets of civility in our everyday life.” Cohen suggested, “Try smiling at everyone you see. Pay kindness forward. Hopefully this gets us closer to where we need to be.” That sliver of hope is certainly what we need and perhaps if anything, we can have confidence that youth have the answers when adults don’t.
Cohen likewise pointed to generational differences. “As children we are taught not to talk to strangers. As adults we are forced to talk to people we don’t know for business purposes or when negotiating our everyday lives. It comes down to basics like eye contact, a good handshake, and how to have a conversation.”
- Stop, pause, and think before you speak, tweet or post. (Remember “netiquette” or online etiquette. Sometimes tone can be misread so be aware of that).
- Try to listen without an agenda — suspend your judgements and think critically about your assumptions. Don’t just be thinking about what you want to say next. Choose to listen.
- Don’t view a person with whom you disagree with as an adversary. Practice empathy. Be open to finding out their story.
- If someone is being uncivil, don’t react with incivility. Rather, try to respond in a way that reflects that you have heard them. Try not to take their arguments personally. Or you can agree that you disagree and just walk away.
- Even if you disagree, look for common ground. Like love of animals, our families, art, music, good food, or a common experience.
- In face-to-face situations, don’t forget the basics. Smile or display openness through your facial expressions and body language.
- Be aware that when someone’s opinion is rooted in feeling rather than fact it is unlikely you will change their mind. See this article about “Confirmation bias.”
For more ways you can practice civility, consider an activity from the National Institute for Civil Discourse, “Text, Talk, Civility Matters” which helps facilitate a conversation on civility in politics and our every day lives.
This story was compiled by Michelle Fahey, Felicia Ryan, Antonia Sheel, and Richard Sanon. It was edited by Stephanie Schorow and Anne D’Urso Rose.
To further explore the issues of civility, check out a new podcast by contributing journalist Felicia Ryan: Adventures in Coddiwompling: Civil Discourse