There are many ways of communicating in today’s culture. Of the choices, often our default is expressing ideas through conversation, making plans or even disagreeing with ideologies. Our parents have a great deal of influence on our speech patterns and its spoken tone. When viewing debates and disagreements from earlier decades, a striking difference can be noticed immediately, the difference is the civility of the spoken words. Many people today long for the days when people would be considerate in discussions. Is this a utopian trip down memories lane, or can we return to a place where respect and consideration dictate our speech?
We will start with the art of disagreement. “It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” -Aristotle. We socialize with like-minded people, and this is completely normal for relaxing and enjoying our downtime. Why do we balk at letting someone into our circle of friends if they have a different ideology? Are we teaching our younger generation to think or is indoctrination the modus operandi when it comes to solving problems? Physics has shown that when two people look at an event, they do not see the exact same thing. Yet, we expect compliance, agreement, one accord on critical issues such as religion, politics and a host of other work-related items we face each day.
So, we often find ourselves in a situation where a disagreement is obvious. What causes the tenor of the conversation to escalate toward aggressive responses? The debate, discussion or however else it is phrased is about swaying, persuading maybe in extreme cases even manipulating someone to see things our way. Far too often it becomes a competition and the desire to understand is a foregone conclusion. Steven Covey in his book “The Seven habits of highly effective people” says it this way, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. Do you see the paradigm shift in his approach to a conversation? To keep our conversations civil or even fruitful, a concerted effort must be made on one side (minimum) to listen. This requires us to concede that which is obviously right, or at least, has factual based evidence for the discussion. This requires the educated one in the conversation to be humble and to consider doing what is right above even winning the discussion. When was the last time you told someone in a conversation, “I did not know that”?
Another reason people no longer speak with civility can be as simple as someone making a mistake. It could be a cashier ringing up the wrong item, not applying a discount or charging you twice for the same item. I have been in retail stores and watched people behave in the most offensive manner, all due to a simple misunderstanding. I was a manager at Best Buy after my Marine Corps career and witnessed a lady get arrested over a simple cashier mistake during the purchase of a CD (Compact Disc). For those too young to realize this antiquated medium, these were the replacement too cassette tapes, well, I better quit while I am ahead. Conversation can become very aggressive in the face of a mistake, and all civility is lost for the encounter. Why do we look for compassion when making a mistake and forget to give it in return when the mistake is not in our favor? We might have lost our humility and fair-mindedness towards others.
I will not even consider politics and the complete loss of civility we have witnessed in the last couple of decades. I will say this; our children grow up seeing the way adult society behaves. They will model the behavior they have witnessed in their youth, and this is a disturbing thought. It reminds me of the quote from W.H. Auden:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
I fear we are planting seeds that will grow one day, and we will be dismayed at the crop that it will produce. Why are people no longer heard? It is primarily because they have stopped listening to each other. We are far more concern with having our ideas heard than listening to something new.
Racial tensions today remind me of the early to mid-1970s. We are caught in an endless loop that always brings us back to the same point. It reminds me of my dog when he chases his own tail. We know the problems, we even have a very good idea of the solution, we just cannot discuss it with any kind of clarity. Once a remark is taken out of context or seen as being biased in one direction, the conversation becomes “passionate” and from that point forward people stop listening. No man on the face of this earth can know what another is going through. To remotely understand a person you have to listen, really listen to what they say, not what you think they are saying. I have a three-second rule I try to employ these days which allows me time to process what has been said to me in conversation. If it is not clear, I will ask for clarification. Sometimes, regardless of the effort to listen to someone, I just cannot understand their point of view. If we judge people due to misunderstanding them, what are the chances of having a civil conversation?
In conclusion, we need to re-learn civility. Every adult or child you have a conversation with today is a human being. They have dreams and goals just like you. They also have bad days, again, just like you. If you look at the problem we have today with rudeness and inconsideration in our conversations, it can appear to be an insurmountable problem. Yet, all great accomplishments have come through a group of people deciding a change is necessary. I will leave you with a quote from Margaret Meade:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”