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Our culture seems to be caught up in an epidemic of rudeness: Fights on airplanes, belligerent diners raging at stressed-out servers, school-board meeting attendees outraged over mask mandates, bullying bosses, a quiet comment that escalates into a red-faced, clenched-fist exchange of insults. I’ve been lucky so far, just an observer to the incivility, but the questions keep nagging: What to do about this? How to respond?

Research shows that being on the receiving end of incivility, or even witnessing it, amps us up and makes us want to respond in kind. That might give us a momentary sense of satisfaction – repaying rudeness with harsher rudeness so that we’re not bested in this toxic contest – but that’s like tossing a match in a gas can.

A friend here on the hub, Ashwin Budden, recently tipped me to Hidden Brain, a podcast that explores why we do what we do and probes the hard questions that ride the deeper rhythms of our lives. In a recent episode, How Rude!, behavioral scientist Christine Porath speaks about her research that offers an effective way to keep incivility from hijacking our minds and our behavior. It’s not reactive, but rather preventive.

Instead of waiting to experience rude behavior and then figuring out what to do about it, she suggests that we focus on ourselves and engage in whatever activities help us develop a sense of thriving, of moving forward; activities that build hope, vitality, and resilience. The point is to strengthen in us a kind of immune system, she says, so that we’re far less likely to be triggered when others are uncivil and either respond in kind or simply leave the encounter feeling shaken.

So I’m curious: Have you found effective ways to respond to public incivility and perhaps calm the other person? Do you confine your actions to yourself and employ self-calming techniques? Do you just walk away, or does that simply give license for more bad behavior? What’s our responsibility if our goal is weaving a more life-giving culture?

Thanks in advance for your responses.

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Once I muttered under my breath the word, "please" because a passenger on a bus called out to the driver, "Yo! Back door!" Then I realized I was treading on dangerous ice. It's on the public buses that I find rudeness can often be a matter of quietly ignoring a senior or handicapped person who needs a seat. I have often spoken gently to the crowd, "Do any of you young, strong and beautiful folks want tp give a seat to ...?" Usually gets someone up.

I have also encountered a couple folks who refused to get up. One occasion involved a very healthy looking, football-player-sized young man in this college town. After trying to get him to move his bag from the seat next to him for a senior who was using a cane and oxygen (!), I eased onto the seat with the bag next to him, Then, gently, I asked him if he knew how hard it is for seniors to navigate on a bus. I asked him if he ever had the flu and experienced the aches, the balance problems. He said he had never had the flu. I compared this to the seniors and elaborated. I went on to explain that I would see him again likely because I ride the buses every day. My tone was conversational, not accusatory.

When he got off the bus, the other passengers around gave me applause. My personality is friendly and extroverted, so I would answer your question, Roger, that I look for soothing myself in being friendly with whoever will be friendly around me.

Barbara Stolp

When I am in my classroom or working with students, I am quick to call out incivility or rudeness when it happens. When I see it on an airplane or in a store, I don't say anything for fear that the rude person will attack me, or somehow I will be seen as the aggressor because it's often the case when you have brown skin. Once the rude person is gone; I apologize to their target and focus my kindness on helping that person.

Krystle Williams

Societies are woven from threads of common purpose.  Loose threads, pills, and tattered edges aside, incivility stands out to many today because it is in marked contrast to earlier experience.  As we are witnessing, civil society is a fragile construct when the common purpose is no longer shared.  Personal freedom overrides  liberty and justice for all.

I like to think of myself as pragmatic, neither prone to seeing light where there is darkness or the inverse.   In that frame  the escalation of polarization this century is an existential concern.  The silos of misinformation and belief in unprovable 'facts' forms factions that prevent mending the fabric of common purpose - can you imagine collaborating on a tapestry when you can't agree which color is red?

To the question of how to deal, we agree on not reacting rashly.  Living with one another has always been about relationships and those take time, respect, and commitment - apparently all caught up in long standing supply chain disruptions.  In the public sphere, we must rely on the sticks available to discourage unacceptable behavior.  To ever make progress stitching things up?   That may take the kind of shared sacrifice and grief the greatest generation lived through.

True leadership recognizes nothing lasts forever, pulling together the pieces that can be, and are worth, saving.

Dave Spencer

This topic calls to mind my readings in the philosophy of Stoicism ( The Practicing Stoic, for example ) which is not, as some assume, about hardening your heart but about freeing yourself from instinctive overreaction to adversity. Nor is the stoic required to be passive about things that can be bettered, but getting all upset about random insults and ill fortunes makes life unendurable. I fear that our younger generation is being prepared to take every insult as a catastrophe, a source of enduring trauma. My parents' generation, in contrast, were tempered in the Great Depression and WWII, after which they came together and built the greatest prosperity, peace, and freedom ever known. They were not always fun to be around, but they knew a lot about overcoming life's circumstances!

So if you can ignore the urge to feel enraged or belittled by somebody else's ignorant remarks, you may be able to think of a way to make things better. I say this as one who has struggled vainly over a lifetime to master my feelings, not as any sort of exemplar of earthly virtue.

John Malcolm
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