Growing up, Mother likely provided you with innumerable instructions about how to behave appropriately. Although she may have let you get away with saying “Yuk, I hate turnips,” when you were aged three at the family dinner table, you learned along the way not to say that when you were a guest at Aunt Doris’s house. First, it would be extremely rude; second, it might hurt her feelings; third, your aunt may feel compelled to cook something else for you to eat, which would unnecessarily put her out of her way. (If you were a truly blessed child, you learned to delicately push that root vegetable to the side of your plate, but not without a slight indentation of your fork, which indicated that—at the very least—you had sampled microscopic bits.)

Along the way, we learn to refine such sensibilities as we navigate within various social arenas, so that we understand that certain behaviors are okay, while others are not. Some of these things we simply pick up on our own because they are common sense. You wouldn’t, for example, tell your boss that his idea is lousy at a staff meeting, spill a glass of wine on a host’s rug without offering to pay for the cleaning, or show up at a chic sit-down wedding reception unless you were an invited guest who previously had sent a timely r.s.v.p.—and, preferably, a gift!

So what in the world was Neil Munro, reporter for a news website, thinking when he interrupted President Obama in the middle of the latter’s address to the press in the Rose Garden of the White House last Friday? Although Munro first claimed that he thought that the speech had concluded, it was evident from his retort, “You have to answer my question,” as well as his continued explanations afterwards, that he intended to nab the president with his question any way that he could. If you still give him the benefit of the doubt, take a peek at the concurrent video coverage, which shows Munro with a snarky facial expression and angry hand-on-hips body stance. What’s more, Munro’s boss at the Daily Caller applauded his employee’s action. (What would Mother say?)

Now this situation may not be as coarse or hostile as the incident in 2008 whereby an Iraqi journalist threw his shoe at President George W. Bush in Baghdad. But dare I ask, whatever happened to those unspoken rules, which—when we abide by them—help to restrain us so that we steer clear of such perilous cliffs? Is there no longer a standard, which keeps us from garrulously trampling a sense of decorum? Granted, we may respect a good journalist whose assertiveness with a well-timed question leads to the uncovering of a story. But puhleeze, my advice to any aspiring reporter who may not know the difference, interrupting a speech with your question is not good timing. In fact, in so doing, you might wait a very long time to be invited back.

Sadly, I’m beginning to think that the problem with un-spoken rules is that no one is talking about them anymore.

Of the writings of French philosopher, playwright, and poet Voltaire, one of his most notable pronouncements was “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”  This statement not only embodies but undergirds one of our most precious liberties, as guaranteed in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution—the right to free speech.  Because this freedom is so priceless—integral to the ethos of our American democracy—our judicial system scrutinizes every case in which this liberty is challenged.  As a result, the courts seldom decide in favor of cases that deviate from this principle, some exceptions being proven instances of slander and libel, and those where harm can result—such as falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

Although I am a firm believer in our right to free speech, there are many times, nonetheless, I can only wish that—as individuals and as a society—we were more self-regulated, employing discretion rather than proffering needless derogatory, inflammatory, hateful, ugly and tasteless comments, flaunting unfounded claims based on utter distortion.  I find this sort of language even more objectionable, and even irresponsible, when broadcast across the airwaves.

Those airwaves are also precious, as they are not only public, but limited in number and accessibility.  Only a few years ago, broadcasters were held accountable for the content originating from their respective stations.  When a controversial point of view was aired, the Fairness Doctrine required television and radio stations to provide an opportunity for an opposing point of view to be broadcast, free of charge.  In my view, I sometimes find it regrettable that the Fairness Doctrine is no more.  Without it, we have a no holds barred policy, which allows the nastiest, vitriolic commentary imaginable—all in the form of personal opinion—substantiated or not.

During incendiary broadcasts last week, Mr. Rush Limbaugh aspired to humiliate and denigrate Ms. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown Law student, who—previously in a press conference—rationally expressed her views regarding women’s right to contraception as a provision of insurance coverage.  Referring to her as a “slut” and a “prostitute” who was “having so much sex” that she couldn’t afford contraceptives, Limbaugh continued his diatribe the following day with his contorted logic that “if we’re going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Undoubtedly, we should continue to hold dear our right to freedom of expression, in spite of Mr. Limbaugh’s irrational and often mendacious outbursts, for which he is paid roughly forty million dollars a year.  (Although he subsequently apologized, I leave it to the public to determine the sincerity of his recantation.)

Fortunately, we have the freedom to choose, switching channels in order to hear thoughtful, decent, and dignified commentary.  Advertisers—that generally support programming based on audience size and demographics—can also elect to extend or withdraw their sponsorship, in an effort to promote and/or protect their brand image.  Clearly, Mr. Limbaugh’s arguments were not only irresponsible but daftly absurd.  Of course, we all remember what Voltaire had to say about that: “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”

 

 

 

Sex, religion, and politics, so goes the wise adage, are three subjects to steer clear of in polite conversations—particularly with people whose views you might not know—so as to avoid potentially inflammatory disagreements fueled by the passionate views of polar opposites.  If we follow that advice, our discussions, it is suggested, have a greater likelihood—than not—of remaining harmonious and courteous if we avoid these particular minefields.

Obviously, our national elected officials, and those seeking office, must engage in political discourse, as that it the substance of their chosen careers.  Given that our Constitutional rights and civil laws involve sex and religion, those otherwise taboo topics are open territory as well.  So while politicians may have a wider berth in publicly commenting on these sensitive areas, it is the manner in which they engage and espouse their views—on those, or for that matter, any issue—that is so egregiously distasteful.  Their flagrant posturing, attacks, accusations, distortions, vacillation, and often deliberate falsehoods, precludes any opportunity for rationality and reason, two essential ingredients if meaningful dialogue is to occur.  Unfortunately, when respectful and civil discourse is absent, so is the opportunity to bridge partisan divides, build consensus, and solve problems.  What we get is “politics as usual,” where everyone talks but nobody listens, and the lack of any solution is a foregone conclusion.

Conflict is a normal part of life, as we cannot be expected to agree on everything. However, if we are to co-exist, as well as solve problems in any arena, we must find the means to work through conflict.  In striving to do so, there are civil “rules of engagement” that help facilitate discussion and negotiation.  The late Senator Barry Goldwater once said, “To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.”  In this regard, a preponderant number of our politicians purposely break every rule in the book, especially two cardinal rules, the first being: if you’re out to win at all costs—demeaning and demolishing your adversary along the way—there is no way that you can disagree agreeably.  Second, give up the need to be right; otherwise, rationality and reason go out the window, as thoughtfully listening to another’s point of view is not even a consideration.

This principle not only applies to politicians, but also to each of us in our daily lives—with our spouses, our children, our co-workers, etc.—as we respectfully engage in conflict with civil ears and civil tongues.  While there are additional guidelines to consider, examining your motivations at the outset—am I in it to win, and am I willing to listen to and a different point of view?—are first steps toward disagreeing agreeably.  Always bear in mind that you might not be right.

On February 22nd, we honor the birthday of President George Washington, Father of Our Country, officially celebrated on the third Monday of February.  Although myths regarding this legendary figure abound—most notably, his proclaimed response “I cannot tell a lie” when his father asked his son if he had cut down that cherry tree—Washington was notably a man of honor and character.

According to scholars, a major influence on Washington as a youth was an exercise in which he transcribed—shortly before the age of sixteen—Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, that originated from the teachings of a 16th century French Jesuit as guidelines of conduct for young men. Of the 110 rules, many were more aligned with the etiquette and protocol of the day, such as personal hygiene and grooming, how to dress suitably and comport one’s physical body, and where it was permissible to spit—certainly not on others.  However, the many of the rules pertained more to respect and consideration for one’s fellow beings, as well as morality.

To examine a few: (more…)

With the Presidents’ Day weekend just around the corner, many will take advantage of their kids’ time off from school and head off for a mid-winter break. As with any holiday season, discounts are fewer, lines are longer, planes more crowded, and roadways frequently more congested—due to traffic or inclement weather conditions—all of which can produce stress.  Our destination—once we arrive—is usually not the problem; it’s the getting there and back that makes us feel that we need a vacation to recover from the one we just took.  Undoubtedly, if we are feeling strained, others are too, diminishing our patience and causing tempers to flare.  Realizing and accepting, in advance, that these conditions are likely to occur—coupled with consideration for others—can help to smooth everyone’s ruffled feathers.

In 2009, Travelocity published the result of their “Rudeness Poll in North America.” Canadians, on the whole, were more annoyed than Americans when passengers crowded their way onto a plane, while Americans were more piqued by travelers who rushed ahead of others when deplaning. Both nationalities were equally annoyed when the backs of their seats were kicked, and by parents who ignore or refuse to discipline their misbehaving children. Unsurprisingly, no one appreciated having their belongings squashed by another’s over-sized bags in the over-head bins.  However, the top complaint reported in this survey was poor hygiene—being seated next to a smelly and/or coughing/sneezing passenger.  Anyone who boards a plane (or any other public transport) and knows that he is ill should carry a cache of tissues and perhaps even consider wearing a surgical mask to protect fellow travelers from their germs.

Upon arrival at the hotel or lodging, take care to be considerate of other guests.  For example, I once observed a man at a fancy resort who refused to reign in his raucous misbehaving children, as he had “paid enough money to allow them to do whatever they wanted.”  What he failed to recognize was that other guests had paid the same amount of money as he and deserved to enjoy their stay as well.

It’s not only fellow travelers who deserve our respect; remember that transportation, lodging, and restaurant personnel—those who serve—have feelings too.  Overworked and underpaid, they are frequently besieged by the rudeness and demands of their customers, making it difficult, at times, for them to keep their own tempers in check.  One of my friends, an airline attendant, was once so mistreated by an entitled passenger—in first class, no less—that he knelt on his hands and knees and barked like a dog; the passenger got the point!  Also bear in mind that chambermaids are not personal servants; changing beds and scrubbing toilets can’t be easy, particularly for wages which are less than royal.  Rather than behaving like royalty, a good guest will keep a room tidy—keeping trash and clutter to a minimum.

Vacations are about enjoyment and having a good time; maintaining a good attitude and good behavior can add to everyone’s enjoyment.

Our current-day penchant for and tolerance of bad behavior and manners is not confined to our American shores.  According to an article in the New York Times, older generations in Korea are noting this same behavioral trend amongst their younger population, much to their consternation.  While the Korean economy has made great strides in recent decades, many citizens observe a general decline in morality—standards that also engendered strength and resilience, in times past, when the chips were down.  To ameliorate this condition, many parents are sending their children to camps for Confucian learning, which emphasizes respect and etiquette—lessons which many have considered too “old fashioned” in these modern economic times, that is, until recently.

Confucius, a Chinese philosopher and social thinker who lived from 551 to 479 B.C., exhorted virtue and morality as a basis for achieving harmony, to be embraced within daily life in the home as well as the state.  Loyalty and respect for one’s elders were revered tenets.  Given that he lived in a different time and culture, some of his teachings may not be entirely relevant today, particularly as he more than hinted that wives should obey their husbands.  Nonetheless, I decided to take a look at some of Confucius’s words to see how they might be applicable today

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” The Golden Rule, perfectly stated.

“The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large.” Wayne Dyer might translate this as ‘you are what you think.’

“To see the right and not to do it is cowardice.”  Do not be a bystander to bullying or harmful acts to others; whistle-blowers, start your engines!

“He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.”  It appears that being a ‘know-it-all’ has never been a popular stance.  

“To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.”  Learning to forgive can free your soul.

“Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?”  Humankind always has an opportunity to rise to a higher order.

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Resilience is one of life’s greatest tools.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”  Goalscoupled with the fortitude to achieve them—increase one’s likelihood of success.

“When anger rises, think of the consequences.”  Sometimes self-control and restraint can be a really good thing.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”  We do this—especially in regards to sex.

“If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake.”  When will we ever learn?

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  Wow, was Confucius really the first person to say this?  He really was smart!

As it turns out, Confucius was a pretty wise old bird in that his sage counsel and common sense principles hold as true today as 2,500 years ago.  And while the above are a mere sampling of messages he left behind, we continue to benefit from the wisdom of this venerated teacher, how morality and virtue are not only important, but help to create harmony in our lives; respect, generosity, and kindness are essential. “Consideration for others is the basis of a good life, a good society,” is a pretty good summation of that philosophy, which is why young Koreans are now returning to Confucian learning.  Do you think it would be a good idea to open one of those academies in America?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer created a bruhaha when she was photographed pointing her index finger at President Obama as the two stood on the tarmac next to Air Force One.  Although the Governor’s face was shielded from the camera, it was apparent from the President’s facial expression that their discussion was possibly heated, not tranquil, and that Brewer’s wagging finger was meant to admonish or challenge, as opposed to making a numeric point, as in “First we must consider….”  The photo, which blazed across the Internet, created a stir that kept pundits on 24-hour cable shows buzzing about whether or not her gesture was one of discourtesy towards Obama; the Governor addressed that question in interviews, saying that she would never be disrespectful to a U.S. President.

My intent in bringing up this issue is not to call Governor Brewer on the carpet, or, in this case, on the tarmac.  I will even accept Brewer’s disclaimer on its face value, in that she did not mean to insult the President.  However, there is a lesson for all of us to learn from this incident, which is about the power of nonverbal communication. Body language is not only revealing, it often speaks louder than words, conveying attitude, judgment, and emotion. Therefore, the important point is, it’s best to not point your finger at someone, unless you mean to scold, to shame, to deride, to insult, or to diminish a person’s actions, behavior, or views.  And while you might claim that you meant no harm, your body language may well belie your words.

Ironically, earlier drafts of my recent book Saving Civility had a “tips” section at the end of each chapter.  Although my editor considered this particular tip obvious and unnecessary—since everyone already knows that it is a wrong thing to do—I offered advice against pointing a finger at someone, as so doing can provoke, incite, and even derail a discussion, in the same way that hurling an incendiary comment can fan the flames of conflict.  Regardless of what we say verbally, our body language can often reveal our real intent.  Pointing a finger, thus, can be a tipping point in any discourse, moving it from civil and neutral to contentious and disrespectful.

Over the past few weeks, a sizeable area of our country—as in forty-nine out of fifty states—reported accumulations of snow.  In some areas, such as Seattle, the storm was an unexpected surprise (resulting in more than 700 traffic accidents), whereas it was “winter-as-usual” in the Midwest and New England.  Whether you delight or agonize when those fluffy flakes fall, the presence or anticipation of snow invites us to call upon a few considerate behaviors that will enhance everyone’s well-being.

 

The first, and perhaps most evident observation, is driving in hazardous conditions.  While we should always be aware of the actions of all drivers—including ourselves—regardless of weather, it is important to bear in mind that there are a good many out there who have never learned the special skills necessary to navigate an automobile on snowy or icy roads.  While I’m not offering expert advice on how to break or steer when skidding on a patch of ice, I will point to the most reckless and deliberate offense, which is speeding.  How often have you confronted a massive SUV—the size of which offers no protection against ice—bolt past you like an elephant charging an enemy?  Or have had another car tailgate so close to your back bumper that there is no margin for error should you slide or need to break?  Or, when merging onto a major highway, have the car from behind pull out ahead of you onto the road, preventing your ability to advance forward?  Or have witnessed drivers who don’t bother to stop at an intersection, but instead, roll through or pay no attention to taking their “turn.” Obviously, these infractions can cause accidents at any time in any weather; however, the caution to be emphasized, especially in winter, is: slow down!

 

Traffic congestion is not unique to roadways, as shoppers flock to grocery stores, stocking up on staples to carry them through the inclement weather.  Unlike cars, however, shopping carts don’t have horns, bells, or other beep-beep sounds to alert those ahead to clear space in the aisles.  A case in point was last Friday afternoon when I was shopping in a local Westport grocer.  Although the store is otherwise fabulous, its footprint is not spacious, and the produce area, in particular, is rather tight.  When two carts are abreast, no one from behind can move or pass.  On that day, I counted ten clustered carts—five “double rows” of two—that were parked, as the users of these buggies, themselves, darted about to other areas of the aisle.  Clearly, this was a cart pile-up, with no one directing traffic.  In these instances, the message is similar cars on the highway: if you’re a slower (or paused) shopper, engineer a lane or space so that a shopper on the move might pass.  Another considerate thing to do with shopping carts—especially on parking lots piled with snow—is to return them to the store, rather than leaving them in an open space, impeding others from parking.

 

Speaking of considerate things to do, remember those whose physical agility may be less than your own.  If you have a neighbor or friend unable or afraid to brave the storm, offer to run an errand or pick up that extra quart of milk.  A great way to teach your children empathy for others is to have them shovel the walkway of an elderly person—perhaps even before they go sledding or make that snowman.

 

Whether or not we like the weather, these are some thoughtful behaviors that allow winter to bring out the best in us!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s January, and the cold weather has finally descended upon us.  One thing worse than being cold, is catching a cold…or the flu…or worse.  There are, of course, some preventative measures that you can take, such as washing your hands, or perhaps not even shaking hands with someone whom you know is ill.  However, what do you do or say, when you’re alongside a person who suddenly and explosively sneezes or coughs without covering his mouth, spreading germs—and possibly disease—within a radius of up to 100 feet?

Within the past week, I’ve had three such encounters, whereby I was next to someone who—without apology or handkerchief or the block of a hand—polluted the air with his internal tainted mist.  One of those occasions was in the outdoors, as I was walking down a New York sidewalk, at which point I ceased to walk and, instead, ran to escape.  The second was in a local pharmacy, in which the sneezer not only contaminated shoppers, but also the row of over-the-counter products intended to cure him.  (Both of these perpetrators were adults.)  The third happened yesterday as I was food-shopping at Stew Leonard’s, when a young boy—probably about ten—let out a whopping achoo, less than a yard away from a display of freebie food samples, intended to be appetizing.  I was flabbergasted when there was no admonishment from the father, as in, “Son, cover your mouth when you sneeze!”

Unquestionably, such a lack of consideration for the wellbeing of others is beyond rude; it’s potentially a veritable assault on another’s health.  But remember, my question in the opening paragraph was about how to respond in these instances, other than arming myself with a surgical mask when leaving the house. Admittedly, my instantaneous repartee is not always dazzling or reliable, as I’m sometimes too stunned for words.  Therefore, over the last twenty-four hours, I’ve given this issue some thought and have come up with a few handy phrases to say, all the while shielding my own mouth and nose….

“I’m sorry, but I can’t say ‘God bless you’ if you don’t cover your mouth.”  Or…

“You need this more than I do; please use it to block your sneeze!” as I hand the offender a Kleenex stashed in my pocket.  Or…

“I really don’t want to catch your cold, but now there’s a good chance that I might!”

If I summon the courage to utter any of these phrases, my hope is that my words might make the transgressor be more considerate towards others in the future.  Obviously, these comebacks may not protect me from catching someone’s cold; however, they may make me feel better.

 

 

Over the Christmas holidays, I was invited to make a presentation on civility at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia as part of their holiday calendar of events.  As a native of that state, I felt like I was not only going “home” but had, in fact, stepped back in time.  The Greenbrier—a vacation spot frequented by numerous U.S. Presidents—is rich in history and steeped in tradition.  With its unparalleled style and grace, it is an utter bastion of civility.

My immersion in this culture for a couple of days made me aware of the stark contrast with the outside world.  I couldn’t help but ponder, why can’t it always be this way, whereby everyone is on his and her best behavior?  Further, I began to wonder how this unique culture—in which each staff member is not only polite and courteous but genuinely wanting to serve and please—continues to prevail in this day and age.

A visit to the staff cafeteria gave me an insight.  Walking down the labyrinth of corridors, I stopped to read each of the many messages painted on the walls.  The first wall that I encountered listed twelve values embraced by the personnel—respect, fairness, honesty, excellence, pride, teamwork, loyalty, empowerment, safety, commitment, cleanliness, and responsibility.  A few steps farther revealed three separate mission statements addressing community, employees, and guests.  After passing by additional signage, the summation of the philosophy was “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Indeed, the Greenbrier sets a high standard, a code of conduct about how employees should interact with each other and with guests.  Although one might argue that employees are paid to behave this way, it is apparent that employees are hired to fit a culture of service, which is established and modeled, from the top down.  Given that many among the staff have worked there for decades, that culture becomes a way of living and being.

Becoming attuned to these surroundings, the guests themselves mellow and fall into a pattern of grace that is often a departure from their behavioral norms.  The respect, courtesy, and kindness extended by the staff, begins to rub off.  It’s so pleasing to be in such an environment, that patrons are wont to behave in a more pleasing manner, smoothing their otherwise rougher edges.  When there is a prevailing standard—a code of expected behavior—we raise the bar and rise to the occasion.  We portray what we are capable of doing—behaving as ladies and gentlemen.  When that standard is missing, so are expectations; the bar is lowered, and, often, so is the level of our conduct.