Civility – It Starts with You

Most days, it feels like the world has gone mad. Or at least, it’s tilted on its axis in a new way, so we’re all getting used to things being different.

When my calendar reminded me that way back at the end of 2019 I agreed to write this blog post on Civility in August, I must confess, I literally blanked. Civility? Is it even a thing anymore?

My mind whirled with images: people are angry and afraid – about money, about their futures, about their health, about the state of the country and its leadership, about so many things. And I watch in awe as it manifests in the complete feeling of entitlement to shout at strangers in the grocery store who have a different mask choice than you do (including ramming and injuring that person with a cart or tearing a display of masks to shreds while shouting epitaphs)… to road rage… to writing nasty hateful messages on the Governor’s social media pages or shouting at School Administrators who are not making the choice that most fits your individual family needs.

No need to go on about that. We’re living it.

So where does Civility, Kindness, Compassion, and Humor have a place in this angry, stressed, and in some cases mentally unstable world.

Woman Smiling Photo
Can you see her smile? YES – look at the eyes and cheeks…

Let me suggest a theory – it all starts with YOU. With Each of Us. Because you can only control you, but also because you have influence.

Yesterday I was curving through the strangely laid out parking lot of a busy Starbucks when I came parallel with the drive through and the woman in that car started to pull forward without looking. I immediately slowed and there we were, door side to door side, face to face through our windows, who was going to go first. I confess, the weary part of my brain wanted to say “thanks for pulling ahead without looking” but it was a weary thought, and certainly not accompanied by any hand gestures etc. But the woman saw me and smiled – WOW – and waved me forward. So I then waved my thanks with a happy smile and we waved and laughed and waved again as I pulled my car forward. WOW, how lovely, civility and humor and friendliness in a dark world.

I wonder if we can find our own level equilibrium, take our own deep breath before we go forth into the world, and try harder than ever to be civil and kind in this crazy place.

Even smiling feels hard – with the mask on. I’ve heard people say they are amusing themselves by making funny faces behind the mask, or whispering words. I think a good old fashioned smile is still important. And a verbal hello equally so. (Remember the 5 foot 10 foot rule? Let’s do it!)

I recently attended the Global Leadership Summit (virtually!) and had the opportunity to listen to amazing thought leaders  from around the world speak about the challenges that face us and our world. An additional session that I particularly enjoyed was Vanessa Van Edwards and her theories on human interaction.

Let me share two tidbits that I pulled from her presentation.

1) Your smile still shows behind your mask. Have you ever seen a smile that “didn’t reach someone’s eyes”? It’s like the fake “I will show you my teeth” smile but the eyes are flat. Well, a genuine smile includes the muscles around the eyes, the eye shape, the lines around the eyes (yes!), and the forehead. So SMILE smile smile behind that mask. And say a verbal hello.

2) From back in the caveman days, people are primed to see our hands. If we have our hands behind our backs, the amygdala in the brain starts to wonder, what are they up to? When the hands are visible but neutral, the other person’s brain is signaled that “I am a friend”. Vanessa literally suggested, and this is important for all these virtual meetings too, that when we approach someone we do a two handed wave. Sounds cheesy but she demonstrated with three wags of her right hand and then three wags of the left hand. That “hi-hi-hi” with each hand is a calm and friendly opening to “prime” the other person for a good interaction with us.

Now, if we apply that idea, let’s say you’re walking up to someone while smiling behind your mask, a friendly hello, and both hands lifted in whatever wave feels comfortable. This is priming – you’re getting the interaction started off on the right foot.

I’ll leave you with one last story… My friend was walking into our local Walmart, masked, when he observed at the entrance a middle aged man yelling and swearing at the young female staff person who was asking/telling people they must wear a mask in the store. My friend walked up and said “Hey buddy, back off, she’s just doing what she was told to do.” The guy pulled back, perhaps embarrassed, and then stomped off to his car to get a mask. My friend hung around and chatted with the woman, who confided how frightening and exhausting her job is right now, when she gets abuse every few minutes for the hours that she’s working that post. Can you imagine!? I would be a puddle of tears on the sidewalk.

Now, why did that interaction work? My friend said “Hey buddy” in a friendly reasonable tone, AND put his hands up in front of him with palms out, to show non-confrontation. It very easily could have gone the other way into violence.

What happened next? Two things – the man came back and apologized to both of them. He said things are just really getting to him lately, he can’t keep his cool. He was embarrassed but with a lot of head nodding, he entered the store (masked).

Also, my friend remained, arms crossed over his chest (which is more confrontational) and hung out with the staff person for about 20 minutes chatting. Three more times, he used the same language to defend her but they also observed together that people were less likely to yell at her with him standing there and she was grateful for the break. Interestingly – men were less likely to yell at her and passed by with grumbles, but women still felt completely comfortable to yell, including at my friend. (I would love to do a psychological study on that one).

So, in wrapping up:

Can you be the pleasant one, in whatever situation you find yourself in?

Can you embrace humor and find – and share – laughter in a world gone crazy?

If YOU are the one who is teetering so close to losing your cool, who can you ask for help? Whether that is helping you get groceries so you aren’t tempted to ram people with your cart or just talk with you about the things that are piling up?

Can we be that breath of fresh friendly air for someone else?

Can we help someone who is getting ready to melt down or protect someone (carefully) who is being verbally attacked?

It all starts with You – with US – each of us. We can be the spark for good or ill, and we must make a concerted effort to do just that.

I have an old purple T shirt that says “Build a Better World” in bright script. I’ve worn it for years without a comment, but recently, wearing it while traveling, many many people commented on it. Even a fun and friendly T shirt is a start.

Be well.

Author: Molly A. Hetrick

Hello, I am Molly. I am currently the Manager of Philanthropy at a public library after working for 17 years in the recreation field as a Naturalist and Supervisor. I also offering training on Customer Service, Civility, and Fundraising in Recreation through my consulting business, Training With Molly. I have been training and consulting for 9 years and I love to help people learn and grow.

2 thoughts on “Civility – It Starts with You”

  1. Nice post! Question for further thought…Karens. Karens are now a meme and part of pop culture – has this impacted interactions at all? Are people (entitled customers) learning that it’s not OK to be a ‘Karen’ and/or to treat employees so poorly?

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    1. Todd, this is a great question. I would like to hope so – that the widespread calling out of this behavior impacts people’s awareness about it, but I have not really seen evidence of that. (I think it seems those folks do not see themselves in the Karen memes, as we see them?) I’m going to give this some additional thought and discovery by talking to some front line folks I know and see what they are experiencing… Thanks!

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