Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On Incivility

There Is an Illness Abroad in the Land

Dr. M. Scott Peck wrote a book on ‘civility' in 1993 titled A World Waiting to be Born. The opening sentence of that book is "There is an illness abroad in the land". He diagnoses that illness as ‘incivility', which he maintains is deeper and more serious than the absence of politeness and good manners. He sees incivility as being an illness that includes, but moves beyond, personal behavior. It has become a socially acceptable form of behavior that can be seen in organizations all the way from marriages to the work place and in organizations and businesses. It is a serious illness which begs to be healed.

One could not hope in a brief column to deal with all the manifestations of incivility about which Dr. Peck wrote in a 366 page book. Read the book.

I want to skim the surface with three vignettes, which will suggest to the perceptive reader all those deeper but unspoken symptoms of incivility such as narcissism, manipulation and insensitivity. These vignettes also illustrate how, on occasion, a bright light can be focused on incivility so that all can see.

A shopper, with her cart loaded with a week's supply of groceries for a large family, pushed her way into the express lane where there was a large sign that read: "Ten items or less". None of the other shoppers said anything. When the woman got to the checkout clerk, the clerk very sweetly said: "Ma'am, which ten items do you want me to ring up for you?" Everyone in the line applauded. Bright light focused on incivility.

The agent at the ticket counter had explained to an irate traveler that she could not give him a ticket on that flight because all seats had been filled and there were already ten travelers on stand-by. Several minutes of haranguing had drawn a crowd. Finally the man said to the agent: "Young woman, do you know who I am?!!" I love what happened next. The agent picked up the microphone and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have someone at the counter who does not know who he is. If you can help, please come to the Delta ticket counter at once." Bright light focused on a man with incivility oozing from every pore.

I've saved the best until last!

On a Northwest Airways flight from Atlanta, Georgia, a well attired middle-aged woman found herself next to a man wearing a kippa (‘yarmulka' in Yiddish). She called the attendant over to complain about her seating.

"What seems to be the problem, Madam?" asked the attendant.

"You've sat me next to a Jew!! I can't possibly sit next to this strange man. Please find me another seat!"

"Madam, I will see what I can do to accommodate", the attendant replied, "but the flight is virtually full today and I don't know if there is another seat available". The woman shoots a snooty look at the snubbed Jewish man beside her (not to mention the surrounding passengers).

A few minutes later the attendant returned and said, "Madam, the economy and club sections are full, however, we do have one seat in First class".

Before the lady had a chance to respond, the attendant continued, "It is only on exceptions that we make this kind of upgrade, and I had to ask permission from the captain. But, given the circumstances, the captain felt that no one should be forced to sit next to an unpleasant person...".

The flight attendant turned to the Jewish man sitting next to her and said: "So if you'd like to get your things, Sir, I have a seat for you in First class...".

At this point, the surrounding passengers stood up and gave a standing ovation while the Jewish man walked up to the front of the plane.

The lady then said indignantly, "The Captain must have made a mistake...".

To which the attendant replied, No, ma'am. Captain Rosenbaum never makes a mistake."

You never know who is going to shine a bright light on incivility. Be careful.