Can We Value Differences When We Can't Be Civil?


  • Author Lenora Billings-Harris
  • Published March 2, 2016
  • Word count 989

I wrote the original version of this article in 2006. Unfortunately, it seems our society has become even more uncivil rather than more civil. Join me in being part of the change.

Have you ever observed or been a part of the following scenarios?

• You are seated at a busy upscale restaurant and the first words from the food server are, "Are you ready to order or do you need time?" It does not occur to the person to say, "Good afternoon," or "Welcome."

• You call tech support when your computer locked up in the middle of an important project. American English is not the tech’s primary language, and you are having difficulty communicating. You lose your temper while explaining the computer problem.

• You are participating in a discussion about immigration, and you are verbally attacked because your opinion differs from the others present.

As these and other similar situations become more common, do you often wonder what really makes people so rude? I was recently asked by a college in Wyoming to deliver a keynote to their faculty and staff during their in-service day. I was asked to tailor my remarks to civility instead of diversity. My first assumption was that they just wanted me to avoid the "D" word. You know, talk about diversity but don’t use the word. Upon further investigation, I discovered the administration was very interested in building and sustaining a learning environment that respects differences of all kinds. After all, an institution of higher learning is the one place where diversity of all types should be encouraged.

The request to focus on civility came about due to the concern that too many people had a "short fuse’ and the leadership wanted to foster a culture where disagreements were valued, not just tolerated. The client supported diversity and wanted its faculty and staff to learn how to disagree agreeably, and model a culture of sincere politeness. With the outbreaks of violence on school campuses, leadership wanted to be proactive. They were not confusing the notion of valuing diversity with civility; rather they believed they needed to focus on civility before addressing issues of diversity that would undoubtedly lead to discussions filled with differing opinions.

So why do otherwise "normal" people become so rude in certain situations? I believe there are at least three reasons:

  1. We don’t make the time to connect with others as fellow members of the human race first. The one thing we all have in common is that we are human. We all want to be loved, respected, and safe. We have forgotten to use "common" courtesies as a matter of course. Politeness is not "common" anymore. Our time is so compressed, we shortcut politeness to get to the point. In many ways technology has caused our lives to become more stressful instead of less. Everyone wants everything immediately. Email, voicemail and text messaging can cause misunderstandings. When a problem arises and we need to connect directly with a stranger, we don’t even exchange pleasantries; we go right to the issue at hand. To address this issue, a past client, the Ritz-Carlton Hotels succeeded in embedding courtesy into their culture. Their code is "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentleman." All interactions with guests and employees are built upon this premise.

  2. We have become rigid in our thinking. Many believe their way is the only right way, thus anyone who sees things differently is immediately wrong. Our unconscious biases cause us to think our viewpoint is truth, rather than just our point of view. Without a conscious attempt to connect on a human level first, many people assume the other person is wrong or ignorant so the resulting exchange is one of intolerance.

  3. We live in a society of blame. If you start your day by reading the newspaper or watching TV news, you will see everything wrong with the world, people feeling victimized and searching for someone to blame. This focus then materializes in our behavior with comments such as "It’s not my fault!", "You made me do it!"

Our lives do not have to be this way. We can influence our environment. We are responsible for our own actions. We can be civil toward each other even when we disagree with different points of view. Try the following actions for the next thirty days, and observe the difference in your own interactions. Perhaps they will even become new habits!

  1. Before starting any conversation for the first time with your co-workers, service providers or strangers greet them by saying "Good morning," or "Good afternoon."

  2. Ask "why do you think that…" before jumping to a conclusion about someone.

  3. Watch the news in the evening, instead of starting your day with bad news.

  4. Look for reasons to be grateful, and find ways to be kind for no reason.

  5. When someone says "thank you" to you, respond with "my pleasure" instead of "no problem."

  6. When someone makes a potentially explosive statement, that is not in the form of a question, respond with silence. If you must respond, try this. "Thank you for sharing. I see it this way… because…

  7. Create a quiet space for yourself.

  8. Take a "cranky" quiz.

There are dozens of things we can do to return to civility. The first step is to follow Nike’s tagline, and "Just do it." To address the needs of the above referenced client, I delivered one of my most popular programs, Turning Barriers into Bridges. As part of the presentation, the group brainstormed dozens of specific ways to bring the ideas to action.

So what does civility have to do with valuing differences? Everything. Valuing differences is much more than being nice to others, but if we cannot slow down long enough to really connect to those different from ourselves, we cannot truly learn ways to understand and respect them.

Lenora Billings-Harris is a recognized authority. She has been included as one of 100 Global Thought by The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Learn more at

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