Do manners matter?

Courtesy was in short supply this morning, at the south side cafe where my family and I went in search of breakfast.

Patrons stood waiting, in line at the counter to order and pay, while a party ordered a long list of meals, each with some deviation from the menu. The person who took my mother’s order suddenly stopped listening to mum mid-sentence, to turn around and bark instructions at the waitstaff behind her.  A nearby resident did the rounds of the tables, trying to find out who had parked across his driveway. A waiter took away cutlery still in use, and a flat white not yet finished.

None of these is a significant difficulty. Certainly each would attract the hashtag #firstworldproblems, if the subject of a tweet. But each represents a failure to afford courtesy.

AC Grayling has commented on what he perceives to be a decrease in civility:

“Despite appearances, the Western world is not undergoing a new immoral age. It is suffering a different phenomenom: a loss of civility, a deficit of good manners. What is often regarded as moral collapse is no such thing … Rather, what has happened is a decay of what makes the social machine function – a breakdown of the mutual tolerance and respect that allows room in a complex plural society for individuals to live their own lives in peace.”

In other words, civility helps us live alongside each other.  And Grayling claims that an absence of civility leads to much more concerning problems. He says the loss of civility means that

“… social feeling has been replaced by defensiveness, with groups circling their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of nationality, ethnicity and religion, protecting themselves by putting up barriers against others.”

This idea of minor disrespect leading to major social difficulty is reminiscent of the “Broken Windows” story in Malcolm Gladwell‘s “The Tipping Point“. Gladwell refers to criminologists Wilson and Kelling’s theory that crime is an inevitable result of disorder. He summarises the theory as follows:

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.”

Referring to the decrease in violent crime in New York, he cites an example where the police crackdown on minor crimes like graffiti and fare evasion led to a sharper decline in violent crime than might otherwise have been the case. He says that both transit police head William Bratton and then Mayor Giuliani had said that minor, seemingly insignificant “quality-of-life” crimes were tipping points for violent crimes.

I am not endorsing Bratton or Giuliani’s methods, but that does not mean that the theory of low level anti-social conduct leading to more significant anti-social conduct, is unworthy of consideration. Perhaps minor incivility can lead to more sinister, broader, problems, in the same way.

Even of itself, incivility can have more extensive consequences than offense on the part of the recipient.

In their Harvard Business Review article “The Price of Incivility,” Christine Porath and Christine Pearson report on their research into the effects in incivility in business:

“Many managers would say that incivility is wrong, but not all recognize that it has tangible costs. Targets of incivility often punish their offenders and the organization, although most hide or bury their feelings and don’t necessarily think of their actions as revenge. Through a poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, we learned just how people’s reactions play out. Among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66% said that their performance declined.
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.”

They also report on customer reactions:

“Public rudeness among employees is common, according to our survey of 244 consumers. Whether it’s waiters berating fellow waiters or store clerks criticizing colleagues, disrespectful behavior makes people uncomfortable, and they’re quick to walk out without making a purchase.

We studied this phenomenon with the USC marketing professors Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes. In one experiment, half the participants witnessed a supposed bank representative publicly reprimanding another for incorrectly presenting credit card information. Only 20% of those who’d seen the encounter said that they would use the bank’s services in the future, compared with 80% of those who hadn’t. And nearly two-thirds of those who’d seen the exchange said that they would feel anxious dealing with any employee of the bank.”

I felt the same way during our family outing this morning. The food did not leave a bad taste in my mouth, but the absence of courtesy did, and I probably won’t go back.

Incivility is not, of itself, workplace bullying. Repeated, severe rudeness could be bullying, but once off rudeness is not.  Unlike workplace bullying, it ought not be the province of the law to sanction low-level incivility, per se, at work. The issue is not whether once-off rudeness can be wholly prevented; it can’t be. But the workplace culture will determine the incidence of such behaviour, and whether the person who was rude then responds by apologising or otherwise trying to remedy the effects of the rudeness. It is also an important factor in whether the recipient will simply forgive the rude person, and chalk it up to their perhaps having stress or anxiety that the recipient is unaware of, or whether they will consider it a slight, take offense, and engage in the types of conduct to which Porath and Pearson refer.