WASHINGTON (CNS) — “Rudeness is on the rise. You got a problem with that?” screams a recent New York Times headline.
“How rude behavior is becoming the new normal In America,” declares a LinkedIn article. Yet another headline, this one from Fortune, proclaims: “It’s not just you, people really are being more rude lately.”
Throw in what a majority of Americans polled on the topic say, that the “tone and civility of U.S. political debate” has been worsening for some time, and it’s not a pretty picture.
So why is this the case, why should it matter and what can be done about it?
Enter Georgetown professor Christine Porath with data and some solutions. She has been studying incivility, particularly in the workplace, for a good 20 years.
“Incivility is like a virus you can catch anywhere — online, at work, in families, in our communities,” Porath told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 13 interview. “We can see that people pass it on to others even when they’re not aware of it and may not mean to demean others.”
It can be spread simply by someone “who is on edge and just took in a lot of negativity” and turns around and shouts at someone else, she said. “This kind of disrespect, rudeness spreads. This is why our small actions matter so much.”
A tenured professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, she is a book author and a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. She also has written articles for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, McKinsey Quarterly and The Washington Post.
She does research and conducts surveys, sometimes in partnership with others, to gauge incivility particularly in the workplace.
But what happens at work or a place of business has a ripple effect beyond the office walls, she noted.
In a Nov. 9 article in the Harvard Business Review, she presented results of a new survey she conducted in August to “further track incivility trends and glean more insight into what’s happening on the front lines of business and society today.”
“Regardless of how individuals define incivility, they’re reporting more of it — and have been for a while now,” Porath wrote. “In 2005 nearly half of the workers I surveyed across the globe said they were treated rudely at work at least once a month. In 2011 it was up to 55%, and by 2016 it had climbed to 62%.”
For her new survey she gathered data “from more than 2,000 people in more than 25 industries in various roles across the globe. … They included both frontline employees and people who had observed them at work.”
Seventy-six percent of respondents said they “experience incivility at least once a month,” she reported.
In addition, she wrote, 78% said they “witness incivility at work at least once a month, and 70% witness it at least two to three times a month”; 78% “believe that bad behavior from customers toward employees is more common than it was five years ago”; and “66% believe bad behavior from customers toward other customers is more common than it was five years ago.”
These 2022 numbers, she noted, “have risen steadily and sharply” since a 2012 survey she did.
“Sadly we have seen a real trend rise in incivility and disrespect over the years,” Porath told CNS.
“Why should it matter? … Because it has a terrible effect on people,” she said. In the workplace, it can affect people’s work performance, Porath noted. “Whether they are the object of disrespect or rudeness” or they witness others treated like that, “they are far less attentive” to their work.
But “the good news is we find civility spreads. So what can we do?” she said. “It’s very simple. … The little things we do — smile, say hello, put away our phone and pay attention and ask, ‘How can I help?’ These little things make a difference.”
People do not have a sense of belonging today, and mental health issues are a huge problem, Porath said. “Suicide is at an all-time high. We don’t know exactly who is hurting (but) we can often sense who doesn’t feel part of the community. Can we look out and care for them in small neighborly ways?”
One of Porath’s favorite people who models how we can help lift up people is Pope Francis and “all the wonderful things he has spent a lifetime doing.”
The pope just addressed this in written remarks distributed to members of the boys’ and girls’ section of Italian Catholic Action, a parish-based program of faith building and social outreach, during an audience at the Vatican Dec. 15.
He encouraged youngsters to put down their phones to spend time praying and looking at other people to see their needs. “God does not like it when we get lazy on the couch; he wants us on the move, on the road, ready and willing to get involved,” he wrote.
Pope Francis’ words and teachings — particularly the third encyclical of his papacy, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship” — inspired the U.S. bishops in September 2021 to launch their own initiative called “Civilize It” to address polarization across society and bring people together to serve the common good, much like what Porath advocates.
A special webpage for the initiative, CivilizeIt.org, has links to a tool kit with resources to help parishes, small groups and individuals address polarization of any kind.
Website visitors are invited to sign a pledge saying they will rely on “charity, clarity and creativity” to promote understanding and dialogue over division. Signers pledge to affirm each person’s dignity, even when they disagree with someone and respectfully listen to others “to understand experiences different from my own.”
Porath, who is Catholic, credited her Jesuit college education for the professional path she has taken, calling it “fundamental to who I am and what I study for sure.” She earned her bachelor’s degree at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She has a doctorate from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Once she was in the workplace, she discovered she “had a hunger” for ways “we can study things and make a difference too.”
She said her Catholic high school — Gilmour Academy in suburban Cleveland — also instilled in her a desire to help others. Gilmour offers college-preparatory education in the Holy Cross tradition.
Porath played soccer and basketball, and through basketball and “a wonderful coach,” she and her teammates participated in games with special-needs students. Gilmour students also regularly volunteered at a soup kitchen.
Besides the dozens of articles she has written and her many speaking engagements, she also has penned a number of books about the workplace and civility aimed at business leaders because it’s important to get the word “out there to people who can do something” to change the work culture.
She said she always pairs data “with stories of people that provide a path forward and why this makes a difference,” as she did in her well-received 2017 book, “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.”
Among people in business she looks to for inspiration and has written about are Amy D’Ambra, a good friend she calls her “hero,” and her own brother, Mike.
D’Ambra is the founder and president of Los Angeles-based My Saint My Hero, which creates “wearable blessings” — jewelry made “with love and prayer,” as the website says. The company, through its sales, helps women in need around the globe, including survivors of human trafficking.
Porath called it “a real blessing” to be working with her brother, who is the founder and CEO of The Mighty, a digital platform that connects people around the globe over countless health conditions. It has more than 3 million registered users.
In 2009, Mike Porath and his wife were told their unborn son was missing an organ and that their 2-year-old daughter had a rare chromosome disorder. They went online to learn what they could and found a community of people facing similar medical situations and offering solace. This led to the launch of The Mighty.
Mike and The Mighty, Christine Porath said, are an inspiration for how to “not only create community but serve community.”
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Follow Asher on Twitter: @jlasher