In the Interest of Civility

comment_latest by Rob McMahon, used under Creative CommonsKaren and I have always watched a lot of British television, largely because we both grew up with PBS as a fixture. Thus, our childhoods established a fairly high standard for quality television. This was actually a really good thing for us in terms of shared interests when we met, because there was already commonality in programs like (small surprise here) Dr. Who.

While the repertoire has expanded over our decade of marriage, the love of quality has remained the same. Karen tends to enjoy a broader range of British programs than me (Jane Austin, while I respect her as an author, does little to hold my attention, I’m afraid), but something of this nature is frequently playing in the background.

Over dinner a few nights ago, we were discussing something that she had recently watched, and the phrase of greeting used when someone knocked on the door in the program. The conversation, I think, was involving our daughter and polite greetings to use with people in conversation. Karen landed upon the phrase, “Do come in,” when inviting someone to enter your home as one having a particular ring of civility and decorum.

From my vantage point, I love the poetry of this use of our language, but am not particularly hung up on formality.

The word used in that conversation for this sort phraseology, however, works against my dislike of formality: “disarming.” Karen settled upon the phrase, stating that these sort of greetings are “disarming” in their politeness.

When I think of our current state of public discourse in America, civility is not a term that springs to mind, and I’m not surprised because it is a reflection of our current state of interpersonal communication. We’ve lost tolerance for those with differing viewpoints from our own. We’ve lost interest in hearing other perspectives. Our accepted mode of debate is to talk louder than the other party so that their perspective cannot be heard, and, failing that, to openly insult others while on the public stage. Think of your mindset when a dinner conversation turns to one of “those” topics that you wish everyone would just avoid at family gatherings (the most obvious example currently being politics). We are immediately in a defensive posture when someone raises certain subjects, and move quickly to assume the offensive posture. We’re simply culturally conditioned to do so.

The thing about politeness, however, is just what we discussed over dinner that night: it is disarming. Politeness…treating the other party with a deferential respect and courtesy…brings down barriers to communication. It establishes a common ground immediately, removing the need for offense or defense. It allows the exchange of ideas and viewpoints in (at least initially) a mutually respectful atmosphere.

I think that a huge part of why our nation (and not only our nation) has grown so intolerant and closed-minded is because we assume that a given interaction will not start with a tone of civility, but rather be primed for confrontation. That assumption, after all, has been proven correct more often than not.

The challenge is that beginning an interaction with politeness takes courage. After all, there’s a chance that it might not be reciprocated. What it will always be is disarming, acting to lower the potential friction point of anything from welcoming someone into one’s home to launching into a debate on presidential politics.

The concept of being disarming is difficult in a culture marked by the desire…and propensity…to always carry a bigger proverbial stick than the other person. Our national identity, after all, is a sort of swagger that comes with being powerful. Something that simply doesn’t compute in our modern American mindset is that civility and politeness mean lowering one’s guard, placing oneself at an intentional disadvantage to the other person.

Sort of like how the fastest way to calm down someone who is angry is to lower your own voice so that they have to pause to hear you.

If nothing else, if we can muster no other form of civility than this, I think that all Americans would benefit if we would simply lower our voices.

There would be something remarkably disarming about that.

Image attribution: Rob McMahon under Creative Commons.

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