Since being asked to write this article, I have given a lot of thought to the women who helped shape my life and the lives of my siblings. We kids were a scruffy lot and never failed to present great need for socialization. While dad provided his own brand of kind guidance in the barn, mom and grandma ruled the house and fought with great valor to improve upon our social graces.
Mom and grandma governed in tandem with a firm grip, a civil tongue and a big bar of Lava soap conspicuous in both sight and size. They understood the value of deterrence long before deterrence became a familiar word.
For those who don’t know about Lava soap, it’s still available for tough hand cleaning jobs or as an Internet ad says, “to help those who really get their hands dirty.” No mention of mouths. I can still taste it and feel the grit. I never bought any Lava soap for my own home — so much for deterrence.
As a young wife and mother, I quickly assumed the role that my mom and grandma had taken so seriously — civilizing a start-up family. I learned the importance of setting a tone of civility in our household at the beginning of every day. While my husband and son were absently mindful of a small needlepoint strategically placed over the breakfast bar that read, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” I found that the path of least resistance, for a constructive start to every day, was for me to simply lead the charge.
Thirty-four years later I still have the job and am still learning how to do it better. In addition, I have also learned much more about how quickly communication becomes distorted and relationships affected when common courtesies within families and between individuals and organizations are not reciprocal and consistently practiced. Words matter. Courtesies matter. Ask the kid that is bullied or the diplomat that has been insulted and demeaned with thoughtless chatter beamed around the world.
I have learned that words have the potential to be more lethal than any ammunition in a military’s arsenal. Words leveraged by the ever-increasing speed of technology can spread like a deadly virus and create a picture of the United States that, at best, is less than flattering and, at worst, threatens the lives of individual citizens and imperils the very future of our democracy.
Many years of experience have convinced me that civility (or lack thereof) starts in our homes and moves transparently with us to our schools, workplaces and communities. With the addition of new communication links, devices and technologies, both good and bad behaviors are now captured and transmitted to a global audience. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, no longer stays in Vegas. Connectivity is the only limiting factor in determining the size and scope of the potential audience.
The other evening I heard a talk show program where guests were discussing deterioration in civility in America. A growing culture of permissiveness and the influence of the Internet were targeted as root causes. Pardon me but sans a human being crafting the message or creating the picture there would be nothing for the Internet to supply. A permissive culture? Who is responsible for that? Without demand for such a culture there would cease to be a supply. Why is it so easy to blame things that are difficult to touch and impossible to hold accountable?
No, the root cause for deterioration in civility in America begins with a growing lack of personal responsibility for individual words and actions. While emerging opportunities to reach out and stage personal attacks anonymously through Internet forums and other venues have further fueled and intensified the delivery of profane, malicious and threatening attacks, it is the individual that must be held accountable for the message.
The New Year is still young and there will be many opportunities to make a difference in your home and community in the coming year. While I can’t feed the world hungry I can do my part from my part of the world. Through my own conduct I can strive to set a good example for my family, my friends and my work colleagues. When I fail at civility I can say I’m sorry sooner rather than later. I also realize that sometimes I will need to be further humbled by saying the “I’m sorry” in public rather than in private.
The New Year is still young and there is no better time to turn up the personal civility meter than right now.