Over the last couple of decades, sociologists, commentators, public officials and other observers have been telling us that civility is fast disappearing from our society. Countless books, articles and reports are being churned out, addressing what many refer to as our “rudeness epidemic.” Surveys conducted around the globe report that discourteous behavior, vulgar language, road rage and other public displays of anger are at all-time highs.
Chances are, you’ve been on the receiving end of some of this incivility.
Perhaps the driver of the car behind you at the self-serve fuel pump thinks you are taking too long to fill up and makes an unpleasant gesture and mouths an obscenity at you.
Driving on an unfamiliar road, you put on your turn signal when you realize your lane is ending, but the driver in the next lane refuses to let you move over.
In a crowded department store, another shopper briskly tells you, “Excuse me!” in a tone of voice that says, “Get out of my way!”
After circling a parking lot several times, you finally see someone who’s about to leave and free up a parking space. You wait for this soon-to-be-vacated spot with your turn signal on, only to have another vehicle zoom in from another direction and take the space.
The examples could go on and on. All around us, in every corner of modern life, we’re seeing the disappearance of civility. But what exactly do we mean by civility? Merriam-Webster.com defines it as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.” To be civil is to behave in a way that takes into account the well-being of others—to show courtesy, concern and regard.
To be harsh, rude, uncaring or thoughtless is the exact opposite of civility.
On the surface, most displays of callousness may seem innocuous. But even these relatively minor infractions matter. The attitudes that are at the root of everyday incidents of incivility can turn into the bigger episodes we hear about on the news—when people become violent at airports, malls, schools, office buildings, etc., because they didn’t get their way.
Civility is essential for stable, strong and harmonious communities. When citizens show concern for each other, not only do their relationships become stronger, society as a whole functions better.
To be civil is to behave in a way what takes into account the well-being of others———to show courtesy, concern and regard.
Historians point out that incivility has been a cause in the decline of nearly every great civilization. In his classic work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon attributed the collapse of Rome in large part to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. Certainly this observation is just as relevant today.
Edward Wortley-Montagu, another 18th-century author, observed in Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republicks that the principal reason for the decline of the Greek and Roman empires was a “degeneracy of manners, which reduced those once brave and free people into the most abject slavery.”
When civility breaks down, civilization begins to fracture. Johns Hopkins professor P.M. Forni warns in his 2008 best seller, The Civility Solution, that incivility often escalates into violence. One example he gives is the typical full-blown road-rage incident, which starts with someone taking offense at being slighted. When disorderly conduct becomes widespread, ultimately it can destroy a society.
At the very least, rudeness is a stressor and can have a negative impact on our personal lives. “Rudeness wears down our mental defenses, leaving us vulnerable to self-doubt and anxiety,” Forni says. Research shows that chronic stress due to rudeness can contribute to depression, weight gain, digestive complaints, sleep disorders and even heart disease.
Signs of the times
As disheartening as this incivility epidemic may be, it was foretold long ago in the Bible. In 2 Timothy 3:1-4, the apostle Paul writes: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
Societal trends have paved the way for these behaviors. One such trend relates to social approval, which is not nearly as powerful a motivator as it was in times past. We no longer live in communities where everyone knows everyone. Today, most of us live in cities and don’t know many of our neighbors or the people we encounter in public places. Living among strangers, we may not care what others think of us or even try to be patient with them, because we figure we won’t see them again. This is one reason why, if a bus passenger annoys another passenger with his loud music, a confrontation is more likely to ensue. Anonymity makes it easier to be uncivil.
Another trend is our society’s ever-increasing focus on me. While human beings have always had a tendency to think about themselves first and foremost, numerous studies suggest that as a culture, we are becoming more self-absorbed than ever.
The signs are everywhere. Just look at all the self-promotion on social media sites, the boom in cosmetic surgery and the increasing materialism.
In The Civility Solution, Forni writes that when “self” is king, “we are not inclined to be considerate and kind. Furthermore, when life does not grant us the privileges we expect given the high opinion we have of ourselves, frustration and anger are likely to result, with the attending abuse of innocent bystanders.”
Some of the blame can also be attributed to people working longer hours, leading busier lives and, in general, being under more stress. All this pressure and anxiety can make us less tolerant of others.
“Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
In his 2002 book, Choosing Civility, Forni writes: “A stressed, fatigued or distressed person is less inclined to be patient and tolerant, to think before acting, and to be aware of the needs of others. Thus such a person is more likely to be rude.”
This often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: When we’re rude with others, we tend to feel more stress, which leads to more rudeness, and then we’re more stressed and on and on.
Antidotes to incivility
The good news is that in the near future, Jesus Christ will return to rule the earth, and the Kingdom of God will be established. Then courtesy, consideration and respect will become the norm.
In the meantime, we must be civil in our relations with others, even if they don’t treat us civilly.
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:12, known as the “Golden Rule,” says, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” In Matthew 5:44 Jesus instructed, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
“God is patient with us when we fall short; if we want to be His children, we must strive to treat others with the same forbearance,” says Joel Meeker, a minister with the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and director of the Church’s French-speaking region. “This means letting go of anger or a desire to repay in-kind when people are rude to us.”
True, “we live in an increasingly angry world,” Mr. Meeker continues. “We meet more people who have a mind-set that refuses to be reasonable, and want to be confrontational and malicious. In times like that we may not be able to achieve peace, but the Bible says to do the best we can.” We’re told in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
Recognizing and apologizing for our own rudeness
Of course, truth be told, it’s not always “the other guy” who dishes out the less-than-polite behavior. Probably most of us can think of times when we didn’t treat others as well as we should have.
“When this happens, we should be willing to go back and apologize,” says Ralph Levy, a Church of God minister and an instructor at Foundation Institute. “This doesn’t diminish us; quite the contrary, it usually builds us in the eyes of others. We become people whose egos don’t bar them from apologizing when they misjudge a situation and fall short in how they deal with others.”
Esteeming others, humility and thankfulness
It’s good to start each day in prayer, asking God to guide us through the day, and to help us put the concerns of others above our own. Philippians 2:3-4 admonishes us, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
“This passage tells us to act in humility toward other people, to treat others as if they are more important than we are,” explains Mr. Meeker. “If a president or a king were rude to us we would probably swallow the incivility out of respect for their position. This is the way we should treat everyone.”
“An attitude of thankfulness, along with expressing thanks to others, goes a long way toward reminding us that we are blessed far more than we actually deserve,” says David Johnson, a Church of God minister and an instructor at Foundation Institute. “Instead of feeling constantly slighted, we feel grateful. Thankfulness alters our way of thinking and acting toward others. It is difficult to be rude to someone and express thanks at the same time. Civility involves feeling and expressing gratitude.”
There’s no question we’re living in challenging times. Everywhere around us we can see rudeness, self-centeredness and lack of concern for our fellow man. The ultimate antidote, of course, is the fruit of God’s Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23, which includes love, peace, patience, gentleness and self-control. If we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, these are the qualities we should—and must—be known for.