Don’t be Ugly


cartoon of boys screaming at each other

“Damn!” uttered the young male student, crunching into a tight ball the assignment I’d just returned to him.  He pushed his way through the small crowd of students still waiting for their own assignments, and left the room.  He’d earned 6 of a possible 10 points on this short reflection paper — the equivalent of a D.

I made a mental note to discuss this response with him at the following class session.  Call it picking and choosing the battle.   This incident portended future interactions and conversations with him  for the remainder of the semester.

Yes.  This is another essay to be added to the vast collection of discussions on the rise of incivility in America.  Our less-than-stellar human comportment seems to have found a home in nearly every corner of society — politics, the work place, the world of retail, the road, air travel, the media, the Internet and social media, the classroom, and even personal relationships.

Donkey and Elephant Fighting

Writers and researchers who’ve studied the rise in incivility have tied our rudeness to 9/11, the economic downturn of 2008, and the rise in terrorism.  What seems worse is that incivility may have yet to ride its crest.  Civility in America, a collaborative research effort of Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research, determined in its May 2013 poll that uncivil behavior has become the “new normal” in the United States.

cartoon of boss yelling at worker

In this poll of 1,000 participants, researchers found that 95% of Americans think incivility is a critical problem for society; 71% believe it has worsened in recent years; 70% qualify it as a crisis; and 81% believe incivility may actually lead to an increase in violence.

Writers on incivility, including Piers M. Forni,  and Roddy Reid, point to the prevalence of bullying  (school bullying, cyber bullying), as  forerunners of physical violence.  Reid adds that the American penal system undergirds incivility, citing “three-strikes” laws and capital punishment (Psychology Today).

As someone who has taught in the community college setting for more than 25 years, I can say that I’ve experienced a steady rise in various forms of incivility on the part of students.  I am not talking so much about open hostility (which I have indeed experienced), but other “lower-grade,” disengaged behaviors students present in many aspects of their interactions.

It’s important to note here, of course, that most students are dedicated to learning, eager to build skills for their careers, and respectful of the teacher-student relationship.  Yet it’s impossible to ignore those behaviors that seem to eat away at the learning process and  cause one to question the motive to teach, and, yes, scrutinize aspects of one’s instructional delivery (the old, “Is it me?  Am I doing something to make this more difficult?”) I will come back to this in a moment.

This long-term change in behavior, and my most recent teaching experience, has compelled me to consider the breadth and depth of incivility in the college setting , from my own little corner.

woman cussing

Here’s a compilation of the student behaviors I’ve noted over the last ten years or so.  They vary in severity, of course, and I acknowledge that one individual’s frustration with a behavior may be another’s chalk-up to adolescence development.

Out-of-class behaviors:  blowing off appointments; blowing off class with no notice to instructor; answering a cell phone during an appointment; spitting oysters in stairwells and on carpeting; sitting in the hallway with legs outstretched, requiring walkers to meander through the sea of limbs; dropping multiple f-bombs in conversations; jiggling the door knob of a locked office door; sending emails requesting a call; sending emails with no salutation, no use of the instructor’s name, no punctuation, an informal-to-cutesy writing style, sprinkled with emoticons.

In-class behaviors:  leaving class for varied periods of time, sometimes more than one time; sleeping; man-spreading; walking in front of the instructor (upon a tardy arrival or to leave for one of those varied time periods); interrupting a classmate or instructor; excessive talking; cell phone use; potty-mouth terminology;  open hostility to assignment requirements, as expressed in angry facial expressions or jerky body language; stereotypic comments during discussions; joining oneself at the hip with the instructor prior to the start of class or directly after class.

Cell Phone

Some of the above behaviors may certainly stem from anxiety, and others may simply be a result of not having been overtly taught how one can behave in a kind, civil way toward others. I do try, with varying success, to  respond accordingly, and sometimes coach students in the process — I have actually said that directly to students when it feels appropriate (“I’m gonna coach you here just a little.”).   Other times I have been very direct about how inappropriate a behavior is, and not without clear frustration, e.g., “If I do have to speak to you again, it will be to ask you to leave.”

Teachers know that it’s critical to have clear expectations for students, yet that is no guarantee that they will always respond in kind.  The syllabus, which many instructor like to call a “contract,” should spell everything out.  For the purposes at my own institution, there is a special section that outlines the attendance and participation policy, and another section that provides us a chance to convey expectations around civility.  In this latter section I state the behaviors I expect from students when they have a difference of opinion, and that I will not tolerate inappropriate comments about other groups of people or worldviews.

Part of the goal here also is to create a trusting, relaxed, but professional atmosphere.  That takes some time, depending on the nature of the group.  And groups certainly differ.  The bottom line is to model the behavior I’m seeking.

It's in the Syllabus

I firmly believe the classroom is a lab for how to  comport yourself in other areas of life, and as such, is an opportunity to learn how to be your best self as a learner, professional, colleague, and team member.  Here’s where you get some real practice at figuring that out, and then lift off from the nest to see where you fly and how to keep from crashing.

The introspection I referenced earlier, though,  causes me to revisit my values, and reminds me how I got here.   I do value politeness, respect, and regard in relationships.  I’d like to think that most of the time I exhibit these values.  Truth be told — I  do not always shown them, particularly when stressed or defended.

But I got here the way most of us do — through family and educational enculturation.  Here is a list, not entirely exhaustive, of behaviors and practices my parents bread in my siblings and me. Do not say “hate.”  Do not say “Shut up.” Do not slam doors.  If you slam a door, you must re-open it and close it quietly.  Do not walk in your bare feet inside the house.  Put the toilet seat down when you are finished (my brothers did not master this guideline).  Say, “Yes/No m’am and “Yes/no sir”.  Don’t yell.  Don’t stare.  Don’t scuff your shoes when you walk — pick up your feet.  Don’t hold the refrigerator door open.  Close your mouth – don’t let it hang open (often leading to the sibling tease, “Close your mouth.  Fly season’s over.”)  Enunciate when you speak (my mother, a trained vocalist,  would say, “Use your lips and your tongue.”)  Sit still – don’t swing your leg (another version of this:  “Sit like a lady.”)  Sit still – don’t drum your fingers.   Don’t make a face – God will freeze it like that.  Don’t stick out your tongue.  Knock on a door before entering a room.  Identify yourself when making a telephone call; be polite when receiving a call.  Always say “please” and “thank you.”  Don’t interrupt.  Thank a friend’s parents before leaving a party and always say you had a good time.  Keep your room clean.  Don’t call names.  Set an example, especially if you are the older one.  Don’ talk back.  Don’t say “ain’t.”  Speak grammatically correctly, e.g. do not say, “This girl, she …” — say, “This girl ….” or instead of saying “big ‘ole huge” just say “big.”  Chew your food with your mouth closed.  Keep your elbows off the table (I have not mastered this one).    Don’t eat with your fingers.  Don’t wipe your mouth with your hand – use your napkin.  Don’t gulp when you drink.  Put your napkin in your lap when the beverage is placed on the table.  Request permission to leave the table at the end of a meal.  For later in childhood:  Don’t leave your spoon in the coffee cup; place it on the saucer.

At least some of these guidelines were influenced by the setting in which we lived.  Our family moved from outside Washington, DC to Atlanta, Georgia in the early 60’s , and connecting with other families on the block was very important to my parents.  My mother admitted to being concerned about violating southern social decorum.  A child who was rude or impolite was quickly met with the adult admonishment, “Don’t be ugly.”  You never wanted to hear that.

No doubt these guidelines have influenced my teaching and the way I approach my relationships with my students.  I admit to being a finger-shaker, and I am very clear with them that I think there is a pay-off incivility.  You do catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

I may be swimming against the current here in some specific areas, such as believing in the value of a phone call over an email, or putting away the cell phone for the duration of a class — but I’m not ready to give up yet. There is something to be said for those everyday, consistent demonstrations of respect and kindness that I think keep us evolving.

And this notion of civility is more than just that, according to other writers in this area.  Trevor Cairney, a writer with the Center  for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, defines civility as “the behavior between members of a society that create a social code and is a foundational principle of a civilized society.”  Jim Taylor, with the University of San Francisco, calls it “… an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules and norms … that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior … the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy …” (Psychology Today)

So I shall keep working on civility with my students.  And I’ll keep trying to think about how I’m modeling the attitudes and behaviors I believe are tied to their success as individuals and professionals.

What are your experiences with incivility, dear readers?   Share your insights and suggestions. We all need them.


5 thoughts on “Don’t be Ugly”

  1. I think I have seen the most egregious case of the march of incivility in politics, especially during the last six years with the public treatment of an African American president. Second is incivility on the part of some of our professional clients, who can be insulting to a degree I do not remember earlier in my career, and somehow think that since they hired us they are allowed to ignore all rules of politeness.

    I am impressed at your comprehensive memory of the rules of order in the Kerwin household. Your list of our parental admonitions really brought me back. I am going to forward them to my kids since – having just been reminded of them – I feel I have seriously slacked on many of these in the raising of my own three kids. I have left many of these rules out of their education completely – perhaps with the exception of the elbows off the table: that one I am obnoxious about, as I am sure my son Lucas would confirm. The only one that I remember well that you don’t mention is the absolute directive on exactly how to word your greeting when answering the phone (“Hello, this is the Kerwin residence. Michael Kerwin speaking. How may I help you?” – no exceptions; no customizing allowed. It might be Monsignor…)

  2. You were reading my mind about Congress and the “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s State of the Union address 4 years ago. I have begun to think broader American culture has nearly embraced incivility as a positive value, as if to assume that any decorum is deemed a function of weakness.

    The behavioral mandates with which we grew up were a parenting choice, and I do not wish you any guilt trips for your own approach to raising your wonderful children. So many factors influence that huge responsibility. I do appreciate your reminder about the phone script, as I had attempted to recall it, beyond identifying ourselves upon answering and then inquiring after the identity of the caller. I still do that, particularly for telemarketing calls.

  3. Good for you, Sheila! This is something we all experience almost every day! Where to lay the blame and will it do any good? – who knows.
    My thought is that civility, good manners, whatever you want to call it, begins at home. It was / is of the highest value, and often is it’s own reward… it helps us to become good people.

    Secondly, it seems we are bombarded with all types of behavior, via the media. Unfortunately poor or ugly behavior is condoned and even encouraged. So there are all kinds of mixed messages. Maybe we see it more in the young, but it’s unfortunate when it’s displayed by adults – are they “grown up” ? OR – by what age should we know or be better?

    In the meantime, I’m convinced that the Golden Rule is still the way to go. Our Mother always brought it up. I try to live by it.

    Here’s to civility, consideration, goodness and compassion!

  4. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts, Jill! I’ve begun to wonder if incivility is carried as a badge of honor by some, and that in some instances a demonstration of politeness is considered suspect. Stress may be playing a role here.

    I appreciate your including compassion in your collection of values. That’s the practice that, more than any other, shows empathy — so important to relationships.

    Onward with Civility. Let’s bring it on back.

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