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Being Civil

By Elisabeth Dahl
Daniel L. Buccino is clinical director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative.

Civility in America seems to be in perilously short supply of late. In place of rational, courteous exchanges, we often find raised voices, pointed fingers, even coarse language, both inside and outside the fractious political sphere. What’s going on here? And how can we replenish our culture’s stores of civility?

Daniel Buccino started researching civility back in the 1990s as part of his work as a psychotherapist who also trains aspiring therapists. He wanted to better understand how to maintain healthy, cordial relationships. In 2014 he took the reins of the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative, a collection of academic and community outreach activities focused on the importance of civility, courtesy, and etiquette. Whether the setting is the political stage, the dining room table, the office conference room, or the comments section of a newspaper’s website, Buccino says civility begins with the individual.

During the latest presidential election cycle, we’ve witnessed uncivil behavior from some candidates and their supporters. Why has civil discourse gone so far off the rails?

It’s probably a combination of things. As a culture, we’ve become too focused on “me” and not so much on “we.” People have to move around a lot more because of the economy and the like, so there’s been more support of individualistic pursuits and individual kinds of success and less emphasis on collective success. Also, the economy for the past decade has gotten people scared. It’s easy to put the blame on nameless, faceless others, and some people are much better at inflaming those fears and concerns.

Are there steps we can take, in public and at home, to reclaim thoughtfulness and respect?

It’s important to want to do this. We work for civility at home and at work when we’re smart enough to imagine its rewards. It would be nice if we could make other people behave, but it really needs to start with ourselves. Civility is about a sense of respect for oneself and for others. You have to believe in that enough to be willing to work for it, in lots of different settings, especially when it’s more of a challenge.

Are there strategies—a civility checklist, if you will—with which to approach situations that could turn sticky? Before I sit down to a holiday meal with a relative whose views I don’t share, are there things I should remind myself?

We’ve got to remind ourselves to appeal to the adult within, not to our inner child. We need to remember that we stay civil not because others always are but because we are. Especially if we’re going to be provoked, we need to redouble our efforts to stay on our best behavior. In family and workplace settings, long-term relationships are much more important than any kind of short-term disagreement.

Is civility contagious? Does civility beget civility?

I think it does. At Johns Hopkins we believe that we can establish and cultivate a culture of civility and respect. Our thought is that this has a big impact on patient experience, patient outcomes, and so on, and that we can do it better and encourage other people to do it better. Just like we encourage people to wash their hands, we believe we can shape behaviors—in an upward spiral rather than a downward drift. When you establish team norms and workplace norms, it does have a big effect.

Does living in a civil environment mean you’re more likely to be psychologically healthy?

There is some evidence that the better our quality of relationships in general, the better our overall health. Insofar as civility offers us some of the skills and relational competence that are necessary to live the good life, then yes, we’re more likely to be psychologically healthy. The question is, if we think that the good life is largely about the quality of our relationships, then again civility offers us some skills—relational competence, purposeful poise—that allow us to maintain and sustain relationships over time.

Is civility something that we find lacking in others but rarely find lacking in ourselves? Do we need to hold ourselves to as high a standard as we hold other people?

Studies of this are pretty consistent: 95 percent of Americans think that incivility is a problem—in the world, the U.S., and their lives. And yet 95 percent of people say that they are always or mostly civil. It’s hard for us to consider that we may be a part of the problem. If we believe society is uncivil, then we need to aspire to live in a different way and not devolve into the lowest common denominator.

What got you interested in this?

I came to it many years ago, thinking about how to teach people to do psychotherapy. That’s the main part of my job—teaching and training people in psychotherapy. At the heart of good psychotherapy practice is the capacity to manage relationships and build alliances, often with difficult people. That got me reading Miss Manners and Emily Post. How do you help people say things like, “Thank you,” or “I’m so sorry to hear that,” to manage relationships?

There is also hard science around these soft skills. A civil and respectful workplace engages employees to form higher-performing teams, achieve better outcomes, and drive growth, for example. We’re continuing to try to show that these softer things—civility and respect—contribute to concrete outcomes. It’s at the heart of our enterprise. Ultimately it’s good for us, it’s good for others—it’s both expedient and altruistic. There’s something in it for everybody.

Drawing of Daniel L. Buccino
Image by Paul Holland

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