Stopping Incivility

By: Neil Mufson
A discussion on keeping conversations and interaction productive.
As the nation prepares to inaugurate a new president, it is critical for our children that adults reinforce the importance of civility, respect, and tolerance. Even as the appalling language and revelations of the campaign raged, most adults were troubled by the behavior that was modeled. While I believe this was at least a partial reflection and amplification of the overall decline in civility in our society, I recently read a New York Times article entitled "Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech" that renewed my hope that we can rebound -- if adults are thoughtful, committed, and brave enough to do something about it.

The article pointed out that "a body of psychological research shows that even mild pushback against offensive remarks can have an instant effect -- as difficult as that can be, especially with a boss, a friend, or a celebrity." While we all have probably been in a situation when a racist, misogynistic, or otherwise offensive remark or “joke” was made in our presence, "even the politest of objections -- or subtle correction to loaded words -- can almost instantly curb a speaker's behavior."
What are some of the strategies the researchers suggest? Changing the subject. Doing something distracting. Turning up the music. Using humor. Saying, "That bothers me" or "I love satire" or "I get it. It's weird that people believe that for real and it's so cool you called it out."

The key is having a pre-emptive plan with a line or two that work for you and that use your usual language. Researchers have found that it doesn't take a finely crafted comeback to stop the offensive talk. Even a simple "That's not cool" or "I disagree" or "Shouldn't everyone be treated the same?" has a quick impact.

Conversely, psychologists maintain that by saying nothing, we often convey agreement or, at least, "passive complicity." "When we hear egregious, uncomfortable talk and we don't speak up, what's actually happening is that the person speaking is getting a green light."

I believe that what we don't say and what we don't attend to say as much about us as what we do say and do attend to. Thus, instead of perhaps unwittingly encouraging an outrageous speaker, we can often curb their actions by saying something simple and direct. While we adults need to step up in this way, we also need to teach this to our children.

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