Christmastime is typically thought of as the season of brotherhood, peace and togetherness. But as Frances Stern Lashinsky sat at a restaurant and watched the other diners, goodwill toward men, women or whoever was sitting on the other side of the table was the last thing she was seeing.
“I was looking around, and most people weren’t opening doors for each other. Everybody’s got their cellphones whipped out. No one was talking to each other,” says Lashinsky, a retired psychology professor at New Jersey’s Kean University who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens. “And I thought, ‘How very sad. Is this what we’re coming to?’”
Apparently, it is. Both pundits and pollsters say we’ve seen a lack of basic civility in our society, in both subtle and overt ways. We’re not holding doors open or saying “Please” and “Thank you.” It’s spread to our homes, our schools, our workplaces and even the unpleasantness of the 2016 presidential election.
A report released last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago revealed that 74 percent of Americans see a decline of manners and behavior, while a 2016 Weber Shandwick poll, part of a series called Civility in America, found that a whopping 95 percent of Americans say that civility is a problem, with 70 percent believing that problem is at “crisis levels.”
So in the spirit of the timeless advice to be the change you want to see in the world, Lashinsky decided to combat that crisis with a personal challenge, “my little campaign,” as she calls it. And it was simply this:
“I decided to commit one act of civility, at least once a day. To say something nice, do something nice.”
The results, she says, “made me sing.” And now, she wants you to do it, too.
“People can’t get outside of themselves. Just look around you, and see other people, and start to connect with them,” says Lashinsky, who is proposing a 30-Day Civility Challenge, inviting people to actively seek out opportunities to be civil and polite to other people in small, simple ways. “I talked to everyone. If I like your hair, I tell you.”
What she found in her experiment was that some people “were surprised, and didn’t know what to make of it, but not a negative surprise. Some thought I was flirting, and some thought I was crazy,” she says. “I’m little, so I know I probably got a different reaction than if I was a big guy. But usually, I got a smile.”
Stephanie Bennett, professor of communication and media ecology at Palm Beach Atlantic University, says that documenting the erosion of civility in American lives is connected to the way we live those lives, using shortcuts in technology and language — emojis, anyone? — that get us where we want to go faster but cut out the human equation.
“The key is that our lives have become about efficiency, rather than about the traditional value of relationships. It’s sad,” Bennett says. “The tools that we use to communicate are literally using us, rather than us using those tools. We can so quickly contact each other. This is greatly beneficial when in a rush, or when we have an emergency, but this does not lend itself to civility.”
Lashinsky, who gives her age as “above the age of reason,” says she first started noticing a change about five years ago in The Gardens mall, when she saw “a kid, about 12, throw a tantrum, and hit his mom, cursing. And no one was really paying attention.”
And that’s when she started actively noting what she feels is a lack of attention to what used to be a generally accepted way of treating each other, strangers and friends alike.
“We’re more impatient. There’s just more general meanness,” she says. “Civility used to just be assumed. My mother came here from Russia when she was 12 and thought everyone was crazy because of all the smiling. I don’t really know how, but it came to be expected. Kids didn’t shout at their parents in public, or dream of cursing out their teachers. Now we all do it on the internet.”
Her interest in the subject of how we think as a society isn’t just casual. She taught public school for four years in East Orange, New Jersey, and saw that “civility went both ways, between the teachers and the students. It was about respect.” Later, she worked in the psychology department at Kean University for 30 years, and learned that when we’re nice to people, and people are nice to us, it does more than make us smile.
“Civility literally changes your brain chemistry,” says Lashinsky, who is on the board of an organization called Palm Beach Philanthropy Tank that pairs investors with students pitching philanthropic projects. “There’s a bridge between the brain and our body, our neurotransmitters. If someone says something nasty to you, how your body reacts is not good.”
A number of institutions of higher learning are encouraging civility, including Michigan State, College of Staten Island, Sacramento City College and University of Nevada. Palm Beach Atlantic’s Bennett, for instance, started the “Say Hello” campaign, where she and students donned white T-shirts with that slogan and “decided to love bomb people, to smile and say hello. No stalking, no following, just “Hello,” just because of the need for rapport and respect, for all these people moving past us that are people, not objects. That’s why we have cyber-bullying and trolling.”
But don’t be so quick to just blame the internet. Bennett believes that since the Industrial Age, beginning “at the early part of the 20th century, people became more and more familiar with noise, with having the TV on in the background. It gives us a false sense of reality. Slowly over time, that makes us less attuned to others as people. We see all these images in movies and on TV, just these abstracted remote others. There’s more and more distance, and we just relate to other people’s images on Facebook and never call.”
So what can we do? Besides embarking on conscious efforts to be more civil, like Lashinsky’s challenge, she says the most important thing is putting down the phone, lifting up our heads and “seeing outside of ourselves. I went to the Mardi Gras celebration at Universal Studios in Orlando, and I saw some people making sure they got all the beads, but I also saw some give their beads to little kids who couldn’t reach,” she says. “You have to realize that you’re living in the world with the rest of us.”
Five Ways To Be Civil
1) Hold a door open for someone else.
2) Say “Please” and “Thank you.”
3) “Notice something positive about one other person, and tell them.”
4) Be nicer to your parents — “Say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to them, and they’ll fall over on the floor. And then you’ll be nice when you pick them up off the floor.”
5) Use your turn signal when you drive.