The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

— Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

A Guide to Being Civil on the Internet

Those who know me personally, or who have been reading my blog for some time, know that I place a lot of value on courteousness, both on and off the web. My blog (along with my Facebook profile) is geared toward promoting open-ended discussion that is carried out with mutual respect and politeness.

I even devoted an entire post to extolling the virtues of dialectics and good manners. I firmly believe that aside from being the right and ethical thing to do, such principles can help you grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially. There’s always room for improvement in these areas, but the point is to at least try. I won’t pontificate too much on this, since you can read all my arguments there.

The web – while more developed, populated, and ubiquitous than ever – is still something of a wild frontier: people can get away with almost anything they want. From petty trolling to malicious cyber-bullying to destructive hacking, the internet can be a cruel place, which makes it quite a challenge to sit on your gentlemanly pedestal.

Arguably, the same can be said about the real world too, but there’s a huge difference – the very nature of the internet makes it far easier to engage in this sort of behavior. And given the web’s growing prominence in our everyday lives, it’s more difficult than ever to avoid encountering nasty people. It’s getting crowded, and you’re bound to cross paths with someone that will upset you.

So how does one maintain any sort of high-minded courtesy in the face of such debauchery – which, I might add, is often intended to shatter your decency?

Luckily (and unsurprisingly) I’m not the only one reflecting on this conundrum. A light-hearted but insightful website called Art of Manliness has raised the same issue: how do you remain a gentleman online? (Regardless of the terminology, this almost certainly applies to women too; the site is just geared towards men, obviously).

Before addressing that point, they start by identifying a troubling problem: people behave exceptionally mean and spitefully on the internet, more so then we’d ever expect them to in real life. Why is this so? Again, it has to do with the very nature of the internet.

Certainly the loss of empathy from interacting as anonymous, disembodied selves is a major factor. But the real root of the problem is how we view our time online; many see it as a break from their “real lives”—a place where they can let it all hang out. In their off-line lives they must be civil and refrain from telling their boss how they really feel about him, yelling at the customer service rep who’s giving them the runaround, and getting out of the car and punching the rude and reckless driver in front of them. The anger from this restraint boils inside of them, and online, freed from any real consequences, they unleash their pent-up venom.

But the world is spending more and more of its time online. For many, it has become our major source of education, entertainment, communication, and debate. Isn’t it time to let go of the false wall between our online lives and our “real” ones and act with the same kind of civility on the internet that we do in our day-to-day interactions?

Exactly, context shouldn’t matter – when you’re interacting with fellow human beings, you should always strive to be a decent person. Any medium of communication, no matter how impersonal or concealing, still involves living, breathing people who rightly desire a certain level of respect. Even if they don’t deserve it, there is still good reason not to stoop to their level, as is explained below.

Why a Man Should Strive to Be More Civil Online
A gentleman treats others with dignity and respect, regardless of the kind of forum in which he participates. He treats life’s fellow travelers as he himself would like to be treated. And in doing so, he makes the world a little better of a place everywhere he goes. He leaves those he interacts with feeling edified and uplifted instead of depressed and angry. Every man has the power to brighten his corner of the world, whether that corner be in the office, his home, or online. The more men who decide to take the higher road of civility, the more enjoyable everyone’s lives become. And choosing to reject our baser impulses in favor of our higher ones is a big part of becoming our best selves and building our legacy.

We all have daily annoyances that build up a well of anger inside of us. But instead of taking this rage out on others, it should be released healthily through things like exercise, meditation, and time spent in nature.

Satisfyingly, I’ve more or less made the same argument. Being civil is mutually beneficial – it makes you a better person while making the world around you a better place. It also sets an important example, so that even if you don’t win over your opponent (which rarely happens anyway), you can inspire others to pay-it-forward.

Of course, being well-mannered is easier said than done. If decent behavior was an obvious and undemanding thing to do, it would be far more widespread:

How to Be More Civil Online
Being a gentleman online simply involves the application of common sense. But anyone who leaves their home each day knows how uncommon common sense can be.

In our grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ time, etiquette books were extremely popular; believe it or not, Emily Post’s tome on the subject was one of the most requested books by GI’s during World War II. Our forefathers understood something we often forget: no matter how common sense something is, without frequent reminders and practice, humans are drawn to the path of least resistance. While our culture has largely dropped these reminders to be our better selves, today we’ll fill in the gap by reviewing some common sense principles for being a gentleman online.

Aside from genes, we are the product of social and environmental conditioning. There is a reason why academic education spans several years, why musicians always rehearse, and why athletes must constantly train – nothing stays with us indefinitely without effort. Skills and personal traits, no matter how seemingly straightforward, cannot simply be downloaded into us – they must be practiced, refined, and improved upon.

That fact applies to civility as much as anything else. Good behavior isn’t easy, especially in the face of temptations that seek to draw us away from our better nature. Heck, that’s what makes being a good person so…good. The fact that we can resist immoral behavior despite the challenges only reinforces the virtue of our attempt.

I’m no expert in this regard – I slip up and behave stupidly all the time, no matter how high-minded I try to act (or write) on the web. But what’s important is being conscious of this and making the attempt. So without further ado, here is what the folks at Art of Manliness see as some key tips to being a gentlemanly web-user:

1. Remember that there are real people on the other side of the computer.
This is so easy to forget. We see only our screen and our empty apartment; the faces of folks out there who will be reading what we write seem unreal and nebulous. But they are out there. And your words can truly wound them. So when writing something, keep this rule in mind:

2. Never say something to someone online that you wouldn’t say to the person’s face.
Perhaps the most important rule for online interactions.  People level the kind of vitriol online they would assuredly never say to someone’s face. I know a website owner that sometimes figures out the phone numbers of those who leave extremely rude comments and calls them up to ask what made them say something like that. Inevitably, the confronted person, hearing the voice of a real human being, is reduced to a stammering, apologetic mess.

Empathy is the key to civility. You can’t be a good person to someone if you don’t recognize they’re a person in the first place. As we’ve discussed, the web conceals our humanity quite well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t overcome it: our society has fundamentally changed over the last few decades, so that most people now live in a world of strangers. That doesn’t mean we should all start behaving callously to one another. The world is increasingly becoming a smaller place, both on and off the web. Like it or not, it’s about time we start to adapt to that.

3. Use your real name.
This is simple: if you’re not proud enough of something to have it associated with your real name, then why are you writing it?

Yes, there are caveats to this rule – legitimate reasons for anonymity. But when typing in an alias, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Do you have a valid reason for doing so, or do you simply wish to avoid ownership of your words because they are rude?

I’ve been on both ends of this, and I find that names do humanize a person more. It also gives more weight to what you’re saying, and grants legitimacy to you as an authority. One way people recognize trolls is by their use of an alias, especially an odd one. It may be wrong to profile people this way, but the established precedent is that people who rely on such cover are aiming to cause trouble, and it’s easier to do that when you lack an identity.

Keeping this in mind, using a pseudonym can give others the wrong impression, leading to needless assumptions that may blow up into conflict. Again, there will always be exceptions, as the article states, but that’s just what I’ve observed.

4. Sit on it.
This is something I’ve had to learn by experience and still struggle with. You see something that makes your blood boil, you’re filled with the desire to absolutely eviscerate a person, and you furiously type out a scathing response and press send. And later you regret it.

Instead, go ahead and write out your comment to get it off your chest, but sit on it for several hours or even a day. I know it feels like you simply have to get it off your chest at that very moment, but your adrenaline and heart rate are up and you’re not thinking clearly. Give it some time and you’ll be amazed at how “I must respond!” will transform into “Eh, who cares?”

5. Or don’t respond at all.
Your mom was right: If you don’t have something nice to say, sometimes it’s best not to say anything at all. This is another thing I’ve learned from experience and still slip up with. I used to want to rebut every bit of criticism directed at me, but I’ve learned to choose my battles and that it’s often better not to get involved at all. Just let people do their thing. I know it’s difficult because when we feel someone is wrong, it’s so hard to let it go. We want to show people the error of their ways and change their minds.

But as sure as you are about being right, you can never win an online argument. Why? Because of something called the “backfire effect.” In this article on the effect by David McRaney, which I highly recommend reading, he explains the fact that far from changing people’s minds, threatening someone’s beliefs actually strengthens and entrenches them further. This is why I generally abstain from heated internet debates; they get you all worked up, waste your time, and go absolutely nowhere.

If you come across a discussion where you really feel like a different perspective needs to be added, just jump in and civilly state your case instead of responding directly to specific people. People are much more likely to consider your point of view when they experience it indirectly as opposed to feeling attacked.

These are probably the two most difficult things to do, because they deal with what is also the most challenging aspect of our nature: ego. Pride leads to bad behavior because it clouds our judgment. All we end up caring about is saving face, looking good, and being right, and we’ll stop at nothing to ensure this. The cruel irony is that in trying to preserve our dignity, we only undermine – we come off as petty, aggressive, arrogant, and bitter. Even if you’re just fighting fire with fire, you’re still bringing yourself down to your opponent’s level, and that could be just as bad for your ego.

Again, not everyone will agree that it’s not worth it to get the last word or explode on someone else. For some people, that might feel great, and it might even score them some “victories.” But I’m not one of those people, and while I may feel smug about it at first, I also end up feeling like an ass who lost his cool and put personal satisfaction ahead of decency and self-control. This segues nicely into the next point:

6. Say something positive.
Studies have shown what people already know from experience: folks are more likely to make negative comments in online forums than positive ones. It makes sense; when something makes you angry, you’re much more motivated to complain about it and want to vent. McRaney explains why this is:

“A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happens is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept.Information which lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something which threatens your beliefs, something which conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

Well, I certainly want to keep breathing, but I don’t want to only respond to things that make me angry. So this is something I’ve been working on too. When I read a blog post I enjoy, I find it easy to think, “That was great,” before surfing away. So I’ve been trying to take a minute to type those thoughts out before moving on. As a blog owner myself, I know how incredibly encouraging it is to hear something positive.

Nothing will disarm your opponent’s more, and diffuse a belligerent situation, than words of kindness. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve whittled a debate down into harmless academic discussion by acknowledging my opponent’s decent points, or ensuring them that, in the end, I found their confrontation a valuable and educational experience.

Disagreements have the silver lining of testing our positions and giving us an alternative perspective we need to consider, so why not put that out there? Not only will it calm you down and make you realize that it’s not something to get made about, but it may give your combatant pause as well. The best part is that, by my experience, most people don’t want to fight.

Except for the most malicious of trolls, the majority of folks just have strongly worded opinions that they want to share as much as you do; or maybe there was just a misunderstanding all along, and all the two sides needed was a reminder that maybe we’re getting angry for nothing. Again, this isn’t always the case, and not every fight can be mitigated this way. But as always, the point is to at least make the attempt, try to set the example, and err on the side of caution.

So the article ends by asking, how else can we cultivate civility online? That’s a great question, since civility encompasses many things and must constantly evolve with time and experience. I’ve got one major answer:

7. Learn the other person’s story.
Another way to put this would be to simply get to know the individual. Not just the one you’re butting heads with, but anybody and everybody you can make the time for.

Ultimately, most fights are worsened – and often emerge in the first place – because of the “otherness” of the individuals involved. We don’t know them, so we don’t see them as one of us (again, the web’s impersonal nature doesn’t help). Once we hear their story – who they really are, what they believe and why, what they do for a living, etc – it’s arguably much more difficult to verbally fillet them. You can’t demonize someone (as easily) once you’ve already humanized them.

Even close friends fight too, of course, but it’s much less hostile and visceral than when it’s between strangers who know nothing of each other. Most of us make no effort to understand the human on the other side of the screename or profile picture. But why not? Even if we don’t like them, or come to find out that they’re just as unlikeable, if not more so, once we learned about them, at least we’ve learned a valuable lesson: that’s you can’t reason with some people, so you’re better off not sacrificing your civility trying too.

This leads to an unanticipated second answer: to be civil, you must be humble. Admit to yourself and others that you could be wrong on certain issues or that even if you’re right, you could be wrong about your approach. Accept that you’ll always have flaws that you’ll constantly have to work on, and make an effort to do so. Civility is not a destination – it’s a constant process, something akin to a muscle: you must flex it to keep it from atrophying, but also to make it stronger and better. When we recognize that fact, both on and offline, we’ll be better people.