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Why Civility Makes Us Healthier

Kindness improves not only the lives of those we encounter, but also our own health and wellbeing.

I was standing on a corner in New York City waiting for a taxi. On the opposite corner a man who appeared to be homeless was pushing an overfilled cart with empty cans when he misjudged the placement of the curb. He and the contents of the cart toppled over into the busy intersection. Without delay a woman in a business suit and heels standing nearby moved into action. She put her briefcase down and reached to help the man to his feet. Then she and the man together proceeded to pick up each and every can.

When they finished the man retrieved her briefcase and handed it back to her. He then held out his hand for hers. When she held out her hand to shake his, he instead bowed as he kissed the back of her hand. I wondered how the woman would respond. She did not hesitate to take his hand and returned the kiss to the back of his hand in return. I watched this exchange in awe. It took my breath away. Care and kindness had blossomed in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

How We Treat Each Other Changes Us
This incident warmed my heart and demonstrated the power of an irreplaceable act of civility. Every encounter with another being has the potential to lift or limit us. Practicing civility, especially in the face of the opposite, is a defiant and powerful act of love. Civility forges the acceptance and connection that we all want and need. Incivility makes us feel small and discarded. Civility raises us up, inoculates our hearts with kindness, and has also been proven to be an important part of staying healthy.

Our present culture is rife with clashing political ideologies, cowardly acts of terrorism and rampant public trolling and shaming on social media. Harsh acts of incivility have the power to devastate us. While often not intentional, less dramatic, insensitive interactions also chip away at our dignity, our health and our sense of feeling safe in the world.

In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get UlcersStanford Professor Robert M. Sapolsky asserts that when we are exposed to the stress of incivility for too long and too often, our immune systems will pay the price. He explains that the stress resulting from uncivil occurrences causes an elevation of hormones called glucocorticoids, which cause inflammation in the body. Protracted over time, the chronic activation of inflammation due to the stress response can lead to a host of health problems including cardiovascular disease, ulcers, diabetes and cancers.

Incivility in The Workplace
Reflected in the Harvard Business Review article, The Price of Incivility, researchers Porath and Pearson collected data polled from over 14,000 workers throughout the US and Canada. The goal was to research the prevalence of the types, causes, costs and cures of incivility in the workplace. Of those polled, 98% of the respondents reported experiencing uncivil behavior. In one example, an employee named Matt revealed that his boss had continually belittled him. Over time, he and his fellow co-workers endured verbal insults and relentless bullying. Even after reporting his boss to the Human Resources Department, the boss failed to apologize to anyone saying only that he “used an atomic bomb when he could have used a flyswatter.” Within weeks that same boss was named district manager of the year. Three days after that, Matt had a heart attack. The researchers found that unchecked incivility is not uncommon. One worker described the routine rudeness that she encountered daily at work as “a soul-destroying experience.”

In her book, Mastering CivilityChristine Porath, Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, examines the toll that uncivil behavior can have on both individuals and organizations. She found that those who were the recipients of incivility in the workplace often do not disclose their feelings and their work suffers as a result. In one poll of over 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, workers who were on the receiving end of incivility experienced the following:

  • 80% said that they lost work time worrying about incidents of incivility
  • 63% said that they lost work time avoiding the offender
  • 66% said that their performance declined
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers

Disrespectful behavior makes everyone nervous. We don’t like to see others being treated badly. Witnessing incivility has negative consequences. Porath’s research found that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employer they witness as rude, even if they were not the targets of the rudeness.

The Impact of Caring and Kindness
Caring and kindness, however, can enhance our health. Research by Stephanie Brown of Stony Brook University and Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan has shown that acting with civility and compassion accelerates recovery from stress while restoring physiological balance and wellbeing.

Although less obvious than overt bullying, more subtle forms of incivility can cost us the loss of morale, goodwill and respectful connection with others. The ability to offer attention to another is at a higher premium these days than the cost of gold. We are a distracted culture. Tethered to our electronic devices, it is becoming more and more difficult to be present to the person in front of you. Whether during family dinners, at a party, in a business meeting, classroom or office we can’t seem to resist the ping of an incoming message, regardless of the conversations we are disrupting in the process. We surf the Internet or scan through emails while on a personal phone call. Electronic communications can so easily be misunderstood. In an instant, we can impulsively fire off a text or an email and with that one touch of the send button we can unleash words that can be perceived as curt, insensitive and hurtful.

In her book, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Mirabai Bush, the co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, connects education to daily life through the power of contemplative practices. These include meditation, yoga, deep listening, mindfulness, and contemplative reading and writing. She also helped to create Google’s popular employee program, Search Inside Yourself.

The program included a technique called Mindful Emailing. She instructed the employees on how to ensure civility and thoughtful communication through emailing with this simple process:

  • Type your email communication, but do not send yet
  • Pause and take 3 full, slow, deep breaths in and out
  • Now re-read your email from the perspective of the person who will receive it
  • With compassionate consideration for how the recipient of your message may perceive it, decide whether to retype or send your email as is

The cost of incivility is too high. It hurts feelings, damages relationships and more. The antidote for incivility is often so simple we might miss it. Consider this poignant reminder of the experiential magnitude of small acts of civility from the late author Leo Buscaglia, “Too often we underestimate the power of a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring.”

Life is What Our Relationships Make It
In his book, Choosing CivilityP.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, wrote, “A crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another every day of our lives. When we lessen the burden of living for those around us we are doing well; when we add to the misery of the world we are not.”

There are no expendable encounters between people. Each interaction, large or small, has the potential to engage, encourage and enrich those involved.

A few simple tips to promote kindness and civility:

  • Consider the power and content of your words before you speak or write a communication.
  • Give others space for their expression, whether in a conversation, on the road when driving or when standing in a line waiting your turn.
  • Respect each other’s times constraints. Arrive on time, don’t overstay your visit.
  • Let others know that you appreciate them. Express your gratitude frequently.
  • Disagree graciously.
  • Apologize sooner and sincerely.
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt. Choose more connection and less correction.
  • Look for the good. Point out the good. Celebrate the good every chance you get.

When we receive kindness, we feel accepted and validated. When we offer kindness, our capacity to love others and ourselves is enlarged. Our hearts translate an act of kindness as evidence that we are not alone, that we have value and that life has goodness and meaning. Acts of kindness and civility lift us, heal us and connect us to one another. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Good manners are inspired by the good heart. There is no beautifier of complexion, or form, or behavior, like the wish to scatter joy and not pain around us.”

This article was originally published in Ornish Living.