The Language of Civility: Words from Lynne Marks

By: Lynne Marks | 14 Mar 2017

Civility is a frame of mind, a context from which we could choose to live. In a perfect world, the home, places of worship, work and education, the media and all public addresses should inform, empower or inspire, but in recent times these attributes have been sadly lacking. Permeating the very fabric of society like nerve gas, language loaded with rudeness, fabrications and unkindness has become the new norm.   What’s worse, people respond by firing back, especially if the communication is online or anonymous.
As image consultants we are well positioned to teach children, young people and adults alike that civil practices, professional conduct and the language of respect go way beyond politeness and manners.  Civility is a way of living and being that can influence a community with far reaching impact.
Unavoidable as it is not to get on each other’s nerves from time to time, it is not necessary to lash out, shout obscenities, seek revenge and degrade others. We are taught at two years old that being blunt becomes rude if the words are overtly judgemental, offensive,  and hurt people’s feelings. Few adults go around saying “You are really fat. ” Personal attacks and nasty labels defame a person’s character with the intention of hurting feelings. The individual feels dehumanized, a nuisance, a broken cog and a problem to be fixed. 
A civil and professional approach takes a leaf from the good parenting guidebook, to focus on the actions taken or not taken, rather than criticizing someone personally. Eliminate direct YOU language. Rather than “You didn’t do anything I asked and now you’ve screwed up the project”. Try, “The memo clearly stated the deadline which the team agreed to. What happened?” Or, “Were there any other steps that could have been taken to make sure the work was handed in on time?”
On the other hand if you are at the receiving end of a barrage of vitriol it is hard to react in a calm manner and you would be a saint not to feel some emotion. For most, bullying is hurtful, abusive and cowardly. In any case people are upset and the scathing or cutting remark is very hard to retract. One way of verbalizing your reaction to a personal attack is not to hit back but to own it exclusively. It was YOUR reaction, and nobody can actually refute the way you felt. “Gosh, I was really hurt by what you said. I didn’t realize I had done something wrong.”
Is our vocabulary so impoverished that we have no other recourse but to swear or exaggerate? For some, swearing is a habit not even a frame of mind.  The universe will give us back what we send out. An angry, rude, coarse or ill-mannered choice of words will be returned immediately in similar vein. Unpleasant as it is to accept, the way people react to you is a foolproof way of testing the flavor, intent and mood of your own communication. People see and hear it in your tone of voice, body language and facial expressions, which never lie.  Does it never occur to us why the person hit back, retreated, avoided us or went away.
Since the brain is easily programmed it repeatedly spits out the tired old phrases and words, but fortunately, one habit can be replaced with another. Even if emotions run high, take on the practice in the heat of the moment of replacing the off-color word with a neutral word like “Interesting.” Think before you speak and reframe the knee-jerk retort or the cliche’ with a more specific way of saying the same thing. Think, “What do I really mean here?
Not really.  If my issue is important to me, it’s likely that your issue is equally as important to you. Even if it’s hidden from my limited view. This is a difficult thing to remember whenever people live or work together but essential, if we choose civility over disrespect.  Most people want to be heard and their opinion respected if not agreed with.  Wearing the hat of respect is a remarkable mindset to take on in any relationship. It means that you regard and treat everyone as though they matter. If all parties are willing to drop the win-lose model, come to the table with ideas and solutions not positions and blame, together they could create the best solution of all.
Kindness, consideration, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, understanding and empathy are wonderful words to promote civility. However these are concepts and soon forgotten. More powerful is to choose daily actions or language shaped and influenced by a chosen word or phrase. The action becomes an act of generosity like a gift.

  1. For example, take an attribute that is the most meaningful to you.  Say to yourself : “In this conversation, I will BE that word”. Or “ Today I will do one unusual kind act.” If you put on the “kindness“ hat think how a kind person would say something.  Notice how it changes your approach and alters the relationship.
  2. Selecting any value that’s important to you has the same effect. Daily practices could include not interrupting, saying thank you and please, helping people, doing a kind act, hugging a friend or family member for no reason or giving someone a genuine compliment. If the act is anonymous you get extra Brownie points!
  3. Language is multifaceted. Listen to your tone of voice. Is it contemptuous, angry, sarcastic or strident? Try neutralizing your tone and your language will automatically soften. Saying something good about someone to their face or about another person makes you sound more compassionate and it will also uplift your mood.
  4. Take personal responsibility. “It was his fault. But the truth is I also said some things to cause an upset. I need to apologize for that.”  Apology is an act of forgiveness to yourself and others and has a magical effect on you and the listener.
  5. Listen. Not even listen more…just listen. Listening is an imperfect human behavior and in some cases nonexistent.  Even in a conversation among friends we are mainly listening to ourselves, the radio in the head, the clever response or the smart solution..for the other person. We can finish their sentences and wish they would hurry up because we already know. Listening is invariably an act of civility which allows people to express themselves and hear themselves anew and afresh. What more precious a gift could you bestow on someone, and at the same time grant for yourself, that promotes well-being, affinity and love?

There is simply no room for incivility in a life you have designed using language as your most potent tool. There are no end of possibilities on those occasions when a different choice of words has the power to create a new frame of mind. It might well take the conversation or the relationship in a delightfully new direction. Just practice it on a daily basis and see what happens.

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