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The Importance of Civility in Trying Times



  1. formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.

To paraphrase Justice Stewart, “I’m not sure what it is, but I know it when I see it”; or not see it as the case may be. A ‘Civility in America’ survey conducted in 2016 found 75% of Americans thought incivility had reached crisis levels, and 56% expected it to increase. Stress is, without doubt, one of the biggest catalysts of incivility. Anatomy faculty everywhere are being asked to teach more students and produce greater results with less time and even fewer resources. At a time where our ideological divides can seem overwhelming, how do we maintain civility? Below are the four best steps I have found so far for maintaining civility both in the workplace and outside.

Practice Active Listening

One area of everyday life in which to practice civility is that of conversation. A civil discussion is the free and respectful exchange of diverse ideas. This doesn't mean we all have to agree, but it does mean we must disagree respectfully. Practice active listening: give others the opportunity to state their opinions, without interruption. As you listen, cultivate three ‘possibilities’:

1.    The possibility you may be wrong.

2.    The possibility to admit you don’t know.

3.    The possibility there may be some good in their criticism or ideas.

Learn When To Walk Away (And When To Run)

When engaging in conversations around difficult topics, the age-old adage ‘choose your battles wisely’ has never been more apt. Is this the best time and place for a discussion which may become heated? Consider the possible outcomes: will it help or hurt yourself or others, will the criticism be constructive? You can always change the subject or excuse yourself. While eschewing politics in the workplace can be a full-time job, these self-reflections relate to almost any interpersonal communications, from faculty review to student mentoring. Conversely, of course, disagreement can also be productive; as Thomas Jefferson noted; "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing."

Be An ‘Upstander’ Not A Bystander

Every single day we each have the opportunity to make our campuses, and our world, better. Ending incivility is everyone's responsibility. An “upstander” is someone who recognizes something is wrong and then acts to put it right. An upstander holds individuals accountable for their actions and actively promotes an environment where all individuals feel safe and supported. This can be achieved by keeping your poise and being assertive. By expressing yourself with determination and politeness you may not stop the perpetrators of bad behavior, but the visible support you have shown can have more impact than you realize.

Practice Gratitude

The best act of civility is leading by example. Being grateful asks us to notice that which is already present; from the smallest moments of beauty to the grandest of our blessings, as opposed to what one might want.  Gratitude is a focus of attention, which we can intentionally cultivate daily, and studies have shown we can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In times of stress, gratitude makes us more resilient, and can uplift us and others.

 In even the most ordinary of circumstances – at home, at work, in traffic, at the supermarket – a little civility can go a long way.

Yasmin Carter Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Translational Anatomy at the UMass Chan Medical School. She is a former Chair of the UMass Chan Civility Committee.