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Call me a bleeding-heart optimist, but I genuinely believe most people in today’s society want to go back to the days when having civil conversations was an everyday occurrence and a duty. We listened, showed mutual respect, accepted each other’s points of view, and agreed to disagree on the off chance that all else failed. The problem is that we lost that ability to communicate with civility somewhere along the line, and now it feels like we’re buckled in on a runaway train of negative discourse that we can’t seem to stop. 

We can't be friends if I vote for Candidate A, and you vote for Candidate B.

I don’t care if your chef had one bad day at the office … I’m writing a scathing review of your restaurant on social media.

If I eat cold pizza for breakfast, you may think I’m the devil’s cousin.

Having civil conversations about anything we disagree on has become a lost art. In our previous blog post, we shared ways to communicate with civility in these situations without becoming bitterly angry, unnecessarily defensive, hostile, cruel, and even polarizing to everyone around us. Today, we’d like to continue that conversation by discussing how we got to this point. Collectively, we could probably come up with a list of culprits that’s a country mile long. But I believe everything boils down to three societal trends. 

What’s Standing in the Way of Our Ability To Communicate With Civility?

  1. The emergence of technology — I’m not suggesting we go back to writing on stone tablets and sending telegrams. Technology is excellent; I love it, and so do you. It makes life easier! That said, we can’t escape it, and I believe the opportunity cost of keeping up with emails, social media, texting, etc., is that we’ve forgotten how to converse with each other. I come from a traditional Italian family, and when I was growing up, I went to church on Sunday mornings, ate a large lunch at noon while surrounded by family, and then made a circuit around town to visit and chat with family. I’d venture to say many other families did the same thing. We had a lot of practice engaging in meaningful conversation, but scenarios like my typical Sunday afternoons are far less common today. Instead, we prefer to express our views in as few words as possible on X, Facebook, and through text and email exchanges. Even when we are in the same room with someone, we’re not emotionally present because we’ve got our faces buried in our phones, laptops, and iPads. Technology has impacted how often we have face-to-face conversations and changed how we direct our energy. It’s more about phones and PCs and less about people — I’d go so far as to say we’ve become less skilled at having meaningful conversations, including those that display civility. 
  2. We live in a culture of wins and losses — Winning and losing are more important than ever before. Let’s talk about one phenomenon that has exploded across the world — online gaming. When I was young, you traveled to Vegas to play games. From there, the attention turned to Atlantic City. Today, everything is online and right at our fingertips. Sounds great, right? Yet, as billions of people worldwide wager billions of dollars online, that’s a lot of winning and losing — especially losing. Unfortunately, I think it carries over into how we interact with others.  We may crave the need to “win an argument,” even when nothing of substance is on the line. We are eager to “prove a point,” especially at the expense of others. We are constantly looking for more wins because it makes us feel good. As a result, civility is likely to suffer. 
  3. Attacking others seems to work — We certainly see that in the political arena. When I was 9 years old, I remember being wholly invested in the outcome of the 1964 Presidential election between incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. And it was all because of this one commercial in which a little girl was shown pulling petals one by one off a flower. It was a serene image, but just as she finished, there was a nuclear explosion followed by a simple tagline that read something like, “Would you trust Barry Goldwater with his finger on the button?” That one commercial had such a pronounced effect on me that I couldn’t sleep on election night until I knew Johnson had won. Fast-forward to today’s climate, everything — not just politics — is about finding new and inventive ways to attack each other. We see examples of it all the time, and we believe it works. It worked in Johnson’s commercial with the little girl, and as our current political races suggest, it seems to be effective today.

Generally speaking, we’d be well served to go back in history and learn what civility meant to other generations and how it was viewed as a duty. To function effectively in a noble society, you had a duty to communicate with civility. If you didn’t, you’d infringe on someone else’s civil liberties, and no one wanted that. Perhaps learning more about this can help us recapture that civil spirit.

Please check back with us as we explore more about this important topic.

The Business World Demands More Effective Communication

Whether you are an organizational leader or an employee working your way up the corporate ladder, improving your communication skills in settings where you may disagree with the person on the other side of the table is important. It takes a lot of practice, but you will get there with hard work, practice, and the right frame of mind.

This is where tools such as TalkMeUp can help. TalkMeUp is innovative, one-of-a-kind software that profoundly addresses communication shortcomings by leveraging AI for instant measurement, analysis, reporting, tracking, scaling, and more. TalkMeUp gives you and your teams the feedback everyone needs to communicate better — all in real-time. To me, that’s the best feature. You can practice with TalkMeUp repeatedly and track your progress. As you see changes in your communication, others will see you as a leader who speaks passionately and confidently in any setting.

Interested in seeing how TalkMeUp can help you improve your communication skills? Try TalkMeUp for free with no obligation.

About the Author
Ron Placone, Ph.D., is an Associate Teaching Professor of Business Management Communication and the Former Faculty Lead and Interim Executive Director for the Accelerate Leadership Center at the Tepper School of Business. Ron teaches a range of communication courses and leadership programs for Tepper students. Ron’s research interests include civility in discourse and fostering individual and team creativity. Previously at Carnegie Mellon, Ron was the Assistant Vice President for Learning & Development. Before joining Carnegie Mellon in 1999, Ron was Vice President and Director of Organizational Development and Communications for Mellon Network Services. Ron has been a consultant, leadership, and communication coach for numerous executives and corporate and not-for-profit organizations. He has consulted in health care, financial services, education, technology, and energy sectors. Ron has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric-English from Carnegie Mellon University.