By now, it’s difficult to escape the trio of bad kids who have made their marks on U.S. social discourse over the past couple of weeks—U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, tennis star, Serena Williams, and musician and entertainer, Kanye West. In case you’ve missed any of this, each has been criticized for public outbursts of rudeness and incivility. Wilson blurted out to the President of the United States “You lie!” during the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress. Williams, berated a tennis line judge with profanity during a match at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, and West leaped onto the stage of the MTV Video Awards ceremony and interrupted the acceptance speech of winner Taylor Swift proclaiming that Beyonce, another nominee for the award, actually created the best video and (by implication) should have won.
The Downside of Being Nice
What interests me about these incidents is not that they are harbingers of the end of civility in our society; I really don’t think they signal the downfall of order in the republic. Rather, I’m alarmed by the knee-jerk reaction that the appropriate response to these indicators is to buck up and discipline ourselves to be nice to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I like to be nice to people and I like them to be nice to me. And indeed, a dose of niceness and restraint probably would have been very helpful in each of these situations. But I get worried when we move swiftly to the conclusion that being nice is the remedy to an interpersonal conflict because invariably, these movements toward niceness and interpersonal comfort often mask the reality of the discomfort and discord that are really present in our relationships. This is especially true in relationships that cross identity differences.
Each of these incidents pitted people of significant differing social identities (in the U.S. context) against one another. Although there has been some discussion of the issue of race in the example of Congressman Wilson and President Obama, the fact that racial and gender differences were evident in the other examples has been largely overlooked: Ms. Williams (African American woman) is rude to Ms. “Line Judge” (Asian woman whose name has been withheld); Mr. West (African American man) is rude to Ms. Swift (white woman). And each of these identity conflicts has a rich and painful narrative in the U.S. socio-historical landscape. Blacks and Asians are continually matched against one another as minorities vying for legitimacy in the U.S. cultural and economic context. Black men have been vilified (even murdered) for actions that appear to disrespect white women.
Now I don’t believe these specific incidents were consciously or directly motivated by any of this: Ms. Williams didn’t yell at the line judge because she was reflecting on how Asians are seen as model minorities who, in the eyes of the white majority, makes African Americans seem less worthy contributors to society. Mr. West didn’t jump up on stage based on the decision that a Black man had not publicly disrespected a white woman for some time, so it was his turn. But research on implicit bias bears out that we are all subject to deep-seated biases that subtly influence our attitudes and behaviors. Is it unreasonable to assume that some of those biases might have been at play in these incidents? Is it unreasonable to assume that even if those biases were not relevant for the actors in the incidents, that some of the millions of us who observed the incidents might be affected by the biases?
The Power of Real Civility
We cannot escape the fact that we react to race and ethnicity and gender and that we are prone to incivility as a result. The important question to me is how do we navigate the incivilities across difference that have and will continue to emerge in our interactions?
Erika James and I took a stab at this challenge in a chapter that appeared in Dutton and Ragins’ volume, Exploring Positive Relationships at Work (you can read more of Erika’s perspective at her Blog) . We argued that strong, generative relationships between people of differing social identities are only forged when positive intent and expectation for the relationship is combined with the ability to engage and learn from constructive conflict that is raised in the relationship. In particular, we argued that you have to be able to talk about the identity differences that separate you. What are the differences? What do they mean? What significance do they have for each of you? You can’t build an enduring relationship across difference if you can’t get your biases and antagonisms out on the table in constructive ways.
Robin Ely, Deb Meyerson and I add some texture to what it means to engage constructively in our Harvard Business Review article, “Rethinking Political Correctness” . In this article, we argued that a serious impediment to building resilient relationships, both at work and at home, was the difficulty we encounter in having honest and frank dialogue together. We proposed that an effective way to step into these dialogues (as opposed to covering them over with niceness) is to cultivate five core skills:
- Pause to short-circuit the emotion and take time to reflect;
- Connect to others through goals and intentions that affirm the importance of the relationship or the larger goal that you are trying to achieve together.
- Ask yourself questions that help you identify blind spots and discover the source of your defenses. Ask yourself how your desire to be proven right about a perceived threat or to be proven innocent of offending someone, might distort your view of the situation.
- Get “genuine” support that doesn’t simply validate your own point of view, but rather, helps you gain a broader perspective on the issue. Bounce your thoughts and reactions of friends and colleagues who are not simply your cheerleaders, but who will help you confront your own blind spots.
- Shift your mindset from “you need to change” to “what can I change?”
Being civil and being positive are not one in the same. The nicest gestures can be the most cutting if they are undertaken without clear intent, skill, and caring. Real civility takes into account the humanity of the people with whom we are engaged. Real civility challenges us to embrace—rather than flee from—the discomfort and anxiety we may feel when we face those people (read more about other positive forces in organizations at Ryan Quinn’s LIFT Blog).
 Davidson, M.N. and E.H. James, The engines of positive relationships across difference: Conflict and learning, in Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation, J. Dutton and B.R. Ragins, Editors. 2007, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Hillsdale, NJ. p. 137-158.
 Ely, R., D. Meyerson, and M.N. Davidson, Rethinking political correctness, in Harvard Business Review. 2006. p. 79-87.
Martin N. Davidson
Associate Dean & Chief Diversity Officer
See more of my posts at www.leveragingdifference.com