Encountering incivility

Assumptions which link incivility with diversity and disadvantage are very often wrong: a recent report found that it's the middle aged men in suits who regularly come in for harsh criticism, says Phoebe Griffith
Phoebe Griffith
21 October 2011

Debates about civility tend towards the extremes. We assume that young people are ruder, that technology is making us thoughtless or that Britain is in moral decline. Newspapers are full of alarmist views, responding to public interest in the topic with sweeping generalisations that magnify the bad and drown out the good. Political speeches echo these views, with David Cameron, stating for example that "civility is on a permanent and inevitable downward slide."

But what lies beneath these familiar generalisations?

The Young Foundation report, Charm Offensive is the product of research in three areas which form a composite picture of modern day Britain: rural Wiltshire, cosmopolitan East London and suburban Cambridgeshire. Contrary to the tendency to reach out to the extremes when studying issues relating to civility - the no-go areas of council estates or the High Street on Saturday night-  we purposefully targeted the everyday: supermarkets, commuter towns, stations and waiting rooms. The picture that emerged was not only more complex than these wholly negative generalisations which dominate debates about civility. It was also more constructive. 

The first key finding is that people still care very deeply about civility. This seems obvious, but we were surprised by just how much so. Far from outdated, civility remained critical to people’s sense of belonging and to the way they related to society more broadly. For some, civility was a greater net contributor to their perception of social health than crime statistics.

The people we spoke to were also generally pragmatic. Most recognised that as we wrestle with high density living, greater levels of cultural diversity and individualism, as we become less deferent and as technology begins to permeate almost every aspect of our social lives, civility becomes more rather than less important. In the words of one stall keeper in East London: “We have to be polite because we are so different.”

But civility is also deeply human – it touches people at a very personal level. Eyes welled up when respondent’s told us stories of strangers returning missing purses or helpful neighbours. Many became animated and angry when recounting their encounters with rude service or road rage.  Older people in Wiltshire - one of the safest parts of the country and among the most affluent-  spoke of single encounters of incivility making them avoid their High Streets, stay at home and “keep themselves to themselves”.

Assumptions which, for example, linked incivility with diversity or disadvantage were often proved wrong. For every older person we spoke to about declining standards among young people, we spoke to young people who felt that older people’s behaviour was “out of line”. They described how they played up to adults’ expectations: older people gave them bad looks so they retaliated with the type of loud behaviour which their elders seemed to expect. Similarly, we found civility in some unlikely places, such as a market in Newham - one of the most diverse places on the planet and among the most disadvantaged parts of Britain. We also found serious incivility in the form of intolerance or domestic violence in some well-off places.   Middle aged men in suits regularly came in for harsh criticism.

But do generalisations about declining standards actually matter? Hasn’t it simply always been the case that people think manners are getting worse and people are less considerate than in the past? We argue that generalisations have a range of serious consequences and that a more nuanced and well-informed debate about civility is critical for a number of reasons. The first is that inaccurate generalisations about declining standards can deter good behaviour, as people live up to the negative stereotypes rather than to positive examples. One 2008 analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey ( Clery and Stockdale 2009), for example, found that while people tend to be very quick at identifying rudeness in others, they largely consider themselves to be considerate. The fact that people simply parrot generalisations about incivility stymies self-awareness and empathy, both critical building blocks for civil behaviour.

Sweeping generalisations also get in the way of constructive thinking about action to promote civility. Most often ranting and raging about moral decline and crises of values comes at the expense of thoughtful discussion about targeted interventions and evidence-based thinking about when or where civility breaks down (for example, during the long, hot summer holidays or in the rush hour). People take offence rather than take action. But the number of campaigns – from calls to ban chewing gum to guerrilla hug movements or random acts of kindness campaigns – is in itself testament of the fact that people themselves believe that there is scope for much greater action.

Generalisations are also one of the reasons why policy in this field tends to be focused almost exclusively on punitive responses, (for example, Tony Blair’s Respect agenda or previously New York’s zero tolerance campaigns). But these past experiences also teach us that most often they are introduced with very little thought to how to set in train positive, civil behaviours. And, as argued by the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, exclusively punitive approaches can get in the way of more effective (and cheaper) “casual enforcements” and “low-level inter-personal sanctions” because people start depending on the police to control behaviour which could alternatively be contained because people look out for each other or care about what is happening on their streets.

Moreover, cracking down on incivility is hard. Unlike crime most incivilities are invisible to the eyes of the law. For the most part they operate like tiny bacteria that sustain complex ecosystems. They are invisible to the outside observer but turn out to be critical for helping organisms survive. This makes it impossible - and undesirable -  to legislate.

People need to change their awareness of what it is to be civil. We hope this research will help people to use more constructive tools to deal with daily encounters with incivility. More importantly, we hope they will look beyond the generalisation and take a closer look at their own behaviours. In the words of one interviewee: “I tend to approach people in a civil manner and they tend to respond.”

Charm Offensive: cultivating civility in 21st century Britain was published by the Young Foundation in October 2011.




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