Teaching civility a crucial step in helping a child build a future

Published: Tuesday, July 17 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Louise Fox of Etiquette Ladies with one of her "graduating" classes. The students have been learning how to be respectful and behave appropriately in different social situations.

Etiquette Ladies

SALT LAKE CITY — His fists are clenched, his face purpling as he demands — at the top of his lungs — that his needs be met.

His behavior's OK for the moment, but only because this tantrum thrower is only 3 weeks old. When his enraged bellows interrupt the morning service at a Salt Lake City church, no one raises an eyebrow; his mom just takes him into the foyer briefly. As he gets older — and certainly before he graduates from high school — he must learn to be more civil or he will be lonely and, most likely, unemployed, say experts who note that a lack of civility blights individual and community futures.

Civility must be taught on the one hand and learned on the other. But experts and citizens alike say it's a skill that's slipping rather badly. A 2010 survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, found most Americans believe civility in human interactions has eroded, to America's detriment.

The study said that "among the many signs pointing to this steady decline are the daily occurrences of cyberbullying, online 'flaming' and nasty blog comments, the venomous bickering taking place on some reality TV shows and between TV news personalities and their guests, and the mean-spirited mudslinging among politicians and their loyal supporters."

The survey found that 94 percent of Americans see lack of civility as a problem, with 65 percent calling it a "major" problem. Nearly three-fourths believe the financial crisis and recession have made it worse. And "Americans consider government/politics and our roads as the most uncivil aspects of our society. Roughly seven in 10 Americans perceive these to be uncivil …. Conversely, they view friends and family and places of worship as sanctuaries of civility," it said.

"Children, adolescents, all need to see (civility) modeled or they will not know," said Paul Caldarella, associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Psychology and Special Education at Brigham Young University, who has researched and published on the topic of civil behavior and its importance. "And a lot of what is shown in the media is not civil."

Building character

The effects may also be very specific: "It is a well-known fact that people tend to lose jobs not because they don't know their job, but because they don't know how to get along with other people," Caldarella said.

Lew Bayer, president of Canada-based Civility Experts Worldwide, said a lack of civility can be seen in toxic interactions and blighted relationships. When she co-founded her civility-teaching company 15 years ago, it focused on dining etiquette. Now the organization has classes in 13 countries, including America, and the lessons are about much more than which utensil goes with each course.

The most important part is the character aspect of civility, she said. "I really think some of the things we do — screaming at a child, road rage, slamming the door — are all about self-indulgence and the lack of restraint we have kind of given ourselves permission for. Politicians and leaders are overt in display of emotions; there used to be some restraint and decorum.

"It's important to note what underpins a bad behavior and what happens if it's not fixed," said Bayer, whose company also runs a website called Macaroni and Please to teach youngsters manners.

The word civility means being a good citizen, according to P.M. Forni, professor and co-founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, who has extolled civility's virtues and noted the cost when it is missing, in a pair of books, "Choosing Civility" and "The Civility Solution."

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