Civility: Is Lack of Empathy the Real Problem?

Outbursts in Congress, cursing on the tennis courts, and grabbing the mic from a young award winner; everyone is lamenting our loss of civility as more and more public figures continue to behave badly.

It’s easy to go off on a rant about rudeness. But the disrespectful Congressman, angry athletes and scene-stealing rappers don’t happen in a cultural vacuum.

Is it any wonder that the gentleman- and I use that term loosely here- from South Carolina felt free to shout at the President of the United States when talk-show hosts win ratings with smear campaigns and candidates routinely engage in character bashing?

We might express shock over a female athlete screaming the “F” word at an official, but we’ve long tolerated shouting and cursing in sports. There have been numerous male tennis players who routinely berated officials. Their bad tempers became almost a joke, and their angry outbursts were often considered part of their strategy.

And if you think swearing is limited to the athletes, try attending a college football game. You’ll be treated to thousand of drunks, shouting curses at the refs, the opponents and sometimes even their own coach and team, if they don’t like the way the game is going.

As for the rapper, is it any surprise that a man in an industry that routinely disrespects women with nasty lyrics and dog-chain-collar costumes steals a young woman’s moment in the limelight? Why should he behave gallantly when so many of his peers are rewarded for being rude and obnoxious.

Maybe I’m turning into my grandmother, but this rudeness hurts my heart.

The simple solution is to criticize the individuals and to treat them as exceptions that should be shunned. But this is a teachable moment for all of us.

Rudeness isn’t the real problem. The root of the problem is loss of empathy, and we’ve been given a golden opportunity to remind the world what it looks like. Instead of focusing on how awful the offenders actions were, we ought to be asking people to think about what it feels like to be on the other end of uncivil behavior.

How would you feel if you were a line judge, trying to do your job in the game you loved, and a player practically accosted you, cursing at you on national television?

What would it be like to be a young woman winning one of the biggest awards of your life and have someone grab the microphone right out of your hand?

And yes, even the President deserves a little empathy. Criticizing policy is fair game, but how would you like to be doing the hardest job in the world only to have one of your colleagues treat you with less respect than the guards who walked you in?

So what’s the solution?

It’s simple. Take a calming breath, think before you speak, and be nice.

The recent rash of rudeness is merely a symptom of a larger problem; we’ve forgotten that other people are human beings, too. They may get in our way in traffic, sing songs we don’t like, make questionable calls on the line, or feel differently about health care than we do, but their souls have no less value than ours, and they’re just as deserving of respect as we are.

When we lose our empathy, we’ve lost our humanity, and if we lose that, we’ve pretty much lost everything.

So mind your manners, people. If you wouldn’t want your mother or grandma to hear it, don’t say it.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist and inspirational thought-leader. A popular keynote speaker, Lisa is principal of McLeod More, Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in sales, leadership and conflict management.