Our strong emotions regarding our own beliefs, attitudes, and values can sometimes lead to incivility in our verbal communication. Incivility occurs when a person deviates from established social norms and can take many forms, including insults, bragging, bullying, gossiping, swearing, deception, and defensiveness, among others. Rowland S. Miller, “Breaches of Propriety,” in Behaving Badly: Aversive Behaviors in Interpersonal Relationships, ed. Robin M. Kowalski (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001), 42. Some people lament that we live in a time when civility is diminishing, but since standards and expectations for what is considered civil communication have changed over time, this isn’t the only time such claims have been made. Rowland S. Miller, “Breaches of Propriety,” in Behaving Badly: Aversive Behaviors in Interpersonal Relationships, ed. Robin M. Kowalski (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001), 30–31. As individualism and affluence have increased in many societies, so have the number of idiosyncratic identities that people feel they have the right to express. These increases could contribute to the impression that society is becoming less civil, when in fact it is just becoming different. As we learned in our section on perception and personality, we tend to assume other people are like us, and we may be disappointed or offended when we realize they are not. Cultural changes have probably contributed to making people less willing to engage in self-restraint, which again would be seen as uncivil by people who prefer a more restrained and self-controlled expression. Rowland S. Miller, “Breaches of Propriety,” in Behaving Badly: Aversive Behaviors in Interpersonal Relationships, ed. Robin M. Kowalski (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001), 33–35.
Some journalists, media commentators, and scholars have argued that the “flaming” that happens on comment sections of websites and blogs is a type of verbal incivility that presents a threat to our democracy. Deborah Jordan Brooks and John G. Greer, “Beyond Negativity: The Effects of Incivility on the Electorate,” American Journal of Political Science 51, no. 1 (2007): 1–16. Other scholars of communication and democracy have not as readily labeled such communication “uncivil.” Bart Cammaerts, “Radical Pluralism and Free Speech in Online Public Spaces: The Case of North Belgian Extreme Right Discourses,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 12, no. 6 (2009): 555–75. It has long been argued that civility is important for the functioning and growth of a democracy. Mark Kingwell, A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995). But in the new digital age of democracy where technologies like Twitter and Facebook have started democratic revolutions, some argue that the Internet and other new media have opened spaces in which people can engage in cyberactivism and express marginal viewpoints that may otherwise not be heard. Lincoln Dahlberg, “Rethinking the Fragmentation of the Cyberpublic: From Consensus to Contestation,” New Media & Society 9, no. 5 (2007): 827–47. In any case, researchers have identified several aspects of language use online that are typically viewed as negative: name-calling, character assassination, and the use of obscene language. Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey Berry, “From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News,” Political Communication 28 (2011): 19–41. So what contributes to such uncivil behavior—online and offline? The following are some common individual and situational influences that may lead to breaches of civility: Rowland S. Miller, “Breaches of Propriety,” in Behaving Badly: Aversive Behaviors in Interpersonal Relationships, ed. Robin M. Kowalski (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001), 35–42.
- Individual differences. Some people differ in their interpretations of civility in various settings, and some people have personality traits that may lead to actions deemed uncivil on a more regular basis.
- Ignorance. In some cases, especially in novel situations involving uncertainty, people may not know what social norms and expectations are.
- Lack of skill. Even when we know how to behave, we may not be able to do it. Such frustrations may lead a person to revert to undesirable behavior such as engaging in personal attacks during a conflict because they don’t know what else to do.
- Lapse of control. Self-control is not an unlimited resource. Even when people know how to behave and have the skill to respond to a situation appropriately, they may not do so. Even people who are careful to monitor their behavior have occasional slipups.
- Negative intent. Some people, in an attempt to break with conformity or challenge societal norms, or for self-benefit (publicly embarrassing someone in order to look cool or edgy), are openly uncivil. Such behavior can also result from mental or psychological stresses or illnesses.