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April 27, 2007

About this blog

Name: Lynette Spicer

My passion for civility began in 2003 when I heard Giovinella Gonthier, author of ‘Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace’, and learned some of my workplace habits could be termed uncivil. It was at the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE) in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Life and Human Sciences conference in Kansas City.

I presented a workshop session on ‘Civility in the Workplace’ for the Iowa State University Extension Annual Conference 2006. This blog continues the discussions.

Continuing goals
o Raise awareness about civility.
o Help people recognize that some of the things they do or don’t do can be handled more civilly.
o Show civility impacts morale, retention rates, productivity and profit in the workplace.
o Promote civility as a component of effective communications.
o Respond to readers.

Authentic and passionate
This is a personal weblog of my opinions, not the opinions, experiences or directions of my employer. I research and write for this blog outside work hours. I look for books, information and lectures that relate to civility.

I am not an expert on civility but a student of it. I believe civility is a tool that can enhance the quality of our lives. Civility is intertwined with communications. I draw upon my journalism background to listen, observe and research. I pledge to write authentic and passionate entries.

I have been a communications specialist for Iowa State University Extension since 1990. I have a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics Journalism (1972) from Iowa State plus 22 post-baccalaureate credits in computer science, statistics, accounting and horticulture.

Help promote civility
My personal goal is to continue to be a credible and competent source of information, to capture your interest, to stimulate discussions and changes to improve relationships.

This blog is incomplete without your thoughts, suggestions, questions and comments.

Association for Communications Excellence (ACE)
2007 gold award writing for the Web for blog post on Sept. 25, 2007 Do you prefer people who talk or people who listen?
2006 bronze award for best innovative use of communication technology to Civility in the Workplace blog

Civility seems to be a growing hot-topic in the United States. Civility is a component of effective communications. It is risky to be candid about problems -- but that’s why a blog is a good vehicle for this content. Content and reactions are presented with some degree of openness.

More about why we should all care about civility, the inaugural post, http://www.extension.iastate.edu/mt/civility/2006/09/resources.html

April 25, 2007

Subject: Your professionalism shows in e-mail

has no verbal clues or nuances
has no body language
can be easily misconstrued
often is conceived in haste and too casually for the workplace
can be combative, complex, emotional or ambiguous
can be hazardous to relationships and careers

The human touch is often missing
There’s no immediate give and take of conversation. E-mail can facilitate incivility. Curt e-mails are interpreted as ‘snippy’. If someone takes offense at your e-mail, don’t blame the recipient for misinterpretation. Apologize and learn. Work to improve your e-mails or use the phone or talk in person.

When to use and when not to use e-mail
Do--E-mail works best for short, straightforward information or requests.
Don’t—Ask questions for which you have the answers if you’d just look.
Do—Think about what else you need to request or write in this e-mail to communicate clearly.

Don’t--Gonthier in ‘Rude Awakenings’ says
Problem: e-mailing trivial information or brief messages to someone whose office is close by.
Solution: Face-to-face communication is still the best way to solve a problem, create camaraderie and spread goodwill. “Hiding behind e-mail is antisocial!””

The parts of a civil e-mail message
Subject lines are very important. Give the recipient an idea of the content.

Gonthier says e-mail salutations are important for civility. Rather than launching into the message, begin with ‘Greetings Leo’ or ‘Dear Jill’. I think it’s quite nice to receive e-mails that have a salutation… a touch of class. It adds some warmth to a very one-dimensional method of communication.

Your e-mail signature should be no more than six lines. It should contain your name, title and organization, street address, e-mail address and telephone. Your organization Web site is a nice addition. Quotes or sayings are not appropriate on workplace signatures.

Sloppy communication skills are correlated with sloppy and disjointed thinking
Answer the questions you’ve been asked.
If you need time to respond, have the courtesy to let the person know.
Flaming is venting emotions online. I think most everyone understands that typing in all capital letters is the equivalent of shouting and obviously, not a civil thing to do….not to mention what readership surveys tell us: all caps are hard to read.
Humor, irony and sarcasm are difficult to express.
Shorthand acronyms are not appropriate. (LOL for laughing out loud, etc.) All lower case letters are not acceptable either.
When you send to a group of people asking for information or wanting action, many assume someone else will reply. And when you are the one who does reply, copy the group so everyone knows the e-mail has been answered.

Don’t be too quick
Don’t send e-mails that go on…and on; people won’t read them. Edit your e-mails. Get to the point of the message. Focus on one point at a time and if you have too many points, try several e-mails or use the telephone. The time spent clarifying and editing will save you time later explaining what you meant.

Read over every e-mail before you hit ‘send’. Run spell-check. It doesn’t matter if the message goes to a coworker you’ve known for years or your new supervisor. It’s a reflection of you. And know, there will be times that something as simple as ‘it’ will be sent as ‘is’.

If in doubt, particularly when you’re upset…when you receive the e-mail that just sets you off... type a response and put it in your draft folder. Think about it. Often you’ll decide to trash it. Sometimes just the act of typing it provides some relief. Often it’s better to pick up the telephone or if possible, go talk to the person. Work to resolve the conflict so you can move on.

We all should be aware that any e-mail message can be sent to people we never anticipated would see the message. If information is sensitive or confidential or heated, don’t use e-mail.

One of the best e-mails I’ve ever written was six sentences. I got immediate action. I edited it off and on for several hours to get those sentences to the powerhouse stage. I suspect the people who received it thought I typed it in a matter of minutes.

Published this month
Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
I have a copy ordered. Amazon.com has editorial reviews (click through to ‘more reviews’) and then below the details on the authors, read the excerpt from the introduction to the book. Entertaining and enlightening. I imagine it will give me fodder for more posts on using e-mail.

“The two words ‘information' and ‘communication' are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”
--Sydney Harris, American journalist and author (1917-1986)

April 22, 2007


"That man is never happy for the present is so true, that all his relief from unhappiness is only forgetting himself for a little while. Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment."
Boswell: Life of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson, poet, biographer, essayist, lexicographer (1709-1784)

Another year of filing income taxes.
I find it’s a good time for a reality check of what I did for others. In the tax process, you’ve probably added up how much money you gave to charity last year, just as I did.

I understand the financial stress of different phases of our lives. The just-out-of-school with college debts. The young family cycle with a mortgage. I’m in the two children in college phase.

Look at your giving as a percent of your income.
Perhaps you also deducted the value of goods you gave to charitable causes.
Think about your volunteer time helping individuals and your community in the past year.
Are you happy with your level of giving of your time, your money and your talents?

How does this relate to civility in the workplace?
So much of the incivility today comes down to focusing on me, me, me. The competition for a bigger title, the drive to earn more money, the outward display of material things, the quest for power.

Giving away time and money falls on the humble and feel-good side of life. Although many organizations now publish huge lists of who donated at what level, our total giving is pretty much our own little secret.

I guess it does focus some on the ‘me’ aspect. It focuses on how happy we are with ourselves, what we did for others. The more content we are with ourselves, the more civil we tend to be…..everywhere, including in the workplace.

April 17, 2007

Distracted by technology…reason 3 for incivility today

Rather than improve our work lives, technology has stripped us of support services, dehumanized the workplace, and plugged us in around the clock. Giovinella Gonthier, ‘Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace’

It is hard to escape the cell phones, the computers, the iPods. Often it means less direct human contact and certainly some people use technology to write what they would never say in person. At times bosses demand we are always accessible. Stress. And more stress comes because there’s always something new to learn about these devices.

We can’t lay all blame on the workplace.
We have an infinite appetite for distractions, says Michael Bugeja, Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.

Bugeja talked at the Iowa State presidential university lecture April 4. He defined consumer technology as that which entertains, distracts and makes someone a profit. It includes cell phones, computers, televisions and all the accouterments such as Web sites, games, podcasts, text messaging, instant messaging, ring tones, e-mail. “It is omnipresent and distracting”, said Bugeja.

Searching for community, again
His topic was the search for community in a technological age. Community—we were searching for that in reason 2 for incivility. (Many of the reasons for incivility are intertwined.) Technology was supposed to connect us but often ends up passive and inactive. Rather than being interactive, it often creates a social void.

Bugeja says technology has replaced relationships and thinking. This age of distraction undermines critical thinking which creates new knowledge. Without critical thinking, we have trendy knowledge. Technology homogenizes culture. We are on cell phones around the world. Farmers have cell phones in their tractor cabs. Facebook says it is a community. It is not a true community.

Consumer technology to a large degree is used for entertainment when that may not have been the intent of the device. Take news. What is news today? Is the entertainment stuff passed off as news more important than real journalism which seeks to inform the public so people can make their own decisions and conclusions?

‘interpersonal intelligence’
Bugeja talks about ‘interpersonal intelligence’—knowing when, where and for what purpose technology is appropriate. He says IF you understand when to use e-mail, when to use the phone, when to have a meeting in person—you will be successful. In other words, how savvy a communicator are you? Do you understand what effective communication is in today’s world? Control the technology and you will be empowered.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
- George Bernard Shaw, Irish literary critic, playwright and political activist (1856-1950)

P.S. It is very important to understand when to use e-mail, when to use the phone and when to meet in person. Important enough that I’ll work on that as a separate post. In the workshops I’ve led, that’s always a source of irritation and of confusion.

April 10, 2007

Alone…so alone, reason 2 for incivility today

“A frightening number of our neighbors are feeling so alienated, isolated, and anonymous that they can be rude with no remorse or fear of reciprocation.” Giovinella Gonthier, from ‘Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace’

“Anonymity is our constant companion.” P.M. Forni, from ‘Choosing Civility, The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct’

“We have no fellow passengers; we are in this struggle we call life for ourselves alone…If we are alone in life, why bother to be polite?” Stephen Carter, from ‘Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy’

Loneliness is an emotional state in which a person experiences a powerful feeling of emptiness and isolation, of being cut off, disconnected from, and alienated towards other people. Wikipedia

We live among strangers. We shop among strangers. What ties do we have to the community in which we live?

Some of us came from small towns and rural areas where everyone knew our family; some of us still live there. Today are those places cohesive communities where people still know their neighbors?

Erosion of community
Family was the ultimate community, the support system. Today family members are scattered. I have seven first cousins living in four states. One has disappeared. When do I see the others? Funerals. My husband of almost 35 years has 16 living first cousins. By my guess about some of them, they live in 13 states. There’s one cousin, and maybe two I’ve never met. (Is that unusual?) Add divorces that alter and affect the family more.

“Because of the well-documented decline of the structures that traditionally helped sustain moral norms—most notably the three-legged stool of family, religion, and the common school—we enter the market or politics with flimsy moral armament. We lack the tools to consider what we should value or should want, to say nothing of how we should act, and thus more and more tend to follow our impulses.” Carter

Where do you find community and support today?
A religious community is at the top of my list because there’s hopefully compassion and equality. While you share religious beliefs, you often are very different in occupations, place of residence, interests and other demographics.

Your workplace is may be a community, but how many fellow workers do you stay in contact with after one of you leave? A community in organizations, do you think? Carter says we join groups that affirm and lobby for our views rather than challenge them. They do not control our impulses but promise to defend our right to exercise them. Groups such as the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood or the American Association of Retired Persons.

Carter says the teaching of both social science and common experience is we are less likely to be rude to those we know well. Gonthier says “We can get by with crudeness or boorishness that wouldn’t be tolerated in a more cohesive community.” I say maybe.

Define civility
We believe we need to distinguish ourselves through achievement. Winning is everything so matter how we achieve it. We struggle every day to establish our identity and leave our mark. Forni says civility is the ability to internalize the notion that how you play the game IS more important than the final score.

To be civil toward others should not depend on whether we know them, should not depend on whether we like them. And sometimes to our credit, we rally around those who’ve suffered that we don’t know. But then some of the people we work with a lot are really uncivil to us. I suspect we need to talk about change, about fear, about busyness, about self-importance, about inner peace, about caring for fellow human beings.

I’m very interested in your thoughts and experiences on today’s lack of community.


April 08, 2007

Root cause of conflict is often ambiguity

We may blame others when the problem isn’t people at all. It’s the vagueness, the uncertainty, the ambiguity in projects. In the haste to do a project, we jump to suggesting end products without a clear understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish—the goals. We don’t establish who is responsible for what—the roles.

Build and communicate clear goals and roles

80% of your time determining the goals and roles and
20% of your time on procedures.
The process should be really easy to map if you have clear goals and roles.

Everyone working on a project needs to understand why these are the goals. I think sometimes the project leader understands the goals and their basis but he or she doesn’t communicate them clearly and maybe not at all. Often times we who work on the project don't ask the right questions to get to the goals and their basis.

The role part is treacherous. I’ve seen project outlines that list just about everyone in the office. If my role is not clear, if I can’t define my role, I have no desire to work on that project because I foresee dissention and confusion. Either I’ll be blamed for taking on too much or I’ll be blamed for not doing enough.

Ask questions, lots of questions
Seek first to understand before you seek to be understood. Act as a facilitator to clarify and understand the roles and goals. In addition to the goals of the project, we need to understand the real goals of others working on the project. Good responses and questions are ‘Oh, aha, I see’ to keep someone talking. ‘What are your goals in this project? What should we do differently? How’s it going? What do we need to do to fix that?’

In ‘Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster’ author Bill Jensen charts the reasons for complexity uncovered by the study, Search for a Simpler Way. The question is What makes work so complex? Sixteen of Fortune’s 25 Most Admired Companies were polled; they did not have ‘unclear goals and objectives’ in their top 10 reasons for work being complex. 32 companies surveyed out of Business Week’s Top 75 S&P Performers had ‘unclear goals and objectives’ as number 8 on their list. The total universe for the study had ‘unclear goals and objectives’ as the number 2 reason for complex work.

Keep the goals and the roles at the forefront

I find even with established goals and roles, when projects stretch out over time, in between other projects…we forget what the goals and roles are. We’re distracted and venture out on some branch that isn’t relevant. It wastes time. Frustration sets in. Not to say we shouldn’t rethink goals and roles at times, but the changes should be conscious decisions. Keep the goals and roles at the front of that folder, put them at the top of documents, include them in e-mails to others about the project.

It comes down to this

Determine the goals and roles.
Do a stellar (outstanding) job of communicating them.

“Work complexity is the result of our worst intellectual habits. We’re not structuring goals, communication, information, and knowledge so that a diverse workforce can use them to make decisions.” --Bill Jensen, author of ‘Simplicity: the New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster’

This post is based on notes from a presentation at the March 30, 2004 Professional Development Day, the notes I wished for (and now belatedly found) when I wrote Roles and Responsibilities, http://www.extension.iastate.edu/mt/civility/2007/02/roles_and_responsibilities_1.html

April 02, 2007

Reason 1 for incivility today...possessions

We value and love things more than people.
We covet possessions. We are stressed working to purchase things we really don’t need. Self-centered behaviors are more prevalent than altruistic ones. We have little moral energy to spend on others; we are less attuned to the well-being of others.

Workers are in a cycle of work and spend -- the more you work, the more you spend. Think of a hamster or rodent exercise wheel.

We believe our self-worth is defined by
• our job title and our income bracket
• possessions that are socially visible—our clothes (often with visible brand names), our homes and our vehicles.

Our quality of life decreases.
We’re in a national orgy of overspending and living beyond our means. Call it compulsive buying, competitive spending, an addiction to consumption, conspicuous consumption. We compare our lifestyle and possessions to that of others. We emulate the upscale lifestyle of the most affluent. We often put up with outrageously bad behavior by financially successful people. We discard possessions at a record rate. We are drowning in the amount of stuff we own.

We don’t compete on the invisible: savings, giving to charities and working for the public good. We are the opposite: we’re in debt. The Commerce Department reported on Feb. 1 that for the second straight year Americans spent more than they made. The only time personal savings has been lower was in 1933 during the Great Depression.

Researchers, writers and advocates at the forefront
Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College and was previously at Harvard University. The points of her book ‘The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer’ (1998 hard cover title) and the 1999 paperback version‘The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need’ are now on a DVD with the latter title.

Barb Wollan, ISU Extension Family Resource Management Specialist in central Iowa, and Holle Smith, County Extension Education Director in Emmet County, led a workshop on The Overspent American at 2007 Professional Development Day March 15. (See http://www.mediaed.org/videos/CommercialismPoliticsAndMedia/OverspentAmerican for a summary of the D VD and a link to the trailer on YouTube.) Contact any ISU Extension resource management field specialist (http://www.extension.iastate.edu/homefamily/families_staff.htm) to inquire about the film and presentations.

John de Graaf, activist filmmaker, produced PBS documentaries Affluenza (1996) and Escape from Affluenza (1998). He teamed with David Wann, a former EPA staffer and expert on sustainable lifestyles, and Thomas Naylor, professor emeritus in economics at Duke University, to write ‘Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic’ (2001). They define "affluenza" as "a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more". They examine the spiraling cycle of overconsumption, spending, stress and broken relationships caused by obsession with uncontrolled economic growth at any cost.

The Amazon.com review says, “It's a powerful virus running rampant in our society, infecting our souls, affecting our wallets and financial well-being, and threatening to destroy not only the environment but also our families and communities.”

Schor is co-founder of the Center for a New American Dream, http://www.newdream.org/ which offers resources to make it easier to live consciously, buy wisely and join others in the same pursuit. Mission statement: The Center for a New American Dream helps Americans consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and promote social justice.

At the end of our days, what will we have?
Savings and value in real estate will help pay our bills.
Memories of trips, of friends, of family, of the work we’ve done will sustain us.
We can be content in what we’ve given away.
The clothes, the vehicles, the furnishings will probably be of little value or have already been disposed of.
Will we be able to say our love was active, that we loved others, individually and collectively more than we loved possessions?

I look forward to the day a new college coach or high-ranking university official says, “I want to renegotiate my salary; I don’t need or want this much money.” Or that person says, “I am giving away half my salary every year This year I’m donating to ….”

I salute those people whom one would never guess their wealth but leave lots to the local library or some other endeavor, those who when you see their name plackets in buildings, you say, “I had no idea they had that amount of money to contribute.”

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men,"
T.S. Eliot, American-born poet, dramatist and literary critic (1888-1965)

Do you have affluenza? 15 true/false questions

Tips for beating affluence

Excellent article, well-documented
Sustainable Living Strategies for Breaking the Cycle of Work and Spend
by Viviane Simon-Brown, Oregon State University Extension Specialist

Books for more reading