Civility. A frank conversation between two men on a stair case.


…a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another every day of our lives.

~P.M. Forni

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.

~Elwood P. Dowd

It can be quite frustrating when we can’t seem to get our point across—we all face this from time to time.

“Why can’t you understand what I’m saying?!”
“Why do you keep arguing with me?”
“You’re not hearing me!”

It can be very easy to take it personally—to question the other person’s motives. It can be a short journey to anger, frustration, and bitterness.

The other person may fully understand your point—but disagree with it—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Once the specifics of a disagreement are established, we’ve reached a major milestone in moving forward—in getting past our differences, even if those differences remain.

I find that modern society has increasingly become less tolerant of opposing viewpoints and differing opinions. People take arguments personally. People question the motives and integrity of those with whom they disagree.

When one person, or group of people, has a different opinion from another person or group, all too often the dialogue devolves into pettiness, name-calling, sweeping generalizations, and lies that intentionally distort the others’ opinions and motives.

We see this every day in modern society: otherwise intelligent people becoming squabbling school children, who spend all their time and energy attacking the other side, while nothing is resolved or accomplished.

Does belittling a friend help get a point across?
Does laying on the horn at an inconsiderate driver make him or her a better driver?
Does making generalizations about an entire political persuasion accurately define each individual within that group? Does it facilitate progress toward shared solutions?

So what is the alternative?

What can we do when we’ve reached an impasse? When we’re very angry? When we feel like there’s no way to get around a problem? What do we do when a decision we have to make relies on an agreement or compromise, and there is simply none to be found?

Solutions are always available. Marriages end all the time. We can commit murder. We can start a rebellion against our country and its leaders. We can move to Sweden.

We can opt for the Divorce, Murder, Rebellion, or Sweden option (hereafter “Sweden”).

In short, we can throw in the towel on working together.

You might say that these are extreme, alarmist, or reactionary responses. Well, yes—of course they are. These more extreme alternatives should motivate us to find a compromise that we can live with—compromises that respect the opinions and perspectives of everyone involved.

But this is not for the weak-hearted.

It takes a strong will and an open mind. It takes hard work. It takes civility and a positive attitude. It takes a desire to succeed. It isn’t easy.

Creating an atmosphere in which people can acknowledge their differences, learn about each other, respect each others’ positions and opinions, and work honestly to try to find solutions that are acceptable to all is a necessary first step.

“But wait,” you might say, “what about being true to your principles? True to your beliefs?”

I’m not suggesting we have to ever act in a way that is inconsistent with our values or beliefs. We should never consider a solution that goes against our deepest held principles. But what if a compromise does just that? We have several options.

  • Reject the solution and keep trying to sway those who disagree with you
  • Live with it but keep plugging away at an alternative for the future
  • Respectfully refuse to live with the solution (i.e., civil disobedience)
  • Sweden

None of these options (except Sweden) involve, or would benefit from, a diversion from civility.

When we lower ourselves into the sandbox, we’re not only failing our own principles, we are also failing our chances for success on future issues.

With respect to Elwood P. Dowd, in this world, we can be oh so smart and oh so pleasant. We’ll be happier, and much more likely to get our point across.

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