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Business Officer Magazine

The Peaceable Workplace

Difference of viewpoint and opinion is a defining characteristic at an institution of higher education. How then can we observe civil behavior even as we disagree? This collection of essays and interviews offers perspectives on building a culture of civility on campus.

Edited by Karla Hignite

The Peaceable WorkplaceThe attributes of civility are easy enough to name: tolerance, respect, politeness, a basic decency in conduct—all ideals encapsulated in the Golden Rule. Similarly, Thumper’s law, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” seems an apt reminder of the need for restraint in everyday communication. Yet, in a world of conflict, and in the context of a free society in which individuals fiercely cherish the right to air their differences—a good thing for democracy—the larger question may be how we can be nice without having to bite our tongues.

Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College, suggests that, in part, civility is “the art of knowing how to disagree without being disagreeable.” Within the context of an institution of higher learning—a place where difference of viewpoint and opinion is a defining characteristic—that may seem easier said than done. How is civility as an ideal realized in practical terms within our professional and personal relationships? What can all members of a community mutually agree to regarding the ground rules of fair treatment? How is civil behavior and discourse best taught and reinforced among diverse constituents campuswide? And what specific role must chief business officers assume in building a culture of civility within the workplace?

These are some of the questions addressed in the essays and interviews that follow, which include a conversation with P. M. Forni, author and Johns Hopkins University professor.


“The Peaceable Workplace” continues online in an interview with Lamont Stallworth, chair of the Center for Employment Dispute Resolution at Loyola University Chicago. See “Building a Conflict-Competent Culture” in Business Officer Plus.

“Very often we consider civility and manners as one and the same, though there is at least a subtle difference,” says Forni. Civility comes from the Latin word civitas, for “city,” and is also the word from which we derive civilization. Manners, from the Latin manus, for “hand,” pertains to how we present ourselves in society. “For instance, we are thought to have good manners when 
we handle others with care,” explains Forni. Whereas manners usually signifies a one-on-one association, civility carries a larger social dimension or societal commitment.

To add another layer of complexity, our conversations about civility often touch on matters of diversity and inclusiveness, since civility requires a basic respect of differences, says Forni. In many regards, we have made progress as a society on this front within the past several decades. It is important to recognize that every generation creates new forms of deference and respect that may leave previous forms incomplete, notes Forni.

For instance, fewer young people today are likely to give up their seat to a woman who is pregnant. On the one hand, this can be seen as a decline in civility, admits Forni. Yet, when that same woman steps into the workplace, she is much more likely today than a generation ago to be taken seriously as a peer, and that represents a gain in civility.

Similarly, more of us are likely today to be respectful of those who don’t look like us and are also more likely to have an ecological consciousness than was the case two or three generations ago, suggests Forni. “At the same time that we have suffered losses in traditional forms of respect, we have made gains on other fronts.”

On a fundamental level, civility is “a benevolent awareness of others,” whereas incivility is a state of being oblivious to others and to their claims to happiness, says Forni. “When we pay attention to others, and are aware of others, we weave respect into the fabric of our relationships and our community.” In the same way that we cannot truly love others without paying attention to them, we can’t be civil without being attentive to the needs and desires of other people, he adds. “No civil society can survive without a healthy understanding that our actions have consequences for others, and that we should care about that.”

One must look no further than to the sphere of American politics to recognize that society at large could use a refresher course on civic engagement. The perspectives in this collection focus on the need for nurturing a culture of civility within the academy—perhaps the ideal place to start for serving as a model to the rest of the world.

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.