Rules, whether formally sanctioned or informally understood, serve to keep the day-to-day behavioral interactions on an even platform without being, completely, restrictive of human creativity. The idea being to allow for a patterned understanding of civil conduct not dictated by federal, state or local legislation. We don’t swear in an elevator or or clean your toenails on the desk in your cubicle simply because both acts violate a social rule of civil conduct. The majority of social rules aren’t written down anywhere, but they are taught to us through social interactions and we learn the pattern through practice and reinforcement from the larger society. We, usually, obey the rules because they serve the greater good. The process of rule obedience hinges on the willingness of people to accept the unstated reasoning as a demotivator for any thoughts centered on breaking the rules. While contemporary business literature is high on ‘Break All the Rules”, “What Rules?” “Make Up Your Own Rules!” etc.., there is little mention of what happens when previously accepted social rules are broken and the potential chaos it has on social order. Presumably, when rules are being broken, it has more to do with an element that has been infused in between the lines and expands into that space that was once seen as sacred.
In the case of the latest infusion of rule breaking, we can thank social media for allowing another channel in which freedom of speech continues its evolution of pushing the boundaries and, at the same time, minimizing the responsibilities that come with that freedom. During a bygone era, parents raised their children to stand for what you believe and be respectful of authority, even if you disagreed with the authority figure. As social media users became proficient with ‘sexting’, ‘cyber bullying’ and other forms of denigration, the rules that allowed a line to be drawn in the sand of civility were blown into the vast reaches of cyber space where accountability for conduct is a video war game in which one side fires shot after shot without having to worry about retaliation. In cyber space, freedom of speech can be an endless and growing chorus of off-key comments and opinions directed at an individual or an institution. When defended by the statement, “It’s my right”, it begs the question, “Have you thought about the responsibility that comes with that right?” An off-key commenter, when standing face to face with their target tends to think about that responsibility question a little more than someone hiding in the anonymous world of cyber space.
When not given the proper attention, cyber incivility, like a simmering volcano, can suddenly explode and change the entire social landscape. Once we learn to be uncivil, the return to civility takes time and distance. When you attend your 20th high school reunion and see that person who was a bully or tormentor, the tendency is to let it go because it has been 20 years! However, thanks to social imMEDIAcy, there is little time and distance in which to allow for healing and/or forgiveness should there be any kind of reversal of target. It is not unusual for a work bully, whose unrelenting targeting of a certain employee, finds the roles reversed due to some change in the organization. As part of their attempt to minimize retaliation they will make statements like, “C’mon, get over it.” “It was all in good fun.” “I have learned my lesson.” The expectation being that since they were the one who opened the wound and continually picked at it, you have to be the one who closes the wound and allows it to heal. The imbalance of thoughtless freedom of expression unfettered by responsible civility contributed to the major rule breaking practiced so frequently through so many channels. The new social positioning is anchored in the question, “Can we return to civility?” Perhaps the bigger question is “Why did we leave?”
By guest blogger, Lee Meadows, PhD
Dr. Meadows is a professor at Walsh College, teaching online and on-ground management and MBA courses. In addition, Dr. Meadows is a keynote speaker, training and development consultant, and motivational speaker for corporate and community groups and professional associations.
In 2006, Dr. Meadows published “Take the Lull by the Horns: Closing the Leadership Gap”. He is also the author of numerous articles on leadership, management, diversity, career paths and projections and education.