Adults behaving badly: what has happened to civility?
Subject: Adults (Social aspects)
Adults (Behavior)
Psychiatric counselors (Practice)
Author: Rosenberg-Javors, Irene
Pub Date: 12/22/2009
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Winter, 2009 Source Volume: 12 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 200 Management dynamics
Product: Product Code: E121940 Adults
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 216961292

Over the last several months, we have witnessed out-of-control town hall meetings wherein participants shouted at each other and screamed obscenities at the politicians chairing the meetings, a senator called the President of the United States a "liar" in full view of the entire Congress and the world, a famous female tennis star threatened the referee because she disagreed with the judge's call, and a well-known rap star jumped up on the stage at the Video Music Awards to interrupt the winner's acceptance speech in order to announce who the "real" winner should have been.

All of this bad behavior has been shown repeatedly on television, commented upon in thousands of twittered messages, discussed ad nauseum by the bloggers and pundits, and was the subject of endless e-mails in virtual communities across the cyber world. Increasingly, there has been a deterioration of civility in the way in which we deal with one another. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, defines civility as "courtesy, politeness; a polite act or expression."

We seem to have forgotten how to speak to each other without put-downs and insults. While riding on public buses or trains, I hear adolescents laughing and using language that is violent and disrespectful of themselves and others. I often hear adults comment "how rude these kids are." I think to myself: "What do you expect? Just look at the celebrity and political role models that they see on television and the movies."

But, it's not just about foul language and rude behavior. It is also about the way we address each other. We become very intimate with each other far too soon. It begins with our names. It is now perfectly okay to call someone by their first name the moment that we meet them. We don't ask them how they prefer to be addressed. We assume that everyone wants to be known on a first-name basis. Where did we get that idea from? Wherever we did, now, as a society, it has become the thing to do. I think that this de rigueur informality has helped to further undermine the ways in which we show each other respect.

Recently, in one of my classes in advanced counseling practices, I was teaching a unit on the initial interview. A student presented a case. He began by referring to the client by first name. I asked the student if he had asked the client how he wanted to be addressed and the student looked at me completely baffled. He told me that at his agency everyone called each other by their first name and that was the culture of the place. I suggested that he think about the idea that it would be respectful and polite to ask the client how he wanted to be addressed. I also asked the student to think about how he wanted to be addressed by others and how he felt when called by his first name or as Mr. So-and-So.

We live in a very complex and multilayered world. We need to develop ways to communicate with each other that demonstrate politeness and respect. We should also learn how to be civil with one another. Our media culture is driven by the need to focus on the "rude and crude" in order to sell its products. We are bombarded with images that exalt raw power over diplomatic finesse, false intimacies over deeply felt emotions, and reality television programs that humiliate participants and reinforce a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The messages that come from these shows serve only to further erode civility.

As counselors, we need to understand the importance of civility in our own lives as well as our clients. We should be aware of how our celebrity culture affects us, especially those of us who are young and impressionable. We need to practice and teach civility as the basis of all interpersonal interaction, as well as impress on others that without respect and politeness there is no possibility for real connection.

By Irene Rosenberg-Javors, Med, LMHC, DAPA

Irene Rosenberg-Javors, MEd, is a Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association, a licensed mental health counselor, and a psychotherapist in New York City. She is also adjunct associate professor of mental health counseling in the Mental Health Counseling Program of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University. She can be reached at
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