Impacts of Incivility

I was commiserating with some friends over the weekend about our recent interactions with rude people. A couple friends had just returned from a trip and had spent time in airports and on airplanes. They shared their experiences with difficult travelers at the terminals and on their flights. They witnessed instances of angry people shouting at flight attendants and yelling at gate workers. Another friend, who teaches locally, talked about the rude parents and students she’s been encountering. She regularly receives angry emails from parents and rude comments from her students. Another friend, who is still working remotely, shared that she’s been interacting with a difficult co-worker through most of the pandemic. Personally, I talked about my recent experiences with a couple of challenging colleagues and students who have sent rude or sarcastic emails to me. As we discussed these instances, we agreed that incivility seems to be on the rise.

Surprisingly, I pulled up my podcast app this morning to find Hidden Brain had dedicated its most recent episode, How Rude!, to the topic. Here’s how the episode was described in the app:

“It’s not your imagination: rudeness appears to be on the rise. Witnessing rude behavior — whether it’s coming from angry customers berating a store clerk or airline passengers getting into a fistfight — can have long-lasting effects on our minds.”

After the weekend conversation with my friends, I felt compelled to listen to the episode. While the show echoed a lot of the experiences my friends and I shared, it also discussed the causes of the incivility and outlined some of the potential negative impacts from encounters with rude people. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the main cause is stress. And with the rise of stressful situations borne out of the pandemic, incivility is also increasing. While that emotional connection seems logical, it also depersonalizes the behavior a bit. For the most part, these aren’t rude, uncivil people doing awful things or sending mean emails. They’re just people under stress who may not be able to see the full impact of the stress on their actions. I know that might not make those rude encounters easier to navigate, but it does make it easier to understand. We’ve all been under stress lately. We’ve probably all said or done something that we didn’t intend. Stress is a challenging emotion.

For me, the interesting part about the episode was when the main guest, Dr. Christine Porath from Georgetown University, discussed the impacts of incivility. Porath is a behavioral scientist and the co-author of the book, The Cost of Bad Behavior—How Incivility Damages Your Business And What You Can Do about It. Porath likened stress to a virus that spreads from person to person, with rude and uncivil acts as being one of the main transmission systems. During the discussion, Porath shared her research that examined the cognitive impacts to encountering or witnessing rude behavior. In a study published in Organizational Dynamics, Porath and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments and found that:

(I)ncivility impairs working memory, which in turn negatively impacts both performance and creativity. Working memory has three main functions – the verbal function, the visual function, and the central function responsible for higher order cognitive tasks; incivility impairs all three. What’s more, this effect occurs in the absence of a specific uncivil event; simply having incivility on one’s mind has been shown to decrease working memory performance. This is important because it suggests that even being in a workplace that has a climate of incivility may impair workers’ creativity and performance. Incivility robs people of cognitive resources, disrupts all three components of working memory, and ultimately hijacks performance.” (p. 259)

That’s some pretty serious stuff, but it might also be the solution. Maybe recognizing the harmful impacts of rude behaviors could cause some people to act differently. While I’ve sent my share of harshly worded emails and angry texts under moments of stress, recognizing those impacts may help me to communicate less rudely in the future. Beyond that, I’m also going to work to put more positive energy into the world. While Porath spent most of the Hidden Brain episode discussing incivility, she has also researched the impacts of civility, too. She outlines some of her work on a post titled How civility matters for you and your network. She writes that just like stress spreads like a virus, research shows that “civility is contagious – the benefits spreading as friends and friends of friends reciprocate civility.” So, while incivility is on the rise, maybe we could spread some civility, too.

Porath, C. L., Foulk, T., & Erez, A. (2015). How incivility hijacks performance: It robs cognitive resources, increases dysfunctional behavior, and infects team dynamics and functioning. Organizational Dynamics. 44(4), p. 258-265.


Revising Guiding Principles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll recognize that I’ve adopted some guiding principles over the last few years. Most of these principles have come from my interactions with colleagues and students and from reading and listening to people who are way smarter than I am. While scholars like Brené Brown, Parker Palmer, and Stephen Brookfield have informed these principles, I also credit some really thoughtful colleagues who have led me through courageous conversations about what it means to be a supportive teacher to struggling students. I’ve distilled some of these into blog posts stretching back before the pandemic, but I leaned really heavily into these principles during the pandemic. Emotions like empathy, grace, and hospitality pepper these posts and were distilled into practices like “assume positive intent” and “lead with empathy” and “offer grace.” But I’ve cycled back to these recently and I’m starting to wonder whether they may need a little revising. I’ll get to that, but first… a story.

During the Spring 2020 semester, I was working with a graduate student named Rebecca (not her real name). At the time, Rebecca was a teacher in a neighboring school, but she was also enrolled in the capstone course of her graduate program. Since the program offers advanced credentials for practicing teachers, the capstone course involves a pretty intensive action research project that graduate students must incorporate into their classrooms. The beginning part of the semester involves a lot of planning and literature reviewing which eventually culminates in a research-based examination into their own teaching.

You can probably see where this is going. Just as the action research portion of the semester was about to begin, the pandemic hit, and schools shut down. At the time, we didn’t have a clear idea of how things were going to play out, so I reorganized the project to allow for alternate means of examination and reflection. The graduate students in the class were still able to complete an action research project of sorts and were able to graduate on time. Well, almost all of them.

When the pandemic hit, Rebecca disappeared. Despite multiple attempts, she didn’t respond to my emails or return my calls. It didn’t feel right failing a student in the middle of a pandemic, so I gave Rebecca an incomplete. From my perspective, I was leading with empathy, assuming positive intent, and trying to offer grace to someone who may need it.

Weeks after the semester ended, Rebecca resurfaced by sending me a long, emotional email. In the email, she detailed some mental health issues she had been experiencing. She thanked me for the incomplete. She also promised that she just needed a few weeks to get things back together. She’d be ready to jump back into her course work once she got into a better place emotionally.

I bumped into Rebecca later that summer on a walking trail near my neighborhood. She said she was doing better and ready to reengage with the project. She asked that I send her an email detailing what she would need to do to complete the project and ultimately graduate. Later that afternoon, I sent Rebecca that email.

I just checked my inbox to verify the date. It was July 2020. And I still haven’t heard from Rebecca.
If you’ve gotten to this point of the post, you may be expecting me to toss out this grace and empathy business. After all, I’m revising my guiding principles. Looking back at the email I sent Rebecca in July 2020, it still feels like I did the right thing. I led with empathy. I offered grace. I communicated my support when she was in a troubled place. And all of that still feels right.

If there’s a revision that needs to occur, however, it’s that I need to adopt an additional guiding principle: set clear boundaries and expectations. As I reread that email, I realize I didn’t set any clear deadlines. While I communicated my expectations for the work that needed to be done, I didn’t include any time frame for its completion. I didn’t even require that she responded. Sure, I asked that she “stay in touch and reach out if she needed assistance,” but I wasn’t clear with any other details. So, while I’m sitting here, upset that Rebecca still hasn’t engaged, there wasn’t any clear deadline for Rebecca to engage. And that’s on me.

While I’m not quite ready to drop the grace, empathy and positive intent stuff, it’s probably time that I start communicating more clearly in terms of my boundaries and expectations.

Closing the Rings

Since I’m actually back to wearing grown-up pants and a tie and walking around campus again, I’ve started to wear my Apple Watch again. During the pandemic, I mostly found the alerts and metrics to be annoying and disheartening. Since I spent most of my day walking up and down a single flight of stairs to the spare room I had converted into an office, the Apple Watch would scold me for not standing or for not walking enough. I felt like I had enough on my plate already (remote learning, global pandemic, etc.) so I stopped wearing my Apple Watch completely.

But here I am. Wearing it again. I’m happy to say that as I’m entering my second week on campus, I’ve regularly been “closing rings” again. Every day, the Apple Watch tracks how much you exercise, how often you stand and how many steps you take. If you’ve met your goals, you close a “ring,” and the Apple Watch triumphantly celebrates your victory.  At the dawn of a new day, the Apple Watch resets your progress, and you need to work to “close your rings” again. But you’re not left on your own to “close the rings.” Throughout the day, the Apple Watch sends you reminders to stand up or to take a walk. Now that I’m wearing my watch again, I enjoy the reminders. When my watch tells me “It’s time to stand,” I stand up and take a short walk. I know it’s oddly Pavlovian, but I enjoy the reminders and notifications. And presumably it should positively impact my health and well-being. At least, that’s the intent.

Which has got me thinking, what other notifications could be beneficial? The Apple Watch is designed to support physical activity and health, but could these automated notifications also support other areas of need? What about a notification that it’s time to buy flowers for someone you love? Or a notification that alerts you to express gratitude? Or one that prompts you to help someone in need? Or maybe an alert that reminds you to compliment someone? Or another that notifies you that it’s time to forgive someone?

I’m sure there are billions more we could generate. And I know those fall way outside of the objectives of the Apple Watch. But just like we’re motivated to “close rings” or accumulate 10,000 steps, we could make some of these interpersonal achievements be a part of our everyday life. And “closing rings” wouldn’t be about meeting individual, physical activities but about fostering relationship-based ones.

I could write more about this, but you’ll have to excuse me. My watch is telling me that it’s time to stand.

Being Hospitable

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. As a rerun, I’m sharing this post from December 2019, which I wrote after a difficult interaction with a student. With so many of us traveling this summer to make up for lost time due to the pandemic, I thought Parker Palmer’s perspective on “hospitality” would resonate with you. It certainly does with me. Enjoy.

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.

Seeing what others see

I have a confession. I have deuteranopia. Before you worry about my mental state or my health, let me explain. Deuteranopia is the scientific term for red-green color blindness. While it’s not really a health issue, it does create some challenges for me as I select outfits in the morning or select paint colors for the house.

My children are fascinated by my color 6or9blindness. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not that I don’t see red or green at all. I just don’t see them the same as they do. I can’t distinguish between different reds and different greens and I see a lot of things other people would characterize as browns and greys. Despite my explanations, they still enjoy watching me fail every one of the color blindness exams. I can’t find that hidden number among the colored dots and they find it hilarious.

Despite my explanations, they can never really understand that I see things differently than they do. The real truth, however, is that we ALL see things differently from one another. While I have troubles seeing reds and greens, we also see shades of blue differently than each other. You may remember the huge Internet controversy of 2015. What was the color of the dress?  Was it black? What it blue? Was it white? As the conversation waged across social media, one thing was clear. We see things differently.

Our differences in sight aren’t limited to colors, however. It is also impacted by other factors, too. Take this story I heard about Google Maps. Say you wanted to find the Arunachal Pradesh region near India with Google Maps on your smartphone. Did you know that the way that region would be projected would differ based upon where you were doing the search? In China, the region’s borders would look slightly different than if you searched for it in India. Over the years, there have been some geographical disputes about the borders of different regions near India and Google is required to show those regions differently based on if the smartphone user is in India, in China or someplace else.  That’s right. Someone in another part of the world would actually see the region completely differently than both the Indian and Chinese users. While this is a pretty extreme case, the Google Maps example demonstrates that how we see is based on a lot of factors. It could be huge geopolitical or technological factors. Maybe it’s a physical factor, like my deuteranopia. It could also be due to our backgrounds and lived experiences. Each of these informs how we see.

I learned a great word this week on the Radiolab podcast. Umwelt. The Radiolab hosts were discussing the visual range of the rainbow shrimp and how, despite its amazing cones and rods, it could not distinguish between colors well. In explaining that we shouldn’t pity the poor rainbow shrimp, the one host, Rod Krulwich, chalked it up to “umwelt” and explained that we all experience it. “You are limited by what you can feel, touch, see, and know,” Krulwich said, because of who you are. That’s umwelt.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bunch of reasons this week.  Nature has a funny way of connecting dots across different media. I guess it started with thinking about last week’s post on Bias in Your Online Class? While I’ve been digging into the statistics for my online class and trying to better understand my biases, I’ve also been wondering how my students are experiencing the classes themselves. How are THEY seeing the learning environment? How are THEY seeing my interactions with them? Even if I explicitly asked them about their experiences, it would be hard for me to know how they saw something.

And that brings me back to the Radiolab podcast. At the end, the other host, Jad Abumrad, says that because of umwelt, we can never really see what other people see. We just see things differently. “That’s the lonely part,” Abumrad explains. “The unlonely part is you can try.”

Here’s to trying to see what others see.