Sensitivity and Incivility

Are we becoming thin-skinned and too sensitive? Is a lack of civility and etiquette affecting our communications? These two questions randomly pass through my mind from time to time. People are repeatedly making verbal miscues and finding themselves in trouble.  We are constantly at odds and up in arms against comments made that are deemed offensive. Etiquette provides us with rules for civil behavior. Following these tenets is like the rules of the road in driving a motor vehicle. We assume everyone knows acceptable behavior and the penalties for failing to obey. When there is a lack of trust, insecurity and incivility, sensitivity is wide-spread.

The burden in the communication process is on the speaker. But does the receiver play a role in being tough enough to withstand the message.  The speaker must be careful to avoid offensive words to convey their thoughts and feelings. These words may detract from their message and cause the receiver to block out important information. However, the receiver will have a hard time making it through life if their feelings are constantly hurt by a stray word or two.

Speakers must also be aware of current word meanings and interpretations. Otherwise their communication would require a disclaimer; “These words may not reflect the feelings or intentions of the speaker. However, if definitions exist that are not widely known, or have changed; the uninformed speaker may be walking into an ambush.

We are exposed to communication blunders every day. The headlines portray public figures such as politicians, news reporters and celebrities who surprisingly make hurtful comments. A person speaks and someone or a whole group is offended. “How could they say something so insensitive is the cry from a group, individual or their sympathizers?”  The poor person sits or stands there looking confused and wonders; “What did I do wrong?”  Could they have been so clueless we want to know? Or did their vocabulary betray their inner feelings?


Are we really too sensitive? We have been part of many groups in our life time. These groups may have had unflattering names, labels and mistreatment associated with them. We may have been made to feel inadequate and strange or merely despised by these labels. When these labels are brought up again the mental flashbacks sometimes cause us to react in a manner seeking revenge. Additionally, we may have bad memories of being the new kid on the block, the shorter or taller one, in the “out crowd”, a different gender, race or ethnicity, economic status or from another neighborhood.  Are we allowing the actions of a few cruel people to affect the way we act? Richard Pryor tells a story of a dog in one of his routines who is on edge. He wonders if the dog had been abused since it was jumpy and scared at the slight movement and sound.

An employee was sensitive to a manager calling him Magic every time he saw him. One day in frustration he confronted the manager and asked him why he called him Magic. The employee was thinking black magic and was offended. However, the manager told him about a time the employee made a problem disappear, as if by magic. That was the origin of his comments, a misunderstanding that brought on insecurity and hard feelings. The employee was expecting a fight when he confronted the manager and was worried about his job. But by talking about it the problem was eliminated. He could have saved himself hours and days of aggravation if he addressed the problem sooner.


There is a rampant disregard for individuals and authority which is evident all around us. Is this due to selfishness, carelessness, misunderstandings or a deep seeded discontent for others? Are these feelings contained under immense pressure until they burst through to the surface in words or gestures? We may never know the answers, but we can ensure that it is not expressed in a negative manner around us. In reality we cannot control how a person feels or thinks, but we can ensure their actions are in line with acceptable behavior.

Incivility is apparent at work in our schools and on the political stage. We even try to justify if by calling it free speech. Respect and common sense should join forces and create a more thoughtful society. This will require cultural awareness and gender awareness greater than we currently display. It is a model of behavior for our children and the next generation. If rudeness is acceptable and allowed to perpetuate, we will get more of it. Stature and position will mean nothing. Children act this out when they feel they have the license to disrespect adults if the students feel the adults deserve it.

Some companies have tried to tackle incivility and inappropriate behavior through a code of conduct. Addressing incivility with aggression will cause more harm than good. The perpetrator will gain supporters and strength from any punitive action.  Violence is counterproductive and as unacceptable as the incivility it hopes to eradicate. The correct response to incivility is filled with grace and professionally. However, the individual may not respond with the same level of elegance and professionalism.


Many would argue that individuals should be judged by their reputation or track record. If a person’s body of work is positive and productive and they make a careless slip of the tongue, they should not be branded and persecuted. If the comment is out of character for them, it may not be a reflection of their true personality. We should not assume they are living a hidden double life and have fooled most of the people all of the time.  I had a high school history teacher who claimed not to be prejudiced in any manner. But he said, “If you cut me off in traffic my temper may cause me to swear at you with some indelicate language. I will use words I grew up and I am not proud of it.” We would fire him today if his comments ever made it on the evening news.

We often want to fire, fight or prosecute them to punish people for their first communication offense. We should probably institute a one strike rule and exact some kind of penance such as put them on probation or assigns them to perform community service. We often scorn those who ask mercy, although we would want mercy for ourselves. It is interesting how imperfect people demand perfection from those who are around us.

Sensitivity affects us in the workplace. What would happen after an obscene gesture if no one responded? If would be like a joke that bombed. The comedian or speaker will panic and resort to other methods to get your attention and earn your favor. We hear words or phrases that are despicable to us and we withhold our best effort. We may even become stressed enough to allow it to affect our health and relationships.  

We waste countless hours on the job sacrificing productivity because we are disrespected and exposed to offensive terminology. Employees may not be as engaged on the job if they are constantly in the crosshairs of inappropriate language. When sensitivity blunts our effectiveness we should look for a way to strengthen ourselves. I won’t say to “Man Up” as is stated in the commercials, but we must protect ourselves from the behavior and from allowing it to reduce our effectiveness.

Copyright © 2012 Orlando Ceaser