Why American Leaders Need to Rediscover Common Courtesy

I really, really have been trying not to post anything too political on this blog, but this election is demonstrating a demoralizing escape from the confines of common courtesy.

I talked last week about my Nana, a ladylike Southern lady who knew how to get her way without ever compromising her behavioral standards. Good manners were important in our family, and my grandmother, mother and stepmother all drilled them into our heads.

Let’s start with the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

I’m pretty sure no one wants to be bullied, called names, made fun of, interrupted, and jeered at. Yet this is the behavior we see by people who are trying very hard to be our leaders.

Just a hint, guys. Bad behavior is catching, and it’s bad for the country, bad for our people, and bad for business. Real leaders don’t act like others don’t matter. Real leaders understand that cooperation gets things done a lot more effectively than conflict, and common courtesy is the structure that allows people with diverse goals and opinions to nevertheless find common cause and cooperate.

Rudeness is not leadership. Creating or finding consensus is.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Long ago, when I went to grad school, I read Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation, an exploration of the best strategies for the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

If you haven’t been exposed to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the basic premise is that the police have two prisoners, and are questioning each in separate rooms where they cannot communicate with each other. Let’s just call them Boris and Mugsy.

If Boris and Mugsy both stay quiet, each will receive a 1 year sentence in a minimum security lock up.

If Boris stays quiet and Mugsy rats on Boris, Mugsy walks free and Boris serves 5 years in the big house.

If Mugsy keeps his trap shut but Boris squeals, Boris skips free and Mugsy’s serving 5 years instead.

If  Boris and Mugsy both point fingers at each other, they both get sentenced to 3 years..

So, the best thing for Boris and Mugsy together is for them both to zip it, but the best thing for each individually is for one to accuse while the other one doesn’t. But if they both accuse (and they don’t know what the other’s going to do), then they both end up with a worse outcome than if they’d both been quiet.

There was a lot of prisoner’s dilemma talks during the Cold War, when Boris was the Soviet Union, Mugsy was the USA and the confession was a nuclear strike.

So, if you are Boris and Mugsy, what’s the best strategy? Axelrod got people to play a bunch of computer simulations and discovered the strategies that worked best over time were the nicer ones, the ones where Boris didn’t betray Mugsy until and unless he had already suffered betrayal.

Once you were attacked, there was a need to retaliate. . If you were nice all of the time, you fell victim to the more selfish strategy. By retaliating, you keep the other side honest. You had to be a credible threat.

But equally important was that if you wanted to avoid an eternal negative feedback loop, someone had to act positively. Engaging in occasional forgiveness was important to reestablish cooperation moving forward.

Like Stomach Flu Through a Daycare Center

So the lesson we can take from Axelrod is, to quote Emerson, that  “Fine manners need the support of fine manners in others.”

Now everyone has bad days. Not everyone feels like being friendly all of the time. You can’t always be sunshine and buttercups, but you can always be polite. You can try to button up your irritation with others, so that your bad mood doesn’t spread. You can think before you speak, and try to watch your tone and word choices.

And when you fail in your manners, you can apologize for your lapses. A little contrition goes a long way toward reestablishing more positive interactions.

We need positive interactions. We need cooperation. Greatness in almost every field requires collaboration, and in a country with a diverse populace with disparate opinions, building trust and collaboration is difficult. Courtesy greases the gears, allowing people with different agendas and preferences to work when they rub together instead of freezing up or catching fire when the friction becomes too hot.

Have you ever watched someone be kind to a sales clerk who is obviously having a bad day? I’ve watched countless stressed or grumpy sales clerks spread a little cloudshine into everyone’s day until someone goes out of their way to be friendly. All of a sudden the mood lightens, and the sales clerk takes a second to regroup. Everyone else in line relaxes a little as the tension ebbs, and soon an uncomfortable shopping trip becomes normal again.

Now imagine if no one took that moment to be kind. The customers leave the grumpy sales clerk, and now they are in bad moods themselves. Maybe one customer cuts someone off in the parking lot in their desire to leave quickly. Maybe someone else snaps at their kid. The unhappiness spreads like stomach flu through a daycare center, and soon people who were never anywhere close to ground zero are ornery and uncooperative.

Common courtesy is important. Discourtesy happens when people insist on venting every negative emotion or thought they experience. Common courtesy may not improve our thoughts or opinions, but it does improve our behavior. It keeps our negative feelings in check, and maybe, just maybe, by being courteous we give room for something more positive to grow, like common ground or compromise.

We Need Better Leaders

But what should we do when others refuse to exhibit common courtesy? What do we do when bad behavior runs unchecked, and every negative idea is expressed?

Do what any proud Southern grandmother would do: Call people out on their bad behavior in an adult and mature manner. Express disapproval. Send those who insist on behaving badly to stand in the corner, not in the spotlight.

And when you’re finished putting the bullies in their proper place, reward those who prove their leadership by showing that they are strong enough to show common courtesy to those with whom they disagree. We need leaders who will be good examples, who will find ways to build bridges and economies and alliances.

In other words, we just need some leaders, period.



6 Responses to “Why American Leaders Need to Rediscover Common Courtesy”
    • Emily Jividen 03/14/2016
  1. James R. Nance, Jr 03/14/2016
    • Emily Jividen 03/18/2016

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