Happy new year. It is hard to believe that the year is 2020. I bumped into an old acquaintance from high school yesterday — someone I had not seen in about 10 years. As we were talking, I thought to myself, “Wow, he looks old.” I wonder if he was thinking the same thing about me. Probably. In my mind, my high school friends are all still 18 years old. Seeing them in person shows reality is quite different. But commenting on aging appearances is not very kind, and thankfully, neither of us said those thoughts out loud.
My job is to teach college students business communications. Many people think I teach grammar and spelling, but that’s not what business communications is about. I teach communication strategies for business professionals, so our students will be able to communicate whatever they need to communicate — positive messages, negative messages or somewhere in between — without losing credibility. They also don’t want to come across as incompetent, rude or uncaring. No one wants to do business with someone they think is a jerk or does not know what he is doing. I want my students to be the business professionals with whom everyone wants to work.
I try to teach the same concepts to my 7-year-old son, but it is tough. Seven-year-olds don’t really care about credibility. They care about what feels good in the moment, which at times could be saying something mean or hurtful. My son has come home from school upset that another kid was mean to him, e.g., called him a name, refused to trade him a Pokémon card or some other equally offensive act. I advise him to walk away from the mean kid or to not play with him anymore. But my son wants to retaliate — to say something despicable back, or even worse, to tell on the other kid.
As humans, we are hard-wired to feel emotion first — before logic and reason have a chance to catch up. So I understand his desire to retaliate and resisting those urges is hard. I think we can all find examples of times when we have said or done something in the heat of the moment that we wish we could take back.
There are a lot of examples in the world today where we see grown adults saying hurtful and mean things. They may tell half-truths, lie by omission or call others names. Those behaviors make me terribly uncomfortable and embarrass me. I don’t want to be associated with folks who behave in a dishonest or cruel manner. I certainly don’t want my son to feel those behaviors are acceptable, and I definitely want my college students to understand those behaviors are not appropriate either. I am not sure when it became OK to share every controversial or mean thought that crosses our minds, but it seems as if many folks these days have lost (or just thrown away) that filter. Behaviors that are callous or dishonest (whether in person or online) will damage your credibility and cause others to question your overall decency. That is not good for your personal life or your business.
How can I, a parent and a teacher, help to build a more civil generation, when incivility is everywhere we look? How can I influence my child and my students to see kindness as a strength? I have come to the conclusion that I can only control my own behaviors, and I try my best to lead by example. I say please and thank you. I look others in the eyes when greeting them. I am working on looking at and commenting on the positives that I see and not focusing on the negatives. My new motto is to complain and criticize less, offer ideas and solutions more. Am I always successful? No, but I am trying.
In this new year and new decade, my goal is to push civility and kindness to the top of the list. Being kind, even when someone is not being kind to you, shows strength and discipline. And it’ll get you ahead in business.
Emily Murphy is a lecturer in business communications at Indiana University Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.