I have said earlier, that most of our thoughts, impressions and feelings are presented to us by an Elephant mind that’s reading our situation, people and their feelings more quickly than we can think. Through its mirror neuron system and the instant good-bad decision-making of the amygdala, we are constantly reacting to what’s going on around us. Just as cat videos can “go viral” and “infect” everybody online, our moods can do the same at work and in public too.
The Elephant’s instant decisions are always communicated in two directions at once: (1) to the Rider, so we’ll know what to do or say and, (2) to the body’s self-regulation system and reward and threat circuits, so we’ll know how to feel and react. All of this occurs at the non-conscious level as the Elephant reads others’ facial gestures; the sound of their voices and their body movements. Research reveals that emotions, both positive and negative, spread like viruses among people and under the right conditions negative emotions can simply take over.
A Rush of Public Incivility
Survey research on the amount of perceived incivility in public life since 2010 describes a significant rise in this perception since the presidential election of January 2016. Survey respondents attribute much of it to President Trump’s leadership style where he seems more committed to publically demonizing opponents (and being rude to some of America’s oldest supporters) rather than negotiating issues.
As recently outlined on the Civility in America website
Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, have conducted Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey annually since 2010. In this latest instalment, we find Americans continuing to report a severe civility deficit in our nation, one that shows no signs of letting up. The belief that the U.S. has a major civility problem has even reached a record high (69%). Three-quarters of Americans believe that incivility has risen to crisis levels, a rate that has significantly increased since January 2016.
In a recent television interview focused on public incivility, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher asserted that as a species we evolved to be “cooperators” in part because “…we don’t have big horns, fancy fangs or big claws.” She asserts, that anger is contagious and is likely why “we spent millions of years building all kinds of social rules about etiquette and what it means to be polite…not only with friends and relatives but with strangers.”
What she doesn’t mention is that unlike our well-armoured animal cousins we also have thin skins – literally and figuratively – and two minds at work every second we’re awake.
Not Fangs But Words
One of those – our conscious, Rider mind – contains neural circuitry representing our sense of self – as distinct individuals that need to be treated as competent, influential and of value in every situation we enter. We need to be talked to using C.O.N.N.E.C.T. talk (blog, Jan. 4). When this doesn’t happen a second cluster of circuits allows us to speak to instantly defend ourselves when our self is threatened. Verbal criticisms and threats (C.O.N.T.R.O.L. talk – see blog Jan. 3) can do just as much damage to the selves of those around us as physical threats to their bodies. We may not have fangs but we do have words and they can anger us as much as the threat of direct physical attack. They trigger adrenalin in our other mind – our unconscious Elephant – that can keep us angry and compel us to respond with angry attacks on our attackers.
Rudeness Is Contagious: At Work and In Public
A study of 6,000 employees in Sweden showed that a critical factor in undermining a positive climate at work was one employee being rude to another and getting away with it.
Rudeness may involve a conscious choice, but watching someone get away with it and imitating that behaviour is automatic. Remember, our Elephant is always watching. You can see how anonymous online attacks and the behaviour of seemingly untouchable public figures can spread this disease throughout the general public. The automatic response of our two minds to all of this can easily undermine our beliefs that we live in a world where we can trust others to treat us with kindness or at least civility.