As an ardent student, scholar, advocate, and consultant on the topic of civility, I have studied the concept and its myriad dimensions for decades. Reading deeply and widely from numerous sources and various fields of study, I have discovered that while civility may mean different things to different people, at its core, civility means expressing respect for others—requiring time, presence, meaningful engagement, and an intention to seek common ground. Being civil means listening well, discussing opposing viewpoints honestly and respectfully, showing regard for differences, and treating one another with dignity and respect.
Civility is its own reward
Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Expressing kindness by saying ‘thank you’ is a fundamental principle of civility. When we show appreciation to others, we in turn, become the recipient of positive energy. Unfortunately, the opposite is true—when we fail to recognize and acknowledge others—the impact can be harmful and the ripple effect far-reaching since being treated in a disrespectful manner can heighten stress levels, erode self-esteem, and damage relationships. As human beings, we are hardwired to relate and connect—so, when we’re treated badly, our self-esteem can be seriously diminished leaving us feeling unimportant and inadequate. Whether incivility is intentional or not, it is still incivility and the impact can be hurtful. On the other hand, showing kindness and appreciation are powerful tools to inspire goodwill and friendship—and they cost absolutely nothing except our time and an intention to connect.
Alice the Housekeeper
The story of Alice the housekeeper illustrates the power of a simple ‘thank you’—and what can happen when its absent. Alice has been cleaning a church in her community for nearly a decade. She is very good at her job and proud of her cleaning abilities. The work is demanding and physical; she works hard to make a living, and while she’d like to make more money, she realizes that service workers are unlikely to earn high wages. Yet, like all of us, she wants her work to be appreciated and acknowledged. Unfortunately, while she has been cleaning the church for nearly a decade, Alice has never received a pay increase, nor has she received a word of gratitude—not even a simple ‘thank you.’ As Alice recounted her story, she explained that she was no longer going to clean the church and recently turned in her resignation. She quipped, “I can’t keep cleaning the church. A raise would have been nice, but a simple thank you would have gone a long way to keep me there for years to come. But instead, I need to leave – it’s a matter of dignity and self-respect. I need to put my energy in places where people appreciate me.”
The Groundskeeper and the Street Sweeper
Alice’s story reminds me of my own experience. Once, while out for a walk, I came upon a groundskeeper busy at work weeding and preparing the earth for planting flowers. As his strong weathered hands dug and scooped the soil, I stopped to thank him for creating such beauty and to express how much I appreciated his efforts. In response, he came to his full height, and with a quiet dignity in his voice, explained that he took great pride in his work. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King Jr., Who said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
The Positive Power of Gratitude
For Alice, the groundskeeper, and for most (if not all of us), a sincere expression of gratitude is a simple courtesy that takes just a moment, costs nothing, and can reap infinite rewards for both the recipient and deliverer of a kind word. ‘Thank you’ is a welcome phrase that is often under-used especially in our day-to-day lives. Think about it, how often do we say ‘thank you’ to people who touch our daily lives—especially in mundane ways? For example, in our home, I am the person who most often washes and folds the laundry. A typical household task, not necessarily enjoyable, but one that needs to be done. In nearly every case, my husband takes a moment to thank me for laundering his clothes—and for pressing his favorite shirts. Likewise, I make it a point to thank him for keeping our property in tip top shape, trimming the trees, mowing the lawn, and maintaining the greenhouse. Simple, routine, ordinary chores that make a house a home. No matter how busy we are, it’s important for us to thank people for even the smallest gestures. In my opinion, there’s something truly magical about saying ‘thank you’—it is an acknowledgment and a show of respect to the person who has reached out, helped, or done something that deserves recognition. Saying thank you is an indication that you do not take others for granted, but instead, recognize that they matter.
So why don’t we say ‘thank you’ more often? Frequently, in the fast-paced, increasingly digital world that is emerging around us, we fail to say thank you and to show appreciation to those around us. Handwritten thank you notes have fallen by the wayside in favor of email, instant messages, and text correspondences. Our conversations seem to become shorter with fewer common courtesies including saying ‘thank you.’ Since expressing gratitude is important, we want to be sure it is sincere, specific, and authentic. Doing so can have a profound and positive impact on the quality of our relationships. So, take time to thank those around you today and in the months and years to come. Not only will others benefit from your kindness, but you too, will reap the rewards of a sincere and genuine expression of gratitude.
Written by: Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN
Dr. Cynthia Clark is Strategic Nursing Advisor for ATI Nursing Education, Professor Emerita at Boise State University, and the Founder of Civility MattersTM. As a clinician, she specialized in adolescent mental health, substance abuse intervention and recovery, and suicide and violence prevention. She is a leading expert in fostering civility and healthy work environments around the globe. Her groundbreaking work on fostering civility has brought national and international attention to the controversial issues of incivility in work environments. Her theory-driven interventions, empirical measurements, theoretical models, and reflective assessments provide “best practices” to prevent, measure, and address uncivil behavior and to create healthy workplaces. Dr. Clark serves as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing and the NLN Academy of Nursing Education. Her book, Creating and Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education,” received 1st place honors as the 2013 AJN Book of the Year. The 2nd edition is now available and a must-read for all educators and health care professionals.
Note: Excepted in part from Dr. Clark’s Blog: Musing of the Great Blue hosted by Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing