Why so mad? Civility experts weigh in

“Jennifer, you must hate the South. I don’t understand why you don’t move to Massachusetts …”

So began some fan mail following a recent story about Southern accents in Hollywood.

In response: “No sir. I am a Southerner, Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred, and I would drink kerosene before I would live outside the South. Boston is fine to visit but Lawd, it snows about 10 months a year there, doesn’t it?”

Certainly that droll response would quell future vitriol, right? No.

“Jesus Christ, nobody cares,” another fan wrote following an update on “Bachelorette” Andi Dorfman and her fiance, Josh Murray.

Empirical data helped form this response: “Actually, this was the No. 1 entertainment blog on ajc.com (the day it ran). Also, I assume your taking the Lord’s name was an act of supplication.”

To paraphrase the president, who recently urged his political opponents to “stop just hatin’ all the time,” why are folks so mad? It seemed like a good time to seek guidance from area experts who specialize in civility, or rather, the lack thereof.

“Anger is usually masking fear,” said Elizabeth Baskin, CEO and executive creative director of Tribe, an internal communications agency in Atlanta. “So much of our interaction takes place digitally now. When people don’t handle conflict well, they will often hide behind email. It’s so much easier to say mean things when you’re no longer looking someone in the eye.”

Eye-to-eye can be a more effective forum for reaching compromise than screen-to-screen, she said.

“Try to see the situation through the eyes of the other person,” she advised. “Realize they’re being mean and angry because they’re trying to protect something. There’s a reason they’re being so emotional. Have empathy that the person feels threatened.”

Achieving peace in the workplace or elsewhere can be a challenge when society seems to thrive on conflict. Earlier this year, 4.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” scrap and carry on during the season finale. The similarly pugilistic “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” also draws a dedicated audience, averaging about 3.5 million viewers a week.

And thanks to our road rage-inducing traffic, Georgia now has laws on the books targeting people who go too fast and too slow. A few years after passing the so-called “superspeeder” law assessing extra fines on motorists caught going 85 mph or more on most Georgia roads, including interstates, the Legislature this year passed a “slowpoke” bill that can mean a fine for drivers who lollygag in the left hand lane.

Crazy traffic and reality-show antics aside, to say nothing of politics and international conflicts, executive coach, consultant, speaker and radio host Brandon Smith sees a simple and persistent cause behind some of society’s incivility.

“There’s a higher level of anxiety, a lower level of appreciation,” said Smith, an instructor at Emory University’s executive MBA program and Georgia State University’s professional MBA program. Known on air as “the Workplace Therapist,” Smith discusses workplace dysfunction at 7:35 a.m. Fridays on GPB Radio. “We’ve got less people doing more work. That creates more stress and pressure.”

Mary Smith, no relation, holds a master’s degree in HR development from Georgia State and has consulted with more than 75 accounting, payroll and HR clients over the past 14 years in her role at Reliance Payroll, a payroll and HR outsourcing firm based in Cumming.

“Conflicts aren’t necessarily just caused by the issue at hand,” she said. “It’s sometimes things carried over from personal life.”

Often, she said, the key to easing tension is acknowledging someone is upset and validating their concerns, even if disagreement remains.

“The person with the most anger tends to calm down once they feel like they’re being heard,” Smith said.

Atlanta image consultant Peggy Parks laments society’s coarsening and wonders if overindulgent helicopter parents who have supplied their progeny with every possible technological device but few boundaries could bear some responsibility.

“Millennials have a sense of entitlement,” she said. “We raised them to have what we didn’t have.”

She’s troubled by even small or subtle slights.

“So many times I’m at a restaurant and I’ll see three or four women and they’re always on their phone,” she said. “You’re sending the message that the person you’re with is not important. It shows no respect.”

To create a more civil world, Parks advises practicing civility.

“We have a tendency to see the negative in other people. You’ve got to turn off that switch,” she said. “It takes no extra time to smile, to look people in the eye. Humor is helpful. One of the reasons I’m successful is I make people laugh. I think humor works. People can’t react to that.”

That seemed like good advice for dealing with this missive one day:

Uninspired, poorly done, not funny and just an overall failure,” the correspondent wrote in praise of my abilities. “Probably a carpet-bagging Yankee ain’tcha?”

In response:

“No sir. I grew up in Nash County, N.C., and here is what I know:

1. Punch holes in your Mason Jar *before* you catch lightning bugs.

2. There is no finer delicacy than a Stuckey’s pecan log.

3. Paperback hymnals are of the devil.

4. So is unsweet tea. How is that stuff legal?

5. If someone needs help you help them. It does not matter if they look like you, come from where you come from, or if their Mama’nem know yours. You do the best you can, share what you have, and pray for folks who seem to need it. Even when they post rude and uninformed anonymous comments on a blog.”

To my astonishment, he responded: “My apologies, ma’am.”

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