Sleep On It
Civility is on a precipitous decline, driven by the ever-accelerating speed of interactions and transactions that we have been conditioned to expect. Recent research suggests that, to a large extent, this has been exacerbated by the advent of the Internet and the death of the 24-hour news cycle. The results of a 2016 study conducted by a group of Italian and British researchers, Civility vs. Incivility in Online Social Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach, published in the Public Library of Science’s ONE journal, demonstrated that such bad behavior online had the tendency to get worse over time, as the greater perceived “reward” of attention and schadenfreude generated by being toxic results in an uncontrollable positive feedback loop escalating into increasingly worse behavior in social media interactions. A 2014 report on online harassment by Maeve Duggan of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project showed that not only had 60% of Internet users witnessed someone being called offensive names online, but also 25% had seen such harassment turn into real, physical threats.
The drop in civility erodes community, which are both foundational to society. The larger trend of declining civil interaction specifically in America predates the advent of social media and even the Internet itself. As detailed in Robert D. Putnam’s award-winning 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, such shifts started taking shape as much as 50 years ago. In the early 1960s, over “half of all Americans said that they trusted others; fewer than a third say the same thing today,” and attendance at public meetings fell by almost 50% nationally between 1973 and 1993.
This loss of community and the resulting rise in uncivil behavior has far-reaching consequences for society and individuals, and without a sea change in behavior it is doubtful that we can reverse it. That said, there is one simple measure that all of us – and I do mean all of us – can follow to be more civil in how we communicate both online or face to face: we can sleep on it. By simply stepping back, giving ourselves time to consider what is being said, and taking into account all the people and parties that might be affected by our actions, we can make an infinitely more positive impact on those around us, ourselves, and civil discourse. This applies to individuals and groups alike.
The idiom, sleep on it, has an ancient origin. And as seen in Philemon Holland’s translation of Titus Livius’ (“Livy”) Ab Urbe Condita, it proves remarkably relevant to our current predicament, revealing much about our unchanging human nature.
In the 2nd Century B.C.E., King Perseus of Macedon found himself facing a possible war with the young Roman Republic to his west. To avoid this, Perseus received Roman ambassadors and heard their demands. Although, at first, cursing and deriding their claims, Perseus told the Romans that he would retire for the evening, “sleep upon it,” and have a formal response in writing made for them to take back to Rome (presumably to make a counter-offer aiming towards a peaceful settlement). Wisely and king-like, Perseus elected to take time to draft a composed, diplomatic response and possibly save his kingdom from the ravages of war.
But, while the Romans were being ushered out of the room, they made some remark, some statement on the regretful loss of friendship between the two nations. Perseus in suit declared: “Upon your own peril and hazard, be gone out of the marches of the realm,” and, at that very moment, declared war on Rome.
It was a war he would lose. Macedon fell to Rome, and Perseus was captured and died in prison. Though he certainly wrote with some bias towards the Roman side, Livy teaches a 21st century audience that even the briefest loss of patience in dealing with others can result in mistakes that can never be walked back. As Shakespeare would later write in Henry VIII, “Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues / We write in water.” No time is this more true than in the digital age we now inhabit: everything we do and say online is entered into the permanent record. In the struggle to protect brands, both personal and organizational, it matters little that we have said 99 nice things when there is but one negative remark that overshadows all else.
Next time you find yourself writing a nasty comment on the controversy of the day, step back. Take a deep breath. Think for a minute. Go home and see if you’re still inclined to say the same thing in the morning. Do this, and you’re bound to save yourself a kingdom of headache. Your reputation will thank you.