003“Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements.”—Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Founders, Institute for Civility in Government

I will never forget traveling to a conference as a junior scholar in the field of communication, fresh from my dissertation defense, and working to build my vita.  An article from my dissertation was accepted for a panel on communication in everyday life, using the theories of one of my heroes: Kenneth Burke.  Burke helped me to take seriously the intention and impact of symbol use (and misuse!), noting that even in small daily conversations there existed power and potential to shape what is and what could be.

I traveled from the airport to the upcoming conference, thinking about the fact that I had never before been to Pennsylvania, and wondering how much time there would be to explore.  In the van, a man struck up conversation about the weather, and it was fun to chat about light hearted topics, knowing that the weekend would be full of weightier stuff.  When the van arrived at the conference site, my travel companion and I realized we were both heading in the same direction.  He paid the driver first, and while I paid my bill, he opened both van doors, put the step on the ground and waited for me to descend with my bags.  This man then asked me what I was presenting, and I told him, and he was curious, “I don’t think I’ve heard your name.”  I thought to myself, “Well, that’s because I’m just getting started.”  I then asked him his name, and he told me, and I commented, “I have heard your name.”  At this response, he stopped and looked at me, puzzled.  He then wished me well and left.

When I received the conference packet to read through panels and guest speakers, I realized that I had walked into the conference with the keynote speaker.  Not only was this man the headliner for the conference, he was also the director of a graduate program of one of the top five communication programs in the U.S., the director of a public policy institute, and a prolific writer of political communication and social change.  In that moment, I was glad no one was able to see my burning red face.

This brief interaction marked an important moment on my journey to understanding civility.  I will never forget the kindness and the grace of this man.  He could have said, “Don’t you know who I am?” or “I am so-and-so, and here is what I’ve done.”  Instead, he seemed to be content being in conversation without his accomplishments, not needing praise.  Also, he saw me, not in terms of what I published, but as one that had something meaningful to offer in that lived moment.  It was awesome to experience power and privilege translated into humility.

For me, civility is therefore more process than product; a reaching for voice, mutuality, respect, and dignified deliberation.  As Tomas Spath and Cassandre Dahnke, Founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, argue: “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”  Mark Gerzon defines citizenship through an attitude of listening and learning, and John Gastil argues for an ideal democracy through characteristics like inclusiveness, equal distribution of ultimate authority, and recognition of mutuality.  For the purpose of this blog, the concept of civility incorporates both the longing for common ground with others and the communication ground rules that make effective dialogue, deliberation, and relationship possible.


Gastil, John. Democracy in Small Groups, 2nd ed. Library of Congress, 2014.

Gerzon, Mark. The Reunited States of America.  Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2016.

The Institute for Civility in Government. http://www.instituteforcivility.org/who-we-are/what-is-civility/. Accessed 11 September 2017.