Molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg who won the Nobel Prize at age 33 said civility was about controlling rage. Serena Williams would agree. Lederberg was talking about biological warfare when he made his comment, but it could just as well have applied to a championship match.
Frazzled: Williams needs anger management. Andrew Schwartz / Reuters
I know the pleasures of an aptly delivered swear word. Been there; done there. A truck cuts you off. You roll down the window and let fly a choice few. Flip the finger. Drive away. Nothing lost; nothing gained. Not a civilized encounter but lets off steam.
Civility, like many things in life, has to do with timing and circumstance. A laughingly delivered “F… you” that you say to very close friends when you are drunk is quite different from the same words delivered by an angry Williams to a lineswoman. One is harmless; the other is bullying.
Most of us lose civility when we are enraged. Hell hath no fury, as the bard said. Or in Williams’ case, when you feel wronged by a wrong call. As it turned out, Williams was right to feel wronged because her foot fault is being debated. But her uncivilized response, as one commentator said, is not how champions behave. And like it or not, we hold our celebrities, champions and public officials to higher standards. We expect them to be better than us because in certain areas, they are. Serena Williams is, after Billie Jean King, arguably the best woman tennis player in history.
The flip side of civility has to do with selling and it is when your civility gets tested. Recently, a friend of mine went from being teacher to entrepreneur. She moved from the buy side to the sell side, as bankers would have it; from being in a position of power to one without accoutrements. She needed to drum up meetings with people she barely knew, mostly to ask for money. Depending on trade, we call it fund-raising, venture capital, or simply sales. NGOs do it, as do politicians, business people and even teachers. No matter who you are, there comes a time when you have to ask people for something—meetings, money, time, expertise, votes, a date, sex. Nobody wants to do it; nobody likes doing it, but it needs to be done: selling. We buy and sell, each of us. We get phone calls selling products. We get emails from friends and acquaintances asking for things—a recommendation, introduction, contribution. Many times, we say “No”. My contention is that in this increasingly rancorous world, there is a merit to saying “No” with civility. Williams could have contended her foot fault with civility and won on many counts. Instead, she let rage take over.
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The scary part is how much civility has to do with time and day. This, I guess, is what kismet is about. You catch people on the wrong day, in the wrong moment, and their response is different. We all know this. On days when I get a lot of emails, my responses tend to be shorter. On days when I am stressed, my responses are terser. This, I guess, is the difference between the truly civilized and the wannabes. Civility for the really civilized is non-negotiable; not dependent on day, time, person, or a match point. Civility takes discipline; and iron control over your emotions. No-drama Obama has demonstrated that; as has Queen Elizabeth, who some would regard as the epitome of civility. For us plebeians, civility mostly involves a smile, an extra word (“Thanks”) or an extra line (“I look forward to the meeting”). To address each emailed response with a “Dear so-and-so” is unnecessary but civilized. It gains you nothing but it most certainly will make a difference to the stranger who has taken the trouble to write to you.
That said, civility gives no tangible benefit when you are in a position of power. Think about it. The software launch is coming up. The office is stressed and on deadline. You are angry because performance is lagging. You need to rev up your underlings. What do you do? Be nice and civil or ridicule (Steve Jobs), rant (Steve Ballmer) and coerce your employees into submission? I don’t know. I haven’t been there. But I do know that while Mayawati and Manmohan Singh are both leaders, their styles are very different. One might resort to incivility to get results while the other might get results despite being civil.
Civility, I would argue, is what makes champions, both in the game of life and in tennis. I like Serena and John McEnroe for their colour on court but they aren’t in the same league as a Federer or Graf. When the stakes are high is when anger needs to be managed. There are many techniques including the “take deep breaths and count to ten”, which in my opinion is a bunch of bull. When you are beyond furious, there is only one thing that works. At least for me. You have to shut yourself inside a room and start pounding things. Having a drum set helps. I think every office needs one, preferably in a soundproof room that employees can periodically duck into and bang their boss’ head off.
Why be civil? Because it shows courtesy, charm, class. Manners are a mark of aristocracy. Obama’s emotional discipline gives him a civility—and strength—that is hard to match in world politics. You and I could be civil for a very simple reason: It will brighten up the next person’s day. Now, where is that drum set?
Shoba Narayan thinks that drum sets can reduce the cost of national healthcare. And improve productivity at offices. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org