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The Sunshine Economy: Civility and Commerce

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Supporters of President Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, talk in Kansas City, Mo.
Kyle Rivas
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Supporters of President Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, talk in Kansas City, Mo.

The political rhetoric this election is red hot and often downright rude. But is there a business cost from incivility? Research shows rudeness is contagious. What is the effect on commerce?

Civility goes by a lot of names.

Politeness, patience, the lack of rudeness, listening for understanding, not interrupting, respect, fairness. Civility is basically the opposite of the business models for many parts of reality television and much of social media.

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"We really talk about engaging differences constructively," said Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. "Civility is about engaging those differences in a constructive, respectful way that goes far beyond mere politeness or decorum."

There is an economic cost to how we treat each other, our ideas and opinions. Studies have found people don't work as hard when they experience incivility at work. Creativity gets stifled. Collaborations can collapse. And customers can be turned off.

Just think of the viral videos on social media of confrontations in public over wearing masks. Or the public protests regarding social and economic inclusion.

The pandemic has merely amplified incivility. For a decade, about two-thirds of Americans have described incivility as a major problem in an annual survey from public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

It goes deeper and longer, as emphasized in the protests sparked after the killing of George Floyd in May by a Minneapolis police officer that was recorded on video.

"When people are not civil, it's being recorded and it's being shown on social media," said OneUnitedBank President Teri Williams. It is the largest Black-owned bank in the U.S. "And so you start to see things that we've experienced, but in the past were hidden from the rest of the world. Now with technology they're being recorded and shown on social media."

Divided Politics, No New Stimulus

Congress has been deadlocked over another pandemic economic stimulus plan for months. Stimulus checks were sent out in the spring. Additional unemployment payments ran out in late July. Yet there is no agreement on any new round of help for the economy as the pandemic wears on and Election Day nears.

It has been a full year since President Trump and House Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi have spoken according to The Hill. At that time, the president tweeted a photo calling her "Nervous Nancy." In February, after the president’s State of the Union address, the speaker ripped up a copy of his speech.

Senate Republicans and House Democrats have voiced support for additional financial help, but "they just can't engage differences constructively enough to get one," said Allred.

"We feel that [at] kitchen tables. The small businesses going out of business," Allred continued. "(Those are) really concrete economic impacts" from the divide.

Business groups and the Federal Reserve have been vocal about the need for additional stimulus from the federal government. President Trump's position has been volatile.

He tweeted for negotiations to stop "until after the election." Then he pushed Congress to "Go big or go home" in a separate tweet. The Senate isn't scheduled to meet again until Nov. 9.

Incivility 'Like the Common Cold'

Hardball political negotiations aside, the lack of civility is destructive and contagious.

People "can't think appropriately" when confronted by rudeness according to research by University of Florida professor Amir Erez. For instance, his research found doctors make more mistakes when dealing with rude patients.

"Rudeness is like the common cold. It easily spreads," he said.

Why? Erez said it sticks with us when we experience it. And we have a tendency to pass along that rudeness or incivility to someone else who was not subject to the initial dose of what he interrupted to be disrespect.

"Everyone can catch it very, very, very quickly." he said.

Being rude to a doctor or nurse may have obvious consequences as they make health care judgments, but Erez said being rude to a customer service representative is similar. It clouds their judgment and increases mistakes.

"Maybe you should think twice about being rude," Erez said.

Does Civility Matter in Business?

Civility means "more than the dollars and cents" in banking, according to OneUnitedBank leader Williams.

"It's the values of your organization and how you make your customers feel. How involved are you in the community and how you give back to the community. Are you a good corporate citizen?" she said. "It's not something that you can fake. It has to be authentic."

Susan Amat agreed. Amat is the CEO and found of Venture Hive where she helps entrepreneurs and companies in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of startups.

"We have turned down so many partnerships and relationships," Amat said over worries a potential client was more interested in using Venture Hive's brand than in being deeply committed to its mission. "I think it all comes back to trust."

The George Floyd killing and subsequent protests over social and economic justice have renewed the reckoning over racism and distrust.

"There's so many ways in which, whether it's public policy or norms, (have) actually impacted the black community in uncivil ways," Williams said.

The banking industry has practiced racism with redlining policies, charging higher interest rates or depressing real estate appraisals in Black communities.

"Civility has a cost. Sometimes it's the decisions that you don't make or the decisions that you make against doing something that's not civil," said Williams. "It's really important for businesses to make the right decision even when it costs money."

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.