After spending a recent day in Tokyo, I was refreshed to see how polite people can be for a very simple reason. It’s not only the right thing to do; it also feels right to treat others with civility. The experience was a much-appreciated, yet, glaring departure from what we’ve become accustomed to here at home.
While Americans are sharply divided about their political beliefs, an October poll found 77 percent of respondents agree that the country’s political, economic and racial divisions are getting worse. Those divisions are a significant driver of growing incivility. Things have reached the point, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, that a majority of voters say they feel stressed and frustrated simply discussing politics with someone who doesn’t share their opinions.
Perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere, such as to Japan, as a shining example of what we can do to restore civility and courtesy across the board.
Japan’s culture of respect is rooted in thousands of years of tradition, but it is alive and well even in Tokyo, a world-class city of 14 million inhabitants yet as pristine as a brand new building. There are no garbage cans on the streets, yet there’s no litter. Why? Because people respect the ground that others walk on. Walk through any neighborhood and you’ll see plenty of bicycles, but not a single one is locked up because people respect each other’s property. Business interactions reflect a similar spirit of good manners. Customs as basic as the exchange of business cards show respect and appreciate for all.
Our country is deeply divided and our political system is as badly broken as it’s been since it was created. Leaders in both parties, who are supposed to show compassion for others and lead us to a higher plane, divide us for their own political gain.
Things are not entirely hopeless, of course. As the co-founder of a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of military personnel and injured veterans, I’ve witnessed amazing care and compassion for others by so many people. There’s Scott Wolak, then-owner of Hope Street Pharmacy in Stamford and current CEO of Connecticut Pharmacy Group, who not only sold supplies at cost for our care packages going to Iraq and Afghanistan but matched those purchases dollar for dollar. Ron and Tina Rosenfeld, then-owners of the New Balance store in New Canaan, did the same thing. The WWE organization donated tons of items worth thousands of dollars to the cause. United Rentals launched the Turns for Troops program on the Indy cars the company sponsors, raising more than $670,000 since 2016.
As someone who negotiates deals at home and around the globe, I’m always a bit disappointed with the final agreement — as is the other negotiating party — but we also recognize that we came to a mutual agreement we could live with and proceed to do good things together. Unfortunately, there seems to be less-than-zero interest in Washington to do anything unless it suits personal agendas. It’s not enough for one side to win; they want to make sure the other loses. I understand people have political beliefs; they should, because we have God-given freedoms, including the right to free speech. But at some point, we need to stop speaking over each other and truly start to listen to each other.
The Institute for Civility in Government reminds us, “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.”
It’s time for all Americans to treat others with civility, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it also feels right.
Chris Meek is the volunteer co-founder and chairman of SoldierStrong, a national nonprofit based in Stamford whose mission is to improve the lives of the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.