Just Like That

It’s your fault.
You designed this horrible marking system.

Perhaps I paraphrase, but I’d swear under oath that this captures the essence of their communication. Thirty aggrieved young adults — heavy on the young — are on the defensive and, therefore, on the attack. They’re defensive because one month into the 1990 university semester, I’m staging an intervention with one of two classes to which I am teaching a 4th-year business course.

It’s a course that gives students fits. Beyond some basic instruction in problem analysis, there is no textbook: no received body of wisdom to read, study, memorize and regurgitate. Instead, there are twice-weekly “cases” — descriptions of various business situations — to read, analyze, and present, working in small groups.

The pedagogical purpose of this intellectual and interpersonal torture is to provide a mechanism through which students in their final program year can start the career-long process of learning how to diagnose problems and how to think about possible solutions:

  • Synthesizing all the textbook knowledge gained to date
  • Surfacing their own unexamined beliefs about how and why people and systems work
  • Benefiting from what other group members know, while managing the inevitable differences in performance standards and level-of-effort expectations

It is to start them on the road to being able to apply their expertise in a single discipline — accounting, marketing, business law, operations research, production — within an organization that functions well only when everything fires together. It makes their brains hurt.

Rightly, they feel that nothing in their education to date has prepared them to do this, and it gives them fits. They can’t know it yet, but it’s remarkably like the work world they’re about to enter. The other thing they can’t know is that it’s a course that also gives instructors fits. Well, this instructor.

This instructor is only a few years out of school herself. This instructor is insecure in her teaching abilities and in her real-world business knowledge. But this instructor is also committed to fostering classroom discussion and, in other experience with this course, has found that the best way to do that is to link their evaluation to their participation.

There was never any problem until there was. This one class has slid into a snotty, hostile, aggressive posture when asking questions of the presenting group, and when responding to other comments. It’s really quite remarkable.

Remarkable and unacceptable. So I decide to stage an intervention. Except where there should be one person with a problem and many intervenors, we have many people with a problem and one me. Unsure of my competence and uncomfortable with conflict, I nonetheless take them through it.

The tone of our classes is unacceptable. I’ve used this system other places and other times, and this class is the only one that’s gone sideways. It’s up to you to change it.

What?!! They’re outraged!! Although they don’t challenge my assessment of their group behaviour, they strongly challenge my assignment of responsibility. They practically sputter.

It’s *your* fault.
You designed this horrible marking system.

I may be uncomfortable with conflict but I’m not a pushover.

Let me say it again.
I’ve used this system elsewhere,
more than once,
and this class is the only one that’s gone sideways.


It’s up to you to change it.

Subdued silence.

Uncharacteristically, I don’t belabour the point. The day’s presentations continue, and the tone of the comments . . . changes. Just like that. And stays changed for the rest of the term.

Why do I think of this now, after 30 years? A few weeks ago, on another blog, I made an offhand comment about whether common courtesy might be negatively affected by population size, and it got a few responses. People described their international experience with the presence or absence of what North Americans see as common courtesy.

The less-offhand bottom line? Courtesy is not a function of ethnicity or education or population density. It’s cultural. And that means it’s a choice.

Every group is, at heart, just like my classes of young adults. Each makes a choice, intentionally or not, consciously or not. Some choose an aggressive public posture, while others choose civility.

I get that people live under vastly different circumstances, some more challenging than others. I get that specific behavioural expectations vary: The fine points of what constitutes courtesy are not the same at all times and in all places. But discourtesy — behaving without respect for others — is not caused by ethnicity or poor education or high population density. It’s not the fault of the political environment or popular culture or the media or the speed of everyday life or the dagnabbed marking system. It’s a choice.

And when we believe that our behaviour is a choice, it becomes one.

Just like that.

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14 Responses to Just Like That

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Great educational opportunity there. It reminds me of a saying: Be the change you want to make in the world around you.

    I’m musing about the opening sentence to one paragraph: “There was never any problem until there was.”
    Seems to me that qualifies as an addition to Murpy’s Laws.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – I hadn’t thought of a Murphy’s Law connection, but believe you’re right. It took me a while to acknowledge that there was a problem. After all, never before, right?

  2. If so, why are Canadians recognized internationally for their courtesy?

    If it’s cultural, it’s inculcated from childhood (I have some interactions with a person from New Jersey in mind that I have been told were “typical”). Does that remove the element of choice?

    If it’s physiological, as I have shown audio-processing capacity controls mood and cognition, it absolutely does remove the element of choice.

    So, I appreciate your findings and as a fellow Canadian heartily endorse courtesy but wonder if we have the ability to step outside our cultural box.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – For sure Canadian are recognized for our politeness to others, even when not appropriate: as someone said, we apologize when someone else steps on our foot. But my problem students were not following that code or anything close to it. They were pursuing what they saw as their own self-interest, with a vengeance. I do believe we learn our culture and, yes, to a certain extent that reduces choice. It’s hard to see the water in which we swim. Maybe the best way to see it is to swim in other waters. (To your example – and I have had similar experiences – I wonder what Northeastern Americans think when they come to Canada or travel to the southern or southwestern states of their own country. Does it cause them to reflect on their default?) Finally, I sure wouldn’t rule out physiological factors. Most things are more complex than a simple or single answer can do justice to.

      • More complex, indeed. Which is why I sometimes wish we could pursue some of the topics you raise at much greater length and depth. However, I am grateful for your having raised them!

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Laurna – Well, I guess if I could maintain a focus . . . 🙂 As always, you make an interesting point.

  3. barbara carlson says:

    Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “You’re only as happy as you decide to be.”

    Does it apply to courteousness?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Perhaps. For sure there’s some choice involved, but (per Laurna’s point) we likely also need to learn courtesy and to see ourselves as others see us (per Robbie Burns). The strains of living in densely populated areas are real, but some cultures respond with elaborate rules of courtesy, while others respond with in-your-face pushiness.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – from personal experience, I believe courtesy is definitely cultural. When I was stationed in Germany, I did a lot of downhill skiing which involved funneling from multiple directions into a single file to get onto the lifts or cable cars. If there was a group of Brits or Scandinavians they would always line up in a nice orderly single file long before they needed to be in single file. A group of Italians would stand in line and talk and hold everybody else up while one or two lifts departed empty. A group of Germans would push to the head of the line ahead of everybody else in line and try to be the first in their group. The French would just mill around like the rest of us.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I wonder whether anyone has studied this in a rigorous way. Like, are cultures self-aware in being less/more courteous, or does everyone just follow their local norms and think they’re doing what everyone does? And what do the “shovers” think of the rest of us?

      • John Whitman says:

        Isabel – Everything else has been “studied” so it wouldn’t surprise me if there is a study somewhere. Personally I think people follow their local norms with respect to courtesy just as there are local dialects and idioms of the same language. As far as the “shovers” go, they think the rest of us are holding them up and why can’t we move along faster or just get out of their way? So to them, we are the rude ones.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          John – Yes, although there are other areas of conflict, in public the one I see violated most often is the “take your turn” norm. I used to think it came from conditions of scarcity, but am beginning to wonder if that’s the whole explanation. It’s hard to see how anyone in modern Germany lives under perceived conditions of scarcity.

  5. A continuing source of amazement to me was the statement by an Australian that only Canadians hold the door open for the people following. Since then I have observed that very few other nations consider this common courtesy common. I like it, all the same.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Interesting. (My impression is that Americans do also, but my clearest memory of it was in Alaska, where men held the door for me through a much longer gap (in my arrival) than seemed normal to me. That, of course, may have less to do with courtesy than with the gender imbalance in Alaska.) But I take your point: The specifics of courteous behaviour are cultural/national, at least in part.

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