Powerful, yet polite: What images does this combination conjure up? Naturally and nostalgically, it suggests brawny “Superman” and sinewy “Wonder Woman”—increasingly rare exceptions to the pop-culture rule of the rude.
On further reflection, and in the real world, senior bank managers, U.S. presidents, and a Wall Street CEO or a 4-star jut-jawed general giving Senate testimony also come to mind as paragons of politeness—unlike American Idol’s former judge, the ever-mean Simon Cowell; radio shock-jock, Howard Stern; and brawling NHL hockey players, who do not.
As pop-culture exceptions, Superman and Wonder Woman display super-(fe)male powers and muscularity that not only comfortably coexist with gentle, genteel civility, courtesy and politeness, but also are kept on a leash by them (and by their very civil alter-egos—mild-mannered Clark Kent and dignified Diana Prince).
For these superheroes, and in the professional cultures and ranks of the banker, CEO and general, having high-profile jobs and roles with a mix of substantial authority, responsibility and accountability (at least to a moral code, in the case of otherwise uncontrollable Superman) seems to somehow correlate with inhibited aggressive incivility.
(Note: responsibility and accountability are different, despite whatever appearances to the contrary. For example, without accountability, failure to live up to one’s responsibility may have no consequences, as modern politics and Wall Street scandals abundantly illustrate.)
Contrast such civility with the Neanderthal aspects of pop culture that encourage in-your-face expletive-laced taunting, short-fuse explosive tempers, biting off a bat head at a rock concert (Ozzy Osbourne, by “mistake”, having thought it was rubber, he said), trashing 5-star hotel rooms, all-too-quick physical confrontation, scurrilous character-bashing and utter scorn for politeness.
Hormonal differences or not, between corporate/organizational and pop-culture there seems to be a world of difference in the levels of civility expected, encouraged and displayed.
On the other hand, clearly, hormones count. That there is a pop-culture testosterone-aggression behavioral link is undeniable, as watching any heavyweight fight, Schwarzenegger action movie or Super Bowl game will unscientifically, but vividly, confirm.
Such a connection between testosterone, aggression and incivility was suggested in a 1988 Stanford/Norwegian/Swedish study, “Circulating Testosterone Levels and Aggression in Adolescent Males: A Causal Analysis”, which found an especially clear correlation (based on subject responses to items on verbal and aggression scales) between teenage testosterone levels and responses to provocation, in the form of threats or unfair treatment (the time-tested action-movie formula for meting out violent justice).
The study also found that boys (who have always been poster-children for out-of-control testosterone) with higher levels of testosterone tended to be more impatient, likely to “talk back” and be more irritable.
In any event, we have the first big clue to ensuring civility: Give an otherwise potentially very testy and uncivil, if not also testosterone-driven (fe)macho (wo)man a job or role with “RAA”—responsibility, authority and accountability—to keep them civil(ized).
A second step toward more civility is to ensure that the groups served and serving are not too narcissistically and tribally narrow. This means including customers, clients, fans and especially “society at large” (including other traffic-jammed motorists) as valued parts of the “in group”, rather than as seeing them as the unimportant “them”, targets or enemies.
“Officer Friendly” and “Office Friendly”
For years—indeed, decades, aggressive incivility has been the norm in Hollywood action and gang movies, gangsta rapper videos and “song” lyrics, on TV shows like Jerry Springer’s (where guests routinely assaulted each other), with spillover into our streets, in the form of hair-trigger road-rage and furious fast-food franchise fist-fights over the slightest slights.
To the extent that aggressive uncivil behavior is a matter of out-of-control natural hormones or synthetic steroid use (where not also caused by consumption of insane amounts of junk foods, fructose-laden “power drinks” and/or drugs), the traditional comic book super-heroes can be viewed as being the consummate, iconic opposite: “androgentlemen” or “estrogentlewomen”.
There are, thankfully, other, real-world icons of “androgentlemanliness”: There is the occupational category of iconic “Officer Friendly”, the idealized courteous and civil yet tough policeman who toes “the thin blue line” to protect your civil liberties, despite now patrolling in a black armored ninja-personnel carrier and packing an Uzi and grenades in an ever-widening professional “testosterzone”.
Here too, the high authority-high responsibility-high accountability occupational mix correlates with civility, courtesy and a collaborative community approach to service (albeit not perfectly, as citizen videos ever since Rodney King’s police beating have sadly attested).
Analogously, there is the “Office Friendly”: the office employee who, no matter how much power delegated to and accumulated by him or her, must, in virtue of being only an employee (and not the boss, customer, client or shareholder), be polite to everyone.
Again, it is worth asking to what extent such organizational civility is due to “RAA” and more inclusive in-groups.
“Testosterogues” and “EstroGenghisKhans”
Such androgentlemen and estrogentlewomen stand in stark contrast to and as bulwarks and offsets against what might by analogy be called “testosterogues” and “estroGenghisKhans”.
These include pop-culture-spawned and idolized figures such as the in-your-face gangsta rappers, violent and vulgar die-hard action-movie rogue heroes with an insatiable appetite for “justice”, taunting and chair-throwing WWF and mud wrestlers, and ice-hockey designated pile-drivers, a.k.a. “goons”, whose job is to splatter rival players on the boards and the ice.
(Note: despite my initially imagined conceptual originality, “testosterogues” turns out to have precisely two prior mentions on the Net, at slapdashweblog.blog.ca, a compact Canadian blog and kevers.net/blog, a work in progress.)
Creatures and creators of such pop-culture testosteroguery, guns-and-buns rap, bad-boy/bad girl anti-hero role models like Charlie Sheen, suite-trashing rock stars and countless other icons of aggressive incivility currently hold sway over the fantasies and behavior of millions, probably billions—but not over their behavior in most of the organizations and offices they work in.
(Second note: Hereafter, “testosterogues” will be short for “testosterogues and estroGenghisKhans.)”
Uncivil Fusion of Sex and Aggression
Virtually everywhere except in the office and in Senate hearings, testosterogues are tolerated, if not idolized in now very predictable formats and some unexpected venues, sprinkled with lots of aggressive, vulgar insults—frequently sexual, as well as aggressive.
As Freud correctly pointed out, aggression and sex seem to dominate much of the human psyche (at least in its unconscious depths) and especially when frustration takes its toll on either or both of these, or when testosterone levels are stratospherically high, e.g., through anabolic steroid abuse.
Hence—and unsurprisingly, uncivil, rude and aggressive behavior that is entrenched in bad-boy/bad-girl pop-culture, but unacceptable in the office, is frequently, although not exclusively, characterized by language and gestures that are hybrids of sex and aggression.
For example, there is the recent case of two activists who recently posed for a photo of themselves while standing under a White House portrait of President Ronald Reagan, where they flipped the bird while facing the camera—thereby triggering an official scolding from the White House, which was unimpressed with the self-imagined photo(andro)genic duo.
Ironically, on the one hand, sex and aggression can sell or be essential to the finished product or service—e.g., World Wrestling Federation matches and every James Bond movie. On the other hand, the less lurid, less sensationalistic, more mundane tasks associated with successfully running such big businesses and projects tend to require the norms and services of very professional androgentlemen and estrogentlewomen.
These are the staff working behind the scenes, who function in a civil-uncivil cultural chasm within the pop-culture economy itself.
A Second Office-Pop Culture Bifurcation
This kind of bifurcation of society and culture into two incompatible, irreconcilable paradigms—one for the more staid and civil organizational culture and one for shock-hungry pop-culture—represents a workplace and pop-culture clash that has other illustrations: Consider mediocrity.
Although I love The Daily Show and the peerless brilliance of Jon Stewart, I cringe as I am forced to watch endless repetitions of pre-show, flat-line one-liners in online trailers promoting other Comedy Central productions.
Among the most egregious are the endlessly repeated and puzzling “Big Bang” show promo “joke” clips that depend on laugh-track life-support, e.g., “Don’t you ever stop talking?” as the only and utterly limp and pointless sight- and sound-bite in one of them (pumped up with a preposterously incongruous, loud and non-contagious laugh track).
(Since that trailer has been interminably wedged into the Daily Show’s segment streaming, it has made me want to scream the same question at that actor.)
Now, try to imagine a non-pop-culture company HR manager aiming as low as possible or equally low (which are the same thing, in this instance) in selecting talent or ideas. Not so easy, is it? Even with a laugh track.
Fortunately, although pretty much the norm in much of pop-culture, mediocrity, Neanderthal aggressiveness and incivility are not likely to be tolerated (even politely) by recruiters, large organizations and companies…
…especially if the recruiter, despite the odds against it, is a testosterogue.