Jeremy Bernard recalls sitting in Los Angeles traffic, a passenger in the car of an increasingly upset driver. His friend was leaning on the horn, blasting out annoyance and impatience in short, angry bursts.
“I hate to be preachy, but take a breath,” Bernard told his friend. Honking will only make a bad situation worse.
The driver was nonplused. “I don’t even think of it anymore,” he responded. Honking was the natural reaction to stupid drivers. Why shouldn’t he honk?
And there, in a tiny nutshell, was the problem Bernard has been wrestling with for the past two years. “It really takes an effort to behave well, because it’s so easy to behave badly,” he says.
Bernard and Lea Berman, both former White House social secretaries, are co-authors of the new book “Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life.” Bernard worked for Barack and Michelle Obama, Berman for George W. and Laura Bush, but their job was the same: Make every person who walked through the door feel welcomed, valued and comfortable.
Then came the bitter election of 2016, and what started out as a bipartisan memoir about working in the White House evolved into a guide to the importance of civility and respect in modern America.
“Some people heap disrespect on anyone who dares oppose them, tap into anger and manipulate it for their own benefit, and don’t seem to see anything wrong with that,” they write. “If bad behavior is contagious — as many studies have shown it is — we’re in an epidemic.”
The elephant in room, but not called out by name, is President Trump. His belittling tweets and personal insults are the antithesis of conventional presidential discourse. Some people see the blunt language and name-calling as a sign of principle and strength. Or are they just bad manners?
Call it what you will, the authors say, but it’s bad for the country. Good people can and do disagree, but a lack of basic respect is corrosive and crippling to democracy itself.
“I think that treating people well now could be seen as a form of passive resistance and a rejection of what we see in the public arena,” Berman says. “For generations, we’ve looked to our leaders and followed their behavior. Now, maybe the leaders need to look at the people and the way we conduct our lives.”
Bernard grew up in San Antonio, where saying “ma’am” and “sir” were basic courtesies. “There was the presumption that every person was worthy of respect,” he says.
So what happened to good manners?
Social media, for one, where people can insult and demean others anonymously, saying things they would never say face-to-face. Technology, for another, which has taught us to expect immediate gratification and makes us feel entitled and impatient when we don’t get what we want when we want it.
And reality TV, where the loudest mouths and the most outrageous behaviors get the most screen time. “That’s what the producers want — they want the drama,” Bernard says.
Berman, who worked for the Bushes from 2005-2007, and Bernard, who served from 2011-2015, have always tried to avoid drama. For a social secretary, drama means something is wrong.
White House social secretaries are obsessively polite, trained to listen and make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. They were a close-knit sorority of well-bred women until Bernard was appointed in 2011, the first man and first openly gay person to hold the job.
As he contemplated his next move after leaving the White House, he teamed up with Berman (full disclosure: after this reporter played literary matchmaker) for a book about their common experiences working behind the scenes at the most famous house in the world.
They compared notes and came up with the book’s underlying thesis, outlined in the introduction: “Act as if the world is watching and you cannot fail to do the right thing. Most of us like to think of ourselves as good people, and if we sense that what we’re doing is public, we’re more likely to behave reasonably.”
Washington’s establishment has always been traditionally bipartisan, a collection of former administration officials and power brokers who settled in the nation’s capital and never left. The rules of engagement: You can question politics and policy, but not the person, their motives or their patriotism. They have agreed to disagree without being disagreeable.
And so it was Tuesday night, when Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem al-Sabah and his wife, Rima, honored the authors at their residence. The couple welcomed hundreds of guests, including former vice president Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne (Berman was their social secretary before joining the White House), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, British Ambassador Kim Darroch, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and members of the Clinton, Bush 43, Obama and Trump administrations. Everyone was on their best behavior.
And everyone in the room has been at the heart of partisan battles. Successful presidents and their supporters, and those from the opposing party, understand that showing respect for one another also shows respect for the Constitution, the institutions of government and the country, according to the authors. “In the past, presidents did not speak ill of others in a personal way,” says Berman. “It seems to be something this president is comfortable with.”
Is the president the reason for or a reflection of the moment?
“I think the country is generally less civil,” said Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, one of several members of Congress at the party. “The anonymity of social media has gotten people in a place where they say things that they would never have said 10 or 20 years ago.” The president, he said, “communicates in that social media better than anyone ever has — and adopts some of the weak points and the strong points of it.”
Trump, however, is not a useful measure when it comes to matters of civility. Aside from stagnant approval ratings, he hasn’t suffered any significant consequences for his behavior.
The average person, on the other hand, is still held to conventional standards, and is judged by friends and co-workers.
It’s easy to be nice when things are going well, harder when you feel you’ve been treated unfairly. There’s a lot of anger in America, and some voters are spoiling for a fight, says Berman.
But she and Bernard argue that incivility is not the answer. In fact, they say that civility is in most people’s self-interest.
“It’s the smart thing to do,” says Bernard. Being kind to other people encourages them to be nice to you. Bad behavior begets more bad behavior. You honk, somebody honks back, and things can get ugly really fast.
Civility is not personal, and doesn’t necessarily mean that you even like a person. Good manners are just a good way to navigate the world.
When they started writing together, Berman and Bernard circled around each other and realized that they were both being “comically polite” as they talked about their ideas and politics.
“Our social secretary hypercourtesy was so ingrained that we each had to read between the lines of our conversations until we built enough trust to see that we had the same goal: sharing with others the things that helped us get along in the world more easily,” says Berman.
But there’s a difference between being polite and a pushover. Pushovers are people who are always doing things they don’t want to do. The average person in an awkward situation starts out by being nice in an effort to defuse the situation. It doesn’t always work.
“It’s naive to suggest we all have to be polite to each other all the time,” Berman says. “There are some people for whom politeness is a weakness to exploit. You have to be very firm and straightforward and stand your ground.”
Part of civility is learning to say no, but there are infinite ways of saying no nicely, as every social secretary learns.
“We lied all the time,” says Berman. A state dinner guest would complain about their seat. “I’m so sorry, but the secretary of labor asked for you to be seated at his table,” Berman or Bernard would tell them. The guest would calm down, then sit and have a lovely evening. The blunt truth can be cruel and often unnecessary, and civility is understanding when it’s required and when a white lie will suffice.
How to make an uncivil world more civil?
“Ignore as much of it as you can,” says Berman. “Deflect what you can’t ignore. And when things are really, really terrible, you emotionally detach. Refuse to be drawn into the drama of the bad behavior, because that’s usually what the person behaving badly is seeking. It’s like gasoline on a fire.”
In short, decide not to get mad every time someone is rude. It’s probably not personal, and will just make you unhappy. And start being kind.
“You get on a bus, you say hello to the driver and make eye contact,” says Berman. “You go into a store, take your ear buds out and say thank you to the cashier. Start with the simplest things that help us reestablish our humanity with each other.”