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Uncivil Liberties

Abusive behavior, vulgarity, rudeness—too many people, says civil liberties expert Geovinella Gonthier, are giving at the office.

(page 1 of 4)

To understand Giovinella Gonthier, you have to understand the tree crisis. “I told you the story of how my doorman told this guy that his dog couldn’t pee on our tree-right?” asks Gonthier, a striking woman in her mid-50s, who recently moved into a new West Loop condo building.

“The guy’s argument was, ‘Well, we don’t have parks in this neighborhood; where’s my dog supposed to pee?’ He doesn’t live in our building; he just felt he had the right to let his dog urinate on the lawn.”

This story came up in the latter part of two weeks I spent listening to the world according to Gonthier. A raconteur by nature, Gonthier employs her considerable intelligence and wit to talk for long stretches of time without stopping, particularly if she is on the topic-and she almost always is on the topic-of civility. By the end of the year she will have given lectures and seminars on workplace civility to some 40 corporations and professional organizations, for a fee ranging from $4,000 to $7,000. Next year, she will jet to Botswana, Denmark, and other far-flung locales to do the same. And she will be toting her new book, Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace (Dearborn Trade Publishing), which she spent 12 hours a day seven days a week for four months writing. “I did an article on civility for this little professional journal, 1,700 readers-and suddenly I had three different publishers calling me, asking me to write a book,” she told me happily.

Yet to say that Gonthier is fighting bad behavior at the office is like saying that Gloria Steinem was protesting bras. Gonthier is less a civility consultant than a de facto global activist, at war against the disintegration of Western society as we know it-a gloomy development she continues to illustrate via the tree story:

“Well, the man came back, and he cut down our tree. It was like, ‘Take that.’ They saw him. And the way it got slashed! Because he didn’t have the proper tools. I’ve never cried for a tree, but when I looked at it, I was just so sad. I live in a place where it’s in-your-face urbanism. And we need trees, because trees give us oxygen, and they clean the air, and they also aesthetically make the area look more beautiful, and he didn’t see all of that. He just got upset.”

Gonthier is creeping toward the essence of her message-the one that can get obscured in her book by section titles like “Good Cheer Can Be Infectious!” and in her seminars by the sort of group activities you hoped you had left behind in third grade. Indeed, the dénouement of the Tale of the Urinating Dog reveals why civility is Gonthier’s passion. “We don’t want to be told anymore how we should behave,” she declares. “And instead of saying to the doorman, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you didn’t have a sign on the lawn. Next time I’ll be more careful’-because that’s how I would have approached it-he came back with this ‘I’ll show you’ attitude. And this is what I mean when I say that things are descending into chaos.”

There you have it. Chaos. Descending into it. Think about that the next time you slouch away from the office printer without refilling the empty paper tray.

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