A performative contradiction: “Learn About the National Standard — Civility and Respect.”

In my previous post, Infantilizing a Workforce with ‘Civility and Respect,’ I promised my next blog would be about the following video,1 “Learn About the National Standard — Civility and Respect”(4 mins, 8 secs):


Civility and Respect is mandatory for all NSERC and SSHRC staff. Hence, I wonder what their frustration levels are like? I’d also like to know whether Presidents Alejandro Adem, NSERC, and Ted Hewitt, SSHRC, have exempted themselves from this program.

So what to say about this didactic video? Nothing good.

If there exists the equivalent of a Richter scale to measure magnitude of condescension, the creators of this video have rocked it off the charts. Ten-year-olds are too sophisticated to be spoken to in such a manner.

The narrator is speaking to adults the way a slow talking, monotonic, socially-awkward mall Santa would speak to a four-year-old. What would you like for Christmas little girl? Don’t forget to be nice to your little brother.

Since “tone policing,” i.e. getting in high dudgeon over the way something is said rather than to what is being said, is making its way through the list of EDI-related grievances, I turned off the sound to attend only to the graphics and accompanying text. It’s no better.

Without the sound, this video is rendered a child’s morality play. Not only is it full of banalities, such as at 2:48 with the riveting observation that “People see the world through different eyes,” but it also includes a poorly wrought example of ‘disrespect’.

At 1:17, we’re introduced to Trung, a new Canadian who is learning to speak English. Trung is settling into a new job and he’s sitting in on a team meeting about a project. At 1:44, Sylvia, who is tasked with getting feedback from the team, including Trung, lets Trung know that he can just watch until he knows more about the project. She adds that she “doesn’t want Trung to feel pressured until he’s settled and feeling comfortable in his new role.” At 1:58, the narrator chimes that Sylvia may be unaware that this gesture “MAY” have been seen as “having A LACK OF RESPECT” for Trung’s abilities [capitalisation theirs].

The way Sylvia’s gesture “MAY” have been seen is laughably myriad. Maybe Trung is relieved, the colleagues offended. Or Trung has Aspergers and misses these social cues. Or Sylvia does. Or no one is offended. Or one colleague is offended, the other not. Or Trung is offended, his colleagues not. Or Trung’s English is so bad he can’t understand Sylvia. Or Trung is listening to his Bluetooth, not Sylvia. Or Trung’s English is better than he lets on, he just hates group meetings. And so on ad nauseam. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find these alternatives so banal that stabbing myself in the forehead with a fork to relieve the boredom is a live option. But let’s move on.

Further into the video, the moral finger-wagging accelerates:

(1)At 2:42, “As a supervisor or as an employee, we all need to be careful not to assume what people WANT or NEED [capitals theirs].” And

(2) at 2:50, “We often say, ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated’… but it’s really about, Treating people the way THEY want to be treated [capitals theirs].'”

(1) is false. Most of how we get on in our social environments is by making assumptions* about others’ wants or needs. If we weren’t able to do so, we’d be paralysed. The burden is too heavy to ask everyone, rather than assume. Fortunately, human wants and needs aren’t so far flung that we can’t make near-enough-good-enough assumptions most of the time. Besides, surprising another with a bouquet of flowers, a box of chocolates, or a compliment assumes she’ll be delighted. Otherwise why would we bother?

(*Note: What we are doing is not making assumptions, but rather inferences. To infer something is to use observation and context to arrive at a conclusion that seems reasonable. Inference is how science works, and it’s how our cognitive system works. We certainly make better and worse inferences, but our being here suggests they work well enough to keep us out of Darwin’s junkyard. That said, I’m going to use ‘assume’ and its inflections in this post in keeping with the video’s terminology.)

(2) is nonsensical. If I’m running a five-star hotel, I’m well-advised to treat my customers the way they want to be treated. But if my co-worker wants me to do all the work and she’ll take credit for it, she can pound sand. So it’s not really about treating people the way they want to be treated, full stop. We place conditions on this want, as in: I’ll treat you as you want to be treated with respect to what? And why should I? We’re neither obliged to serve, nor care about, the whims, quirks, and neuroses of our co-workers. Nor they ours. But it’s collegial to offer another my stapler when I notice hers has jammed.

Let’s revisit the Sylvia-Trung example and consider it together with both (1) don’t assume what people want or need, and (2) treat others they way they want to be treated. The incoherence of the content of the National Standard video should be made apparent by this exercise.

If people haven’t made explicit how they want to be treated with respect to x, the most direct way to find out is to ask. Otherwise we’re left to rely on our observations and best guesses. Duh. But sometimes asking is an affront. And asking for clarification about why your asking has caused offense can make things worse. (Ask Verushka Lieutenant-Duval of the University of Ottawa.2) And isn’t that just life? You sometimes get those people who say, If you have to ask how I want to be treated, you’re privileged, or a biggot, or both. And those who say you’re all these things if you don’t ask. Some of us have the luxury of saying, Well, fuck you then. Others need the paycheque. Like Sylvia.

Sylvia informed Trung he didn’t have to participate. What if she’d asked if he’d like to instead?

If Sylvia asks Trung if he wants to add a comment about the project, she might offend him, e.g. She’s exposed my poor English to the group. If she doesn’t, she might offend him, e.g. She could have let me say no. Her colleagues might be standing at the water-cooler gossiping, Can you believe she put him on the spot? Can you believe she ignored him? Sylvia might not win for losing. And given the likelihood of pleasing everyone, which is rare, she probably won’t. Nor should she try.

On this note, I’m surprised feminists aren’t roaring in protest about this video. Let’s flesh in the bare-bones Sylvia-Trung example with a plausible story to demonstrate why. And one can come up with countless plausible alternative stories.

Women are supposed to be mind-readers, ever anticipating the needs of others. Sylvia, a people-pleaser with perfectionist traits, does her best to make sure everyone feels okay. And she’s done her utmost to anticipate Trung’s needs by not placing undue pressure on him as he adjusts to a big move, a new job, and a new language. Before the meeting, she notices he’s pale and yawning. So if she makes a faux pas by her gesture to invite Trung to speak only if he’s ready, it’s with the best of intentions. Hence Sylvia is surprised when, at 2:03, she sees the expressions of exasperation on the faces of both Trung and her colleagues.

Sylvia is mortified by the idea she may have offended Trung and is hurt by her colleagues’ judgmental reactions. She second-guesses herself for the entire hour and a half commute home where, on her arrival, she faces the needs of her husband and kids. Before bed Sylvia sits, as usual, on the bathroom floor washing down her tranqulizers with the gin she has hidden under the sink. The next morning she plasters a smile on her face and shakes off her hangover for the Civility and Respect workshop she is leading that day.

But it gets worse.

Trung, the little bastard, is a manipulative narcissist who notices an opportunity to exploit his new colleagues. Following the Civility and Respect workshop, Trung looks pleadingly at them every time Sylvia speaks. Overcompensating for their fear of appearing disrespectful, and virtue-signalling to each other, these colleagues regale Trung with requests for his “experience… wisdom, and perspective” (1:24, 1:25). Trung feeds on this attention. Sylvia goes on stress leave.

So it might be Sylvia and not Trung being referred to when, at 2:18-2:20, immediately following the Sylvia-Trung example, the narrator says “If situations like this happen again and again, it could cause FRUSTRATION and lead to CONFLICT within the team [capitals theirs].” Did it occur to the authors of this video that they might have inadvertently created a racial stereotype via Trung? Trung the frustrated Asian? Pity the new hire.

According to the sponsors of this video, Ottawa Public Health and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Civility and Respect are supposed to help create a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Perhaps. But the opposite is also true. Perhaps the aims of these organisations are better served by the concept of collegiality rather than the contentious notions of Civility and Respect. And collegiality lacks the authoritarian connotations embedded in Civility and Respect, e.g. respect your elders, don’t ‘dis me.

Perhaps it’s uncharitable of me to expect these organisations to produce a more sophisticated video, that its purpose is solely to motivate a discussion among viewers. And that’s what’s important. But I don’t think so. It’s uncharitable to treat adults like children, even if we sometimes behave that way. And so.

At 3:32, the narrator asks, “What are some ways YOU will help promote civility and respect?” And, at 3:33, “Write down one thing you intend to do in the next week.”

I wrote this blog entry.


[1] “Learn About the National Standard — Civility and Respect,” For Workplaces, Brought to you by Ottawa Public Health and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, adapted with permission from Mindful Employer Canada, http://www.haveTHATtalk.ca, https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/national-standard/, YouTube, October 21, 2016, accessed September 9, 2022.

[2] Lieutenant-Duval was suspended from her position at the University of Ottawa for having mentioned the N-word as part of her pedagogy. She’d offended a student in doing so, and the other students followed suit. The matter was made worse when “The professor sent an apologetic email to a shocked student, and suggested having a full discussion about the use of the word in the next class on September 30.”

Admin, “The lecturer says she was rebuffed by the University of Ottawa without being able to deliver her version of the facts,” Actual News Magazine, Eylul 1, 2022, https://actualnewsmagazine.com/english/the-lecturer-says-she-was-rebuffed-by-the-university-of-ottawa-without-being-able-to-deliver-her-version-of-the-facts/, accessed September 11, 2022.

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