What is Incivility?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 January 2020
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Incivility is behavior that threatens orderly and reasonable public processes; it is sometimes described as rudeness or bad manners, but goes beyond this to cover activities specifically detrimental to social order. Some examples of incivility include vandalism and public drunkenness. Many governments regulate uncivil activities if they are a threat to public health and safety and people convicted may incur fines or jail time, especially for repeat offenses.

The idea that people must maintain reasonable and decent standards of behavior for the benefit of society as a whole is a very old one in many societies. These activities may undermine society, as well as public safety in a variety of ways, from creating public health threats to making public places hostile and difficult for people to navigate. It can be difficult to define and legislate incivility. Gathering in a public place, for instance, is a right many governments guarantee, but at the same time, crowds of people behaving raucously can feel threatening, and may make society less safe, so law enforcement need to be able to take action when crowds turn dangerous.


In regions where laws cover various uncivil behaviors, they are usually found in municipal codes. A few examples may be found in national law or case law; “fighting words,” for example, are an example of incivility based in case law in the United States, where people are not allowed to make statements that may incite violence or crimes against specific groups of people. Other incivility may be a social problem, but not necessarily subject to regulation. School bullying and workplace incivility are two examples of this, where people who disrupt classrooms and workplaces may not be subject to legal punishment, but may have to meet with supervisors and teachers to discuss the situation.

Different jurisdictions have their own boundaries when it comes to incivility. More formal cultures tend to have more extensive laws and visitors sometimes find these laws repressive in nature. For instance, in some countries, women are expected to cover most of their bodies when out in public, and can be fined if they do not. Other nations may have more relaxed laws and permit a wider range of behavior under the law before law enforcement will step in.

People preparing for travel to a foreign country may want to look up incivility laws in the country they will be visiting to learn more about them. It is possible people may have to modify their behaviors to make sure they do not run afoul of the law, and it can also be helpful to know about norms and customs to avoid causing offense.


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