Expectations are powerful. When people expect each other to behave well, most do. When we expect each other to behave badly, things go wrong. How does it work? - Very simply. We all sometimes have trouble controlling our emotions and thinking carefully. It is a given people will say silly things, and judge each other harshly. Such things will happen. However, once a thoughtless word is spoken, it is what happens next that is really important. A community that thinks of itself highly will treat a mistake as such – as an aberration to be sanctioned and then corrected. It won’t necessarily obsess about a mistake, or dwell on it; rather, it will be quickly dismissed and corrected as a mistake. A community that perceives itself as unstable, as prone to disintegration, will perceive each mistake as a normal action, as a further confirmation of its own negative self-perception. The expectations of civility do not simply reflect the norm, they create the norm. Therefore, if enough people go around and worry how things will deteriorate, they create the very condition about which they worry in the first place.
While the expectations of civility are a product of collective behavior, not all people in a social group have equal influence. Some are much more influential; they are opinion-makers and conveyors of social norms. They are the most important nodes of social networks. When these people’s expectations deteriorate, it may disproportionally affect the entire community. From my experience, most of these people do not realize the extent of influence over the community they actually have. Power is such a strange thing: everyone denies having it, and no one has ever admitted having too much of it.
To maintain high expectations of civility, the opinion-makers must recognize the extent of their influence. They do not have to be personally saintly; it is just a matter of articulating and upholding high standards of civility in dealing with each other. The expectations will be violated, but they still need to remain unchanged.