Embracing Civility

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What’s Your Fire Ant Personality?

I was ambushed by an angry mob of ferocious fire ants over the weekend. And, by “ambushed” I mean I suffered three tiny, but excruciating bites. And by “angry mob” I mean I stepped into their home and they failed to welcome me with tea and cookies!

As I scratched, iced and cortisone’d my assaulted ankles I decided I should probably do a Google search to see if I needed to worry about any other symptoms or complications. Turns out—no! I didn’t seem to be allergic and I didn’t suffer enough bites to warrant a trip to the ER! Phew!

Then I stumbled on a study published a few years ago that made me think a little differently about the angry beasts. It seems they have some pretty interesting and distinct personalities!

  • About one third of the colony will play dead during an attack (from a human foot or another colony of fire ants).
  • Another third will run away.
  • The final group will stay and fight to the death. (These are the chumps that got me!)

The first group is made up of the youngest ants. After an attack they can be found curled up just like a dead ant. Then moments later they uncurl and walk away.

Middle aged ants tend to flee, which scientist think may be a tactic to protect the queen.

The eldest ants are aggressive and attack furiously. One researcher points out, “All worker ants are females, and so it’s the cranky old ladies who are the ones fighting to the death.”

Looking at the structure of the fire ant colony reminded me a little bit of the social structures found in most healthcare workplaces. It resembles how different groups deal with the pervasive culture of incivility.

New graduates curl up and play dead when attacked. They may be unsure of how to respond or may fear the consequences that may come from defending themselves.

The more experienced workers tend to cope by ignoring the problem or retreating.

You can draw your own conclusions about the third group!

The interesting thing about the comparison though is that the fire ants act this way out of a primal instinct to protect their home and their family (aka colony) from danger. That makes sense. They are tiny little creatures trying to survive in a giant’s land. But, why do we do it?

Think about the fire ants the next time you are at work. Do you play dead, retreat or fight to the death? And, why? If you play dead, you’re giving the aggressor the confirmation he or she needs to feel powerful. If you ignore the problem or retreat, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem by “protecting the queen.”

If you’re the one on the attack, think about what you are working so hard to defend. I can assure you, it’s not as important as your home or your entire family (like it is for the fire ants).



  1. What an interesting analogy of the fire ants. The older more “fiery” healthcare workers (I work with nurses) are the gate keepers and can be an asset to the profession by protecting against ideologies that affect the ability of nurses giving safe, good care. When that fierceness turns within we get the syndrome of nurses “eating their young”. As nurses we need to look at the fire ants and see how we can focus on using those skills to protect rather than harm.

  2. I LOVE this analogy! Made me laugh out loud (tea and cookies) and totally made sense! We are just like the fire ants. Some of us can bite hard while others just “play dead”. How very clever and insightful.

    Thanks so much. Sorry you got bit but in the end, created a good story.


  3. Stacey Turnure

    September 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Thanks Renee! Glad I could give you a chuckle!!!

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