Choosing Civility in a Rude Culture

Professor Pier M. Forni has devoted his career to convincing people to conduct their lives with kindness and civility

Pier M. Forni's book, The Civility Solution: What do Do When People Are Rude. (Chris Hartlove)

We are facing a crisis. There is a growing consensus that the situation is dire—and looking bleaker every day. Almost everyone has contributed to the problem, and everyone is a victim of it.

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This catastrophe? The "coarsening of America," as our pandemic of rudeness has been called. And if it seems alarmist to speak of rudeness in catastrophic terms, consider some of the arguments advanced by those who do: that incivility costs the nation more than $100 billion a year in accidents on the road, that billions more are lost to diminished productivity at work, and that many acts of violence have their origins in acts of rudeness. And beyond the physical damage, they say, there is reason to believe that rampant incivility is damaging to the soul. Humans are deeply social creatures, after all, so it seems logical that good social relations should improve our lives.

Armed with such logic, a coalition of the hopeful is trying to buck the rude trend, even to reverse it. They are fighting, you might say, a civil war, and if they succeed, then perhaps someday decades hence schoolchildren on field trips will crowd at the foot of a bronze statue of Pier M. Forni, professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, who will be remembered as one of the greatest generals in our nation's struggle for civility.

Professor Forni is too humble to speak of himself this way, and since he fights primarily with words (and, on some occasions, cupcakes), he would hardly find a military analogy apt. But after publishing two books on civility, including the bestselling Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct, and founding the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins, he has emerged as a leader among the forces of polite resistance.

At our first meeting, I tried to be on my best behavior but broke two of his rules before our interview even began. First, I was late, and second, I declined his offer of a glass of Prosecco. He explained that he keeps a bottle handy to offer visitors "comfort in a few bubbles." The sparkling wine comes from Veneto, the region of Italy where Forni was born 57 years ago and whose tones have carried into his gently accented English.

Living outside one's native country almost inevitably makes manners and mores visible in a new way, and so it was for Forni when he came to study literature at UCLA in 1978. He says he will never forget the shock he felt when a Los Angeles nurse called him by his first name, something a polite stranger would never have done at that time in Italy. Still, Forni became used to American ways (he now urges his European friends not to confuse American informality with rudeness), and indeed he took more than two decades to reinvent himself as a secular prophet of good manners.

He says a "midlife crisis" induced that sudden change—however different, he notes, from the usual response of buying a red Ferrari. One day in the mid-1990s, Forni was discussing a Dante canto with a roomful of Hopkins undergraduates when he had an epiphany: even if he imparted everything there was to know about Dante, he realized, he would have failed as a teacher if his students were to go out and be rude to an old lady on the bus. In 1997, he began what was then called the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a cluster of research and outreach programs that have studied the effects of manners and their lack in sites as diverse as schools, hospitals and a maximum security prison. In 2002, he published Choosing Civility.

The book extended Forni's epiphany at least a hundred thousandfold, to judge from the number of copies sold, and launched him into the role of commentator on matters of civility. It also cast him into a decidedly more private role: that of an ad hoc counselor for the many of his readers who share with him their personal problems. Would it be rude to give a copy of Choosing Civility to my spouse? they ask. Is there a civil way to prevent my 15-year-old from spending unsupervised time in the house with her 20-year-old boyfriend? How can I get my young employees to fall into line?

The book begins with an epigraph from Henry James: "Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind." Forni's work—the hundreds of pages published, the numerous college courses taught, the dozens of speeches given—is only a series of variations on that simple theme. The professor doesn't claim to be saying anything new, only presenting truths in need of rediscovery. "I see my work as pulling brambles apart from the entrance to the old forgotten mine that still has an ore of silver," he says.

Much as we deplore the rudeness of the aggressive driver or the cell phone chatterer or the boorish dinner companion, many of us still sneer at words such as "civility," "politeness" and "etiquette." They bring to mind seemingly trivial things—can table manners really stave off the decline of civilization? But Forni takes all etiquette, even table manners, very seriously; his whole project has been to "de-trivialize" the topic, he says.


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