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)

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He has begun to do so, first, by writing and speaking elegantly and from the heart. An act as small as chewing with your mouth closed has a greater significance—an "ethical backbone," as he puts it—because it shows that your companion's feelings matter to you. "Manners do the everyday busywork of goodness," he says.

Second, Forni has tried to identify the unseen dimensions of civility's true value. Civility, Forni contends, makes us healthier and wealthier. "Incivility is very costly," he says. "Incivility is both caused by stress and causes stress, and stress is not only a producer of human misery, but is also very costly in dollars." University of North Carolina researchers estimate the annual cost of workplace rudness as at least $6.4 billion, and possibly $36 billion. Aggressive driving on American roads is responsible for damages of $160 billion a year, says University of Hawaii psychology professor Leon James. In a perusal of newspaper headlines over the last decade, James has seen references to "parking lot rage," "sidewalk rage," "neighbor rage" and "surf rage," among other rages. (A brawl among passengers on a flight from Dublin to Crete last August was said to exemplify "air rage.")

To see how Forni's work is being applied in the workplace, I joined him one day as he visited some employees at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. We entered a conference room as one of them, Pam Millar, was setting up; on the table was a cake with "Civility" written on it in frosting. Millar, a laser scientist, reached for a plate of cupcakes and planted in each one a toothpick sign bearing one of Forni's rules. ("Think the Best"; "Mind Your Body"; "Respect Other People's Time.") Soon other employees made their way into the room. Once seated, they introduced themselves and explained why they had joined the group. Nathan James, a computer specialist in a green sweater, said, "I like to work with people who promote love and good deeds, and I'd like to see that expanded into the field of space sciences."

Forni then spoke. He acknowledged that much of what he preaches is mere common sense, "but common sense has taken eons to become common." Success at work, he added, can come from "treating others well" because it builds alliances and wins friends. ("The world is the oyster of the likeable," is how he put it.) He cited a USC study that found that 90 percent of workers experienced incivility on the job, and that half of those workers lost time worrying about it. "This is not just a soft issue," he said.

His audience listened attentively, taking notes. After a time, Forni was ready to take questions. Pam Millar was one of the first to speak up: "How do we make it spread?"

That question also occurred to Valerie Gross, director of the public library system of Howard County, Maryland, after she heard Forni speak at a staff development event two years before. Since then, Gross says, the Howard County Library has unfurled an initiative to make Howard County "the most civil place to live in America." Though other counties and school systems dotting the nation have tried similar programs, sometimes with Forni as their guide, few have the scope of Howard County's.

The library has purchased and distributed thousands of copies of Forni's book; it has teamed with county schools to teach manners; it has worked with businesses to develop civility awards; it has convened symposiums, fostered book discussions and advised other counties concerned about a decline in manners. Most visibly, the library has distributed nearly 40,000 "Choose Civility in Howard County" car magnets that can be seen on bumpers countywide.

Howard's campaign has not been universally welcomed, as a story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal last April pointed out. "Be Nice, or What? Fans of Dr. Forni Spread Civility," read the headline, followed by, "25 Rules Don't Go Over Well With Everybody; Naysayer in Maryland." The naysayer is Heather Kirk-Davidoff, a pastor at a nondenominational church in Columbia, a city in Howard County. The Journal reporter found her by Googling phrases such as "P M Forni crazy" and "P M Forni stupid."

Kirk-Davidoff objects to all the rules, she says, because they merely add a veneer of civility where what is needed is deep and genuine compassion. She sums up Forni's view as, "In light of the fact we can't remedy the source of problem, we need to address symptoms." She would rather see communities engineered in ways that promote camaraderie and compassion, and therefore civil behavior. Her community, Columbia, was planned and built in the 1960s with social objectives in mind; communal mail stations, for example, promote chance encounters, creating a sense of neighborliness. "I think you have to set up the world in a way that it starts to generate compassion," she says, rather than listing rules intended to mitigate rudeness.

She is not the first to note an element of fussiness in Forni's approach. His books are filled with wise aphorisms and general principles elegantly stated, but they also brim with suggestions for micromanaging an astounding array of specific situations. His latest, The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude, contains prescriptions for behavior in dozens of particular encounters, from "An IT Specialist Is Being Difficult" to "Fellow Train Passengers Keep Cursing in Front of Your Child."


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