But Forni and Kirk-Davidoff agree that more civility would be a good thing; they differ only on how to get it. It is too soon tell whether the Howard County initiative will help make it the most civil place in America. Police chief Bill McMahon says he certainly hasn't noticed a decline in criminality or aggressive driving, though he supports the program and keeps a copy of Forni's first book on his desk. Valerie Gross says the evidence thus far has been only anecdotal. What she hears most often is that people will affix a car magnet to their bumper in the hope that it will encourage better behavior in others. But they actually find themselves policing their own behavior, too, loath to be the hypocrite seen hurling curses from a car whose bumper urges others to choose civility.
It is not difficult for Forni to identify threats to civility—the raucousness of the online world, for example, or the increasing urgency of the environmental movement—but he would not continue his work if he were not optimistic. He believes that goodness will out, if given the chance. "It is a negative state of mind that produces rudeness," he says. He reflects further and adds: "Unless you are really a jerk." He pauses again. "Technical term," he explains.
There is also the idea that people feel better about themselves when they behave better toward others. The last day I spent with Pier Forni was a busy one. A Canadian film crew had transformed his office into a miniature studio for a documentary on civility. ("We've become the most polite television crew in the history of television," joked the documentary's host, Valerie Pringle.) Then it was time to shuttle over to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Forni spoke to some 150 harried doctors. He laced his speech with subtle irony; his comedic timing was sharp. One doctor stood to ask about the etiquette of cell phone use in public. Forni remarked that "it is an age, ours, which has seen the death of reticence. ‘Reticence'—it is one of those words which have an archaeological sound."
He concluded, as he often does, with the notion that kindness needn't be seen as self-sacrifice. If you pet a dog, he said, the dog's neurons transmit a cascade of pleasing neurochemicals that help strengthen its immune system. But more remarkable, he pointed out, is that petting a dog elicits the same salubrious cascade in your brain. He cites studies showing that, more generally, volunteer work can induce a feeling some have termed the "helper's high"—like the "runner's high," a period of elation followed by tranquility. "Kindness," he said, "is very good for the kind."
At the end of the lecture, audience members lined up to have their copies of his books signed. "Your words give me strength with my adolescents," gushed a fan. By the time all the doctors had returned to their doctoring, Forni had the tired glow that follows an enjoyable exertion. I noted that he seemed to be presenting with some of the symptoms of the benignant condition he had just described. Could it be, I asked, that urging others to be kind is Dr. Forni's own kind act?
"Yes," he said. "That's probably how I get my helper's high."