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

The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude
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.

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.

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."

Pier M. Forni
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, Pier M. Forni has emerged as a leader among the forces of polite resistance. Chris Hartlove

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."

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."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.