The value of being civil Manners: In a stressful and diverse world, etiquette is important whether you're online, in jail or getting married.

March 28, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At a time when presidential politics centers on sex and schoolchildren are gunned down by their classmates, a gathering of professors in a glass pavilion to discuss manners might seem removed from modern life.

But the organizers of "Reassessing Civility," an international symposium at the Johns Hopkins University that runs through today, say the time is ripe for serious talk about manners and their proper place in the world.

As society becomes more complex, stressful and diverse, they say, manners matter more than ever -- even if the rules are always being rewritten in the workplace and other spheres.

Take chivalry, which Professor Giulia Sissa says "is sexy in some situations and sexist in others." Knowing the difference is just one of the ways social change has redrawn the manners map recently. But Sissa warns against trying to get along without etiquette. "Manners are indispensable," she says. "Human beings cannot live together without them."

Noting a poll that found most Americans consider incivility a serious problem, another Hopkins professor, P. M. Forni, says the conference is responding to a general concern.

Forni and Sissa, both born in Italy, hope their event will help establish manners as a field of intellectual inquiry, but they also say the matter is not just academic.

"Everybody's talking about civility, including New York Mayor [Rudolph W.] Giuliani," says Forni, "because it can make such a difference in everyday quality of life."

The conference stirred the interest of Baltimore Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr., who recently drafted voluntary guidelines on civility adopted by the Baltimore City Bar Association and participated in yesterday's session on rudeness and civility.

Matricciani says he is troubled by what he sees from the bench. "People whose feelings are hurt are now going to court," the judge says. And when they get there, things get worse. "People are screaming in this courthouse all the time," he says. "Nobody knows where to draw the line. We go home at night and hear 11-year-olds are murdering their classmates. I don't know how to assimilate that."

The conference presents other vantage points on manners in the 1990s, based on field research in the military, a city high school and hospital, and a maximum-security prison in Jessup.

As part of the university's larger civility project, Forni took a class of students to Jessup to meet with a group of prisoners to discuss codes of conduct in their environment.

Tea in prison

After discussing how to save social "face" while incarcerated, Forni says, "we all had tea together in the prison."

The military, another insular society, "has perfected certain social graces" that were created by and for men, says Carol Burke, a Hopkins professor on today's program. "But none of it works when you have women."

She observes that some older military handbooks advises officers not to be seen pushing a stroller while on base in a uniform. And she says some high-ranking military men haven't come to terms with women opening doors for them, even when protocol calls for it.

Rules and roles are changing in the medical profession, too, says Daniel Buccino, a therapist scheduled to speak today on the etiquette of mental health care.

"In part because of managed care, people are crunched more," he says, resulting in more rushed and less familiar patient-doctor relationships. He suggests that therapists think of manners as "relationship management tools."

But progress has been made in American manners, say professors such as Sissa, who point out that bigotry has been gradually edited out of socially acceptable behavior.

Calling manners "a theater of values," Sissa says that although Western manners began among aristocrats in the Versailles court of Louis XIV, they are just as important in negotiating democracy in the late 20th century.

Changing roles

Noting that modern Americans change social roles almost as often as French aristocrats changed clothes, Sissa and Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, agree that manners -- in airports, in cyberspace, at weddings -- are getting more complicated.

"I am amazed people are so civilized," Sissa says. "It could be much worse."

Martin, who will give the closing address tonight in Shriver Hall, says she is delighted that manners are all the rage. "Here I've been hanging out in the cold all these years," she says. "Suddenly, everyone's interested."

John F. Kasson, a historian who is an expert on the 19th century, says, "There was no golden age of American manners," Kasson says, "and manners never catch up."

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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