Reflections on the state of civility in America

Johns Hopkins' professor P.M. Forni looks at what has happened to our manners.

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April 07, 2002|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff

Professor P.M. Forni has spent the past seven years considering the importance of civility and good manners to contemporary life.

A professor at the Johns Hopkins University since 1990, Forni, 50, teaches courses on Italian literature and civility. He was a co-founder of the university's Civility Project, a series of academic and community outreach programs designed to determine the role of politeness and manners in modern society. Forni also lectures, conducts workshops and delivers radio commentaries on the relevance of civility. He now has collected his beliefs and observations into a slim but powerful book: Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin's Press, $20).

The rules, each accompanied by an insightful essay, include: paying attention; acknowledging others; thinking the best of others; speaking kindly; respecting even a subtle 'no'; being agreeable; respecting other people's time; apologizing earnestly and thoughtfully; avoiding personal questions; thinking twice before asking for favors; refraining from idle complaints; respecting the environment; and being gentle to animals.

Prof. Forni was civil enough to answer a few questions recently about his book for The Sun:

People define "civility" in different ways. What does it mean to you?

The short answer is that civility is awareness. It is being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect and consideration into the fabric of that awareness. ...

One of the fascinating points about civility is that it's an area where self-interest and altruism meet. We have learned that in order to live a healthy, long and serene life, we need to be part of a network of people we care for and who care for us. We need a social support, and we need to have social skills. Quite simply, we have to be able to behave in such a way that will make others keep us around. The traditional rules of civility and manners give us the elementary skills we need to live well among others.

Have the rules for civil behavior changed much over time?

Certain rules are time and culture-specific and change over the years. Others remain constant, such as rules about managing your personal hygiene properly. Or about not choosing the best piece of food on a tray but just reaching for the one nearest your extended hand in order not to put the next person at disadvantage. Or about acknowledging those around you. Or about summarizing what has been discussed for a newcomer to the conversation.

After the 1960s and 1970s we sort of forgot about the rich resource of manners and civility because they were seen as a veneer flaunted by a privileged social class that was, in fact, morally bankrupt. The counterculture looked at civility as another tool in the bourgeoisie's despised tool-kit of hypocrisies. So spontaneity, naturalness, expressing yourself and even-in-your-face sincerity became the rule of the day.

What we almost forgot is that it's essentially impossible to have a civilization without restraint and civility. I have tried to collect and rediscover the rules of manners and civility. I think of them as silver ore that has been mined for several centuries by those who want to improve the quality of their lives.

You hear a lot of talk about inconsiderate, rude behavior. Why do you think it so widespread?

We live in a society of equals and have made equality the cornerstone of our building of beliefs. However in this society of equals we also want to establish our identity and to leave an individual mark. How do we do so? By being very goal- and task-oriented and by pursuing achievement. Professional achievement becomes a transcendental goal. As we run or rush in the direction of our professional goals, we don't think we have the luxury to slow down just to be kind and considerate to those around us. So our relationships become victims of our ambitions. Together with stress and anonymity, I think that ambition is a fundamental cause of rude and curt behavior.

Just this past week, a new study on American "rudeness" was released. It said that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed think that lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem in American society. Did anything in the survey surprise you?

I was surprised to see that 41 percent of respondents stated that they themselves were rude and disrespectful. Usually it is unlikely that we acknowledge our own rudeness. I take this high percentage of people who admit to being culpable of coarse behavior as a very encouraging sign. To acknowledge our flaws is a necessary step toward taking corrective measures. I also find encouraging that we are having a national debate on the issue of incivility. Rudeness is on Page 1 of newspapers. This is good.

Can you think of public figures who seem to embody some of the principles of civility?

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