Someone who minds your manners

Profile// P.M. Forni



Ten years ago, in what he terms his midlife crisis, Pier Massimo Forni, a professor of Italian literature at the Johns Hopkins University, began to notice a general "coarsening" in the manners of his students and wondered whether the problem suggested something deeper.

Since then, as founding director of the Hopkins Civility Project (now the Civility Initiative), the Italian native has inspired a re-examination of civility and manners.

In writings including his book Choosing Civility (2002), in nationwide TV appearances, and in workshops for students and professionals around the world, he has explored what makes good manners important and how to cultivate them.

His work has confirmed a belief he has held since boyhood: that civility (or the lack thereof) has a far profounder impact on other elements of life than most would guess.

Why are civility and politeness important?

Human beings are hard-wired to be social. The quality of our lives depends largely on the quality of our relationships. In turn, the quality of our relationships depends on our relational skills. Good manners are a time-tested, basic, effective code of relational skills. They contribute to making life good.

You've said civility promotes ethical behavior. How?

Here's an example. In my courses on civility, I ask a simple question: "I'm in the cafeteria. I ask you to pass the salt. What do you do?"

They say, "I pass the salt."

Then I ask, "What else do you do?"

Usually, a smart female student says, "I pass you the pepper as well." And that is the custom.

But there are reasons for the custom. By giving me the pepper, you've thought of [another] need of mine that may materialize later.

In a small but significant way, you've transcended your immediate needs and desires to attend to mine. You've become an ethical agent. Good manners are the training wheels of altruism.

Do manners affect health?

Absolutely. It is well-documented that harmonious encounters are good for you and conflictual encounters bad for you. That rude encounter - someone taking a parking spot that you have waited for for 10 minutes - and the altercation that follows provokes a cascade of catecholamines, hormones hurtful to your system, into the bloodstream. These cause, among other things, high blood pressure and higher blood sugar levels. They reduce the efficiency of the immune system.

When you are engaged in harmonious, civil, polite encounters, a cascade of good hormones takes place in your brain and bloodstream; endorphins and serotonins are released. These give a sense of well-being but also strengthen the immune system. Research even shows that observing an act of kindness is beneficial.

So why isn't everyone polite?

Civility, politeness and courtesy have a bad name in certain quarters because they are seen as burdensome things we are expected to do for others. I've been trying to show that they're also things we do for ourselves.

Prejudices have [also] grown since the 1960s - the notion, for instance, that good manners are elitist, that they are hypocritical, antithetical to spontaneity, an instrument of the rich to keep the poor in their place.

In the intervening decades, there has been a sense that all you need to be happy in society [is] to be fed oversized portions of self-esteem. When we feed our children oversized portions of self-esteem, we create children who ... think the world revolves around them. Society needs - we need - equal doses of self-restraint.

Is life in America growing less civil, as it sometimes appears?

I think so. Speed, anonymity and stress are all more prevalent. ... Our goals are more important than the people around us. This makes it difficult to slow down and attend to the needs and desires of others. Several examples come to mind.

We are coarser in dealing with the elderly than we used to be. [They] are seen as hindrances, not the repositories of wisdom they are. The unruliness of students that used to be confined to high school is reaching college. There's a crisis in customer service, which is so frequently offered with a sulky, reluctant attitude.

We used to notice when service was bad; now we notice when it's good.

At the same time, every generation creates new rules of deference and respect to replace those that have become obsolete. More [Americans] today respect animals, or the environment, than in generations past. Those are gains in civility.

Are Americans less civil than Europeans?

One has to be careful not to mistake everyday informality for incivility. This is a mistake my fellow Italians make all the time. Are Americans more informal than Europeans? Yes. Are they more uncivil? I think not. I have seen a coarsening of everyday behavior, but informality is part of the history of democracy in this country.

Is life in Baltimore less civil than elsewhere in America?

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