Keeping a civil tongue in traffic

May 12, 2008|By KEVIN COWHERD

P.M. Forni even drives with civility.

He uses his turn signal religiously. He moves over for the lane-weaving knuckleheads. He waits days for pedestrians at crosswalks; they could pitch a tent, and he'd just shrug.

He's St. P.M. of the Highways - at least when there's a newspaperman riding along with him.

"The irony would be if you catch me doing something uncivil and ... reported it," he says with a smile.

Oh, wouldn't that be something? Forni, the Johns Hopkins University professor and civility guru, flipping off someone who cuts him off and screaming, "You want a piece of me?"

Forni in a fit of road rage - we'd play that one on the front page.

Above the fold.

Right now, we're in Forni's 15-year-old Subaru, cruising the Beltway, the Jones Falls Expressway and various other byways, in search of rude drivers.

Seven years ago, Forni, 56, wrote a groundbreaking book, Choosing Civility, that argued for higher standards of civil behavior and inspired a cultural movement toward more thoughtfulness in everyday encounters.

That book sold 100,000 copies. He'll be out with a new book next month, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, a guide to dealing with discourtesy in everyday life, including from idiots behind the wheel.

So, we've hit the road to look for some and see how his lessons apply.

"So much of our lives are spent commuting in traffic," Forni says as we merge onto the Beltway, that black-topped Gomorrah of bad manners. "And traffic is a situation in which two very common causes of rudeness are at work: stress and anonymity.

"We're stressed because we're late. The person in the car in front of us is a faceless entity. And we're protected in the steel cocoon of our cars and think we can get away with anything."

For Forni, the key to not losing one's cool in traffic involves depersonalizing any slight, whether you've just been cut off or the next Danica Patrick zooms up inches from your rear bumper.

As he says this, a green Honda Civic ignores Forni's turn signal and speeds up, preventing him from changing lanes.

This is it, I think. The professor's going to flip out.

But Forni just shakes his head, waits for the guy to pass, then calmly changes lanes. It's exactly the advice he gives in the book: Don't go thermonuclear. Put safety first.

"We just don't want to lose our spot," he says quietly of the Honda driver. "It indicates a degree of carelessness and self-absorption and utter disregard for little acts of civility that are so important.

"Think of the slight as a package," he says seconds later. "You accept it, but you return it unopened."

It's like driving with Gandhi.

No, check that.

Gandhi was a hot-head compared to this guy.

But Forni is no stuffed-shirt academic, no holier-than-thou wet blanket. On our ride, he's funny and self-deprecating about his formidable rep as the High Priest of Civility.

"It exposes you to unreasonable levels of high expectations," he says with another smile. "But also, certain people delight in catching you in imperfections or worse."

We drive on in the little four-speed Subaru, with Forni observing that there's been "no intemperate honking of horns so far" and no "finger-puppetry," his wonderful term for the angry flashing of the middle digit.

As we turn onto Wyman Park Drive, the car ahead of us suddenly brakes and makes a sharp right turn.

Oh, it's time for some finger-puppetry, all right.

Where'd this dope get her license?!

But all Forni says is: "Look at this! No signal! Well, she signaled at the very last moment. But there was no remorse."

Forni wants us all to feel remorse when we're not considerate to one another. This is his mission.

He's been a professor of Italian literature at Hopkins for 22 years. But 15 years ago, he says, "I felt the need to involve myself with something that had more relevance to everyday life."

"This turn to civility might be my middle-age crisis," he says as we head home. "I didn't buy a Ferrari. I didn't acquire a trophy wife. I fell in love with this form of benevolence and gracious goodness.

"I decided to do all I could to make civility a part of our national agenda."

Well, at least on this final portion of our ride, civility is breaking out all over.

People are using their turn signals, waving others selflessly through intersections, smiling and mouthing "thank you" when someone lets them pull out of a driveway.

It's like Up with People on wheels.

"I haven't seen Baltimore drivers behave so well as I have this half-hour," Forni says.

I'm tempted to say: "Don't get used to it, P.M. It'll never last. It's like seeing the Orioles in first place."

But I don't say anything.

When a man dreams as big as Forni dreams, you don't ever want to go negative.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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