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Meet Howard County's Mr. Nice Guy

RadCivlittle.jpg"Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

Those are the words the Italian poet Dante Alighieri found carved above the gates of Hell during his field trip to the underworld. They might as well be carved above the doors to the multiplex, so rude have some moviegoers become.

That's what some of us in the Radical Civility movement believe, anyway. And while P.M. Forni may not be quite so negative, he has a unique perspective on the issue: He's a Dante scholar who started a civility movement that has its most visible manifestation in Howard County.

Dr. Forni's 2002 book, "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct.," became the centerpiece for Howard's "Choose Civility" movement, a county-wide initiative to create a kinder, gentler citizenry. (The movement is perhaps best known for the "Choose Civility" magnets that adorn thousands of vehicles in HoCo.)

In light of my Radical Civility movement, Dr. Forni was obviously someone I needed to talk to. So I did, dialing his number in Baltimore.


Dr. Forni is a professor of Italian literature -- he's from Italy originally -- and an expert on Dante. During one of his Hopkins classes about a decade ago Dr. Forni had an epiphany: "The thought was: 'These are my students and I want them to know everything there is to know about Dante. [But] even if they did and were unkind to a little old lady on a bus, I will have failed as a teacher.' It was an odd thought, but it really stayed with me and it changed my life."

Dr. Forni turned his attention to civility: the norms that allow a society to function. He founded a civility initiative at Hopkins. His basic philosophy could perhaps be summed up this way: "It is very difficult to be terribly obnoxious to someone who is kind to you."

Last year he followed up his first book with a second: "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude."

"What happened is that after I published the first book, readers from all over the country and even other countries where book was translated, said to me, 'Well Dr. Forni you've told us now how to be considerate and kind, but what are we going to do if people are not considerate and kind to us?'"

The simple answer: Being polite doesn't mean being a pushover.

Why do so many of us have so much trouble being nice to other people? Dr. Forni lays the blame on technologies that put us in our own bubbles. "Many people today, especially the younger generation, act under a very simple, unspoken, but very strong, presumption: I have the Net; I have my friends in my social media, I certainly do not need you."

Wrapped up in the cocoon of our Facebook updates and Twitter feeds, we lose our ability to interact with the people we bump into in the grocery store checkout line, on the bus, in the movie theater.

"It is mindboggling," Dr. Forni said. "So many of us are ignorant of strangers, are not interested in entertaining contact with them in the human moment, because we are so absorbed by the Net."

There's also the fact that society's perception of what is acceptable behavior is always changing. The Victorians had very strict rules about public comportment, strictures that would be stultifying today. We seem to be at a crossroads, trying to find behavior that is acceptable to the majority.

"Those of us who toil in the field of social norms," said Dr. Forni, "are torn between the past and the future and are trying to steer a reasonable course between the nostalgia regarding a past that is idealized and never existed in the form we are idealizing it today and the future that may change to the point that will make life unrecognizable for those that are 50 and older."

I've noticed in my own humble work on Radical Civility that some folks wonder what the fuss is all about. During my online chats or in the Comments section of my blog, readers will sometimes ask: With so much going on in the world, you're concerned about movie texting? What's the big deal?

It's a reaction Dr. Forni is familiar with: "People who are intent on carving a space for socially acceptable norms are often portrayed as being spoilsports, as being stuck up, as being in urgent need of lightening up."

(Of course, being told to "lighten up" is a sure way of getting someone to "heavy down.")

Dr. Forni sees many costs to a society that can't figure out how it wants its member to treat each other. Businesses suffer from rude sales people. Stress is increased everywhere. Health costs go up. (Studies show that intensive care units with a reputation for being "rude" have a higher mortality rate than non-rude ICUs.)

Said Dr. Forni: "My message is very easily put in a nutshell: In order to have a long life, a serene, a happy, healthy life, we cannot do it alone.... We need social support. But in order to gain and maintain social support we need social skills and good manners."

In his latest book, Dr. Forni lists the top 10 rude behaviors. The list is heavy with workplace behaviors, including ones that are illegal (discriminating in an employment situation, taking credit for someone else's work), but "Using cell phones or text messaging during conversations or during an appointment or meeting" squeezes in at No. 10. He recommends a practice called "SIR" for dealing with rude people:

  • State the facts.
  • Inform the other person of the impact he or she had on you.
  • Request that the hurtful behavior not be repeated.

Do so politely, firmly and unapologetically. And do it sooner rather than later. You will be more effective and won't have to dread the prospect of doing it in the future.

The Dante scholar said he must live with the fact that some people are convinced he goes out of his way looking for rudeness, that he somehow relishes it. He's used to colleagues nudging each other at his approach, jokingly whispering, "Here comes Forni. We better behave."

And he knows he is being scrutinized. God forbid he should cut someone off on the Interstate or not give his seat up to an old lady on the bus. "Am I always polite, considerate and kind?" he asked. "I'm afraid I am not. Do I try to be? Yes, I try very hard. Do people have expectations of me that are sometimes hard to live up to? Yes, that is also true. That comes with the territory."

Tomorrow: How fares Howard County's "Choose Civility" campaign?

By John Kelly  |  July 27, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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Next: The Terrible Ten: P.M. Forni's Top Rudenesses. And Yours?


Sadly, I think, "throwing out the baby with the bathwater" has become the norm when dealing with matters of social conscience, civility, manners, etc. Why it could be seen as socially acceptable for any male over 8 to wear a hat indoors, on a plane or train, for instance is beyond me. But to say this to the great unwashed masses is to court scorn and ridicule for being "stuck up." It is no different with texting in theatres. How this is seen as different from any other behavior which would diminish either another patron's enjoyment of live or recorded entertainment or possibly disrupt a performer is not apparent to me.

Posted by: mfromalexva | July 27, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Great story John. This subject that is so close to my heart and life's work. If we can agree respectfully, regardless of whether we like each other or share opinions, that is one big step towards more harmonious personal and professional relationships. As Dr. Forni would say "Who does not want that?" I am in the process of launching a Discover Civility program in my community. Stay tuned for Cafe Civilite and Civility Gardens. Supporters and volunteers welcome.

Posted by: KYMSimage | July 28, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

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