In the mid-1990s, P.M. Forni started thinking about civility. A literary scholar for 25 years, with a specialty in 14th-century Italian narrative, Mr. Forni found himself hungering for more of a connection to the everyday lives of his fellow human beings.
He began noticing a spate of articles in the media about a perceived decline in civility that was being called the "coarsening" of America. "I became really enthralled with the issue of civil and uncivil behavior," says Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
In 1997, he cofounded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, an aggregate of academic and community outreach activities that assesses the relevance of civility, manners, and politeness in contemporary society.
He began doing monthly radio commentaries for the National Public Radio affiliate in Baltimore, and recently drew together years of research, notes, and commentaries into a book, "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct" (St. Martin's Press, $20), a slim volume filled with observations about how to live more civilly in an evermore-hurried society.
Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Forni.
When did civility first enter human society as a concept, as something to be desired?
The best way of answering [that] question is to go to the origin of the word. Civility has the same origin as the word civilization, in the Latin word that means city. So essentially, the notion that if you lived in the city, if you lived among others, you needed to be aware of certain rules of conduct, has been with us as long as there have been cities ... in which one could be civil or uncivil.
Are there historical references or discourses about civil conduct?
Just about every era in human civilization has put together books of conduct, has elaborated rules of considerate and civil behavior. We find these rules in the Bible, we find them in the Middle Ages, we find them in the books of courtesies of the Renaissance. And, of course, they were very big in the Victorian age.
Why does civility matter?
For a number of reasons. One of them is that very often those acts of violence for which we have documentation are born of an act of incivility or an act of disrespect. Many studies have shown that there is a spiraling of an act of incivility into an act of physical violence.
[Incivility also] takes a toll on the quality of our everyday lives. Acts of incivility add up, and at the end of the day, they make a difference in our ability to say, "I had a good day."
And in a much larger scope, we know that in order to have a sane and serene life, we need to be part of a network of people who care for us and for whom we care. We need what sociologists call "social support." But in order to be able to gain social support, we need social skills: We need to be pleasant and considerate enough so that others will want to keep us around.... So what I've done in "Choosing Civility" is to identify the essential rules that give us the skills allowing us to live well with the people in our lives.... We need to learn them. We are not born with them.
Of the 25 rules for social conduct in "Choosing Civility," is there one that's easiest? …