Johns Hopkins Civility Project Makes Peace Person to Person, Then Nation to Nation

Article excerpt

Pier Massimo Forni is a peacemaker, not between nations, rather on the fundamental level of individual personal relations. He's not a therapist, psychiatrist, or such. He's a master of the ameliorative skills that are as old as human society and, to him, more productive of social harmony than most people realize.

We're talking about manners, courtesy, civility.

Mr. Forni, a professor of Italian literature, was among those who a decade ago, spurred by widespread concern over the coarsening of society, created the Johns Hopkins University Civility Project. Its purpose was to learn what influence these old conventions retained in modern society. What is the effect of politeness and respect in the work place, and in more tightly closed aggregations like the military and prisons? What are the consequences of their absence?

Since then, Forni, who personifies the project, has gathered a modest fame: His book, "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct," is out in three languages. He gives talks on the mitigating power of politeness. He writes for major newspapers, goes on network TV and radio. His efforts have inspired programs to discourage incivility in two Maryland counties, complete with refrigerator magnets and bumper stickers reading, "Choose Civility." The Howard County, Md. library ordered 2,000 copies of Forni's book, "the biggest purchase ever made," says library spokesperson Christie Lassen. "Bigger than Harry Potter."

Similar programs have popped up in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota. Who knows, but perhaps a tsunami of benign intent is imminent, inspired by this mild and mannerly man from Treviso, Italy, who "came to these shores in 1978" with a master's degree in Italian literature from the University of Pavia. Eight years later, packing a PhD from the University of California, Forni landed at Johns Hopkins, where for the past two decades he has shared his knowledge of Giovanni Boccoccio, Dante Alighieri, and other Italian literary stars of times past.

In the mid-1990s it became evident to Forni, and many others as well, that civility was in retreat in America. Surliness was rife among waiters and clerks, customers, too; movies and TV were shot through with filthy language, reiterated by young people in school. Road rage emerged as a specific problem. Forni reached a conclusion: "I needed to concern myself with things that had more direct relevance to everyday life than 14th-century Italian prose." Thus, he acquired an avocation, which since has done nothing but grow.

Forni teaches a course he calls "Italian Matters, Italian Manners," the latest in a string of similar ones offered since his attention turned toward the disintegration of polite society. "We look at books of manners that had been produced in Italy in different centuries to understand the culture that produced them," he says, referring to tomes such as "The Book of the Courtier," by Baldesar Castiglione, and "Galateo," by Giovanni Della Casa, courtesy books from times past.

It sounds so ivory-towerish, considering that the professor, comfortable in his office on Hopkins' verdant campus, is far removed from the coarseness he is trying to smooth out, in this city so afflicted by violence.

So what do civility and manners have to do with all of that? Where's the relevance?

The professor doesn't bristle. He doesn't smile, either. His initial answer doesn't satisfy him, so later he e-mails a reformulation: "Acts of violence are often the result of an exchange of acts of rudeness that spiral out of control. Disrespect can lead to bloodshed. By keeping the levels of incivility down we keep the levels of violence down.... If we teach youngsters in all walks of life how to manage conflict with civility-based relational skills, we will have a less uncivil society, a less violent one."

So, his efforts go beyond measuring the level of boorishness that abounds these days. …