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
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. …