Rules for considerate conduct

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Are there historical references or discourses about civil conduct?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?

I think they all take work Â- I think that all important things in life take work. Because they take work and take energy, what they give us becomes dearer to us.

[Rule No. 1,] the rule on paying attention Â- I think that that's the rule, in a way, from which all others descend. Pay attention to others. Because to be civil means to be always aware of others.... M. Scott Peck, the author of the bestseller book, "The Road Less Traveled," once wrote that the principal form that the work of love takes is attention. Notice the definition: "the work of love." You have to work at love, as you have to work at being a considerate person.

How do you account for things that seem to accompany modern life such as road rage and air rage?

Let me give you three causes. One is anonymity. We often live among people we do not know. When we do, we do not have much of an incentive to behave civilly, unfortunately, because we know that our transgressions will go unreported.

A second reason is stress Â- stress and fatigue. When we are stressed, we are less tolerant of others, we are less likely to listen to others, we do not have the patience of kindness. If you think of road rage, you have both factors: You do not know the person in the other car, you are protected in your cocoon of steel, and you think that you can get away with a show of finger puppetry or even worse Â- and rage can explode unchecked. But you also have stress, because you want to be at work, or you're late, or you want to get home at the end of a hard day. So it's a volatile combination of stress and anonymity.

But also, we live in the age of achievement. We are busy, we are ... target-oriented. And as we rush towards our professional goals, we don't think that we have the time to slow down for just being kind and considerate to other human beings.

How would you compare America's practice of civility to Europe's and to that of other parts of world?

I see my friends and acquaintances in Italy struggling with the same issues of everyday uncivil behavior with which we struggle. Europeans in general, I believe, are more formal than Americans, but more formal doesn't necessarily mean more civil. This country has a history of pursuit of equality that has made it more informal than, for instance, England or Italy, but we shouldn't mistake American informality for lack of civility.

Is there anything we haven't talked about that we should keep in mind when it comes to civility?

Every ethical system, from ancient times Â- from ancient Greece and Rome Â- until today, is based on a principle that philosophers call "the principle of respect for persons." The principle ... says that we should treat others as ends in themselves, and not as means to the satisfaction of our needs and desires.

This is the lofty abstract principle of respect for persons, but it is through civility that we put the principle into everyday practice. That's why I think civility is ultimately so important. [It's] essential to the survival and the thriving of civil society.

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