Johns Hopkins Civility Project makes peace person to person, then nation to nation
Piero Massimo Forni sees being considerate to one another as the foundation for everything from the environmental movement to women's rights.
(Page 2 of 2)
"I've done work for the city's less privileged neighborhoods," he says, alluding to The Baltimore Workplace Civility Study. "We offered programs of relational relevance for men going from welfare to work, nonantagonistic ways to resolve problems, skills they can use to avoid alienating their bosses."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Among the techniques is the use of unchallenging "I statements" during encounters with supervisors and avoidance of accusatory "you statements." Forni explains: "If I say to the boss, 'The way you treated me was terrible,' he can simply deny it. End of discussion. But if I say, 'When you do something like that, my feelings are hurt,' the person addressed cannot deny you have these feelings. The discussion continues."
Forni also advises workers who bring a problem to their supervisors to also bring a solution. "If you say you have to leave work early to take your kid to the doctor, you also should say you have someone to cover for you."
Such tactics seem necessary: One finding of the Workplace Civility Study of 2003 was that most of the bullies in the workplace are supervisors.
During an interview, Forni takes a call from a California radio station: A young woman related how she'd dealt with another woman behind her at a Bruce Springsteen concert, whose yelling drowned out "The Boss" himself. After several polite requests to the woman to lower her voice, to no avail, the caller turned and stared directly into her nemesis's eyes – and kept staring until, finally unnerved, the screamer stopped.
"She avoided exacerbating the situation," says Forni, beaming at the obvious ingenuity and "social intelligence."
A philosophical man, Forni has his own idea of the social evolution of humans: "I think that the first part of our lives we spend searching for beauty. In the second part we seek to be useful. We tend to think of the ethical values of life. We seek goodness."
Forni recently began thinking of civility as broader than one person being considerate to another. He sees it in the growing respect for the environment, and the manifest acceptance by men of women as equals.
People rightly think of politeness and manners as rituals performed for the benefit of others. Forni offers another perspective: "Good manners ... are also something we do for our own sake. They are good for us because they help us manage our relationships, which are crucial to our health."
Health? For an article published in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, Forni turned to a number of scientists, clinical psychologists, people involved in mind-body medicine, and learned that angry confrontations, such as those that occur at work or the family dinner table, cause biological reactions that induce stress on the cardiovascular system and tend to elevate blood pressure. Congeniality, consideration for others, lead to more salutary outcomes.
Considering the energy Forni has invested in the civility project, it would seem that his avocation has almost subsumed his vocation as teacher and scholar, not that the two are incompatible.
Asked about this, Forni offers two questions for consideration, both rhetorical: "What if kindness is as important as art? What if kindness is more important than art?" He pauses, then says: "When all is said and done, it is the latter."
Forni's intellectual and personal evolution probably springs from his lifelong admiration for American culture, starting in his boyhood in postwar Italy. He read the works of Hemingway, Roth, and J.D. Salinger, was influenced by American films of those times, and "grew up with the myth of America," the unstained image
What might a man of this sort do when confronting the deterioration of that image? Take a hand in making it well.
On May 10, this year, Pier Massimo Forni became an American citizen.