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. The Civility Project has assembled an archive of several thousand articles, books, and papers on the subject– not merely to convey the significance of ancient books on manners. Forni operates in the here and now: He is practical; he can teach you how to behave in the office, on the highway, at dinner parties, and in those uncomfortable moments when you are in proximity to, say, a lout at a concert.
"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."
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.