Civility is one of those genteel concepts that seems always to apply to ages past, but never to us. It’s the same way we see rudeness in general — you’re rude, but I’m not.
These feelings span the ages, however. There are tomes of 14th century Italian literature that deal with civility and manners appropriate for young ladies, decrying what has become of the politeness that society used to embrace.
Pier Massimo Forni knows this because he’s been a scholar of Italian literature and culture for decades. And before that he was ensconced in Italian literature at home. Having grown up in Italy in the 1950s and ‘60s, Forni says he developed a sense of what was polite and what was not through the norms of his society. One of the biggest social crimes? Writing an anonymous letter. It was an act seen as so cowardly that even today, Forni says “it’s an outrage.”
But P.M. Forni is no mere observer. He is the architect of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1997, and one of the country’s top authorities on what it means to have a polite society. His work in the field, in fact, has led to New Jersey getting its own civility project at Rutgers University. On Wednesday, September 29, at 8 p.m. the school officially launches its two-year Project Civility at its College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick with a presentation by Forni. The event is open to the public and free to attend. Visit www.projectcivility.rutgers.edu.
Forni will address the school, which will seek input from its students and the community over the next two years about how polite we are (or aren’t) and how our behavior affects society, the workplace, and home life.
The genesis of the Rutgers program is philosophy professor Kathleen Hull. More specifically, her daughter Allison. Now 25 and studying naturopathic medicine in Portland, Oregon, Allison was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire when she read Forni’s first book, “Choosing Civility.” At the time Hull was teaching at NYU, and she read the book on her daughter’s advice. Hull was so impressed, she developed a course — “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — in civility at NYU.
But she never got to teach it. She moved to Rutgers before it got off the ground and immediately thought of how a similar program could be built there. Last year she hosted a seminar on civility that attracted a group of 20. She then developed the more formal Civility Project with colleague Mark Schuster.
If 20 people doesn’t sound like much, it’s because it isn’t. And when Hull sought a partner to help her develop the Civility Project, she found few people eager to see it off the ground. People do not seem to like getting behind such projects until they become established, Hull says. And then they take on a momentum all their own.
This is what is happening at Rutgers now, she says. People are starting to realize that a project geared toward bringing a measure of civility to society is a good idea.
About those anonymous letters. Visit a website that allows public comments and you will see the worst society has to offer. Foul language, rude remarks, and purposely obnoxious statements pepper the comments logs of the most benign content, not just the politically charged.
For Forni, this is the height of rudeness, but also indicative of how uncivil behavior starts — with a potent one-two punch of stress and anonymity. Think about road rage. Someone cuts you off and the two of you “engage in some finger puppetry” because neither of you sees the other as a person.
But a curious thing happens when people find out they know each other, Forni says. They become embarrassed. “You still have the stress, but you’ve removed the anonymity.” We become less likely to do uncivil things when we know the other person because we are able to consider the possibility that the other person might be at the end of a bad day.
Online, however, is a Petri dish for rudeness, Forni says, because of the level of anonymity and the abundant access to content built to raise your blood pressure. If we can curtail our urge to vent online, it would go a long way toward a more polite society. Then again, familiarity is no guarantee of civility.
In the workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are nearly 2 million acts of physical aggression committed in the American workplace every year. And while it’s true that familiarity lowers the chances that we will get in someone’s face, it is also true that the confinement and everyday pressures of the work environment can lead people to do terrible things.
And that’s just physical aggression. Who knows how many acts of general incivility — a small slur, some passive-aggressive sniping, gossip — occur per year. “Probably billions,” Forni says.
And we accept it. We shouldn’t, but we do, Forni says. It is ironic, because we’re trying to avoid confrontation with people familiar to us. We let things fester until one day someone pushes the wrong button and we blow up. “And then what happens?” he asks. “The other person says ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And now you’re doubly at fault because you never said anything.”
One of the key ways to combat uncivil behavior in work, at school, or online, is to address the person being uncivil, Forni says. It is a system he calls SIR — state, inform, request. State the problem, inform the person why you took offense, and request he not do it again.
Most people will respond to this positively, Forni says, because people do not actually like to be rude. Sometimes, he admits, you get a nasty person who will not listen. His advice: “God help you.”
The best defense. There are some people who get along with everyone. They are so nice that no one wants to be even remotely unpleasant around them. This, says Forni, is the best defense — to prevent rudeness from happening by being someone to whom no one wants to be rude.
A measure of cultural understanding helps too. Americans are often criticized by people from other countries for being rude. Forni thought this way too. Back in the late ‘60s, when he came to the states to get his Ph.D. in Italian literature from UCLA, Forni had to go to the doctor. A nurse opened the door and said, “Pier, the doctor will see you now.”
Forni thought this was terribly rude — calling a stranger by his first name — and he spent the evening ruminating on how boorish Americans were. But the next day he got on a bus and saw something he had never seen in Europe — people were saying good-morning to the bus driver and thanking him for dropping them off. He realized that Americans are not rude, they are simply informal.
“Europeans make this mistake all the time,” he says. He recommends a little understanding and a willingness to concede that someone else might see the world differently from you.
Meanwhile, back at Rutgers. Hull says she and Forni are soulmates in how they see the importance of a civilized world. Hull, in fact, cites President Obama’s call for a more civilized dialogue as part of a healthy society as a major source of inspiration.
It all sounds academic, she admits, but Hull says there are very real consequences to uncivilized behavior. Small, seemingly trivial slights can mount up and manifest themselves as lost work time, violence, and the stalling of progress.
“I think it takes a lot of courage to talk about this,” she says. Conversations on morality tend to be scoffed at outside of religious institutions, and such topics often are viewed with mistrust. Civility, like patriotism, after all, can be used to mask unsavory motives.
But, says Hull, the topic is as relevant as ever, and even more so as we still make our way in a newly digital world. There are, after all, no rules to guide us in how and when to talk on our cell phones or respond to an online post.
“We’re looking to generate the conversation,” Hull says.