“I could listen to that man forever…,” said my colleague as we walked out of the Screening Room at the conclusion of P.M. Forni’s opening Keynote at 3 by the Sea on Tuesday morning. I couldn’t agree with her more, and that sentiment was echoed repeatedly in subsequent conversations. The lilting Italian cadences, his keen intellect and self-deprecating sense of humor, and his conviction to the promotion of civility in society provided the audience with much food for thought and encouraging ideas for positive action.
Dr. P.M. Forni
Beginning with two short video presentations, Dr. Forni illustrated the issues of civility inherent in modern society. The first featured a network news story detailing the “Incivility Crisis” and the implications of anger, rudeness, and impoliteness. The second was the country music video “Some Beach,” the tune by Blake Shelton detailing a host of incivilities and indignities suffered in daily life <http://www.cmt.com/videos/blake-shelton/ 33798/some-beach.jhtml>.
Dr. Forni is a man with a mission. Having taught classical Italian literature for many years, he told us that in the mid ‘90s, “something changed” as he came to an epiphany:, even if his students knew Dante inside and out, he would have failed as a teacher if his students were not kind people. It was a career- and life-changing moment, as he eventually found himself pursuing a new passion that had “direct relevance to modern life.” Was it part of a midlife crisis, he wondered. In keeping with the lessons of the classics, he decided that the second half of his life would be devoted to the “pursuit of goodness.” Thus, a symposium on civility was held at Johns Hopkins, and soon after, the Johns Hopkins Civility Project was born. This project has since grown into a multidisciplinary “Civility Initiative,” and has spread to campuses across the United States. Concerns are also shared internationally, and efforts to confront the problem are increasing all over the world.
Now, he says, civility is central in his life, and he joked about friends’ benevolent teasing with comments such as, “Here comes P.M. Better be on our best behavior now!” He also mentioned that his wife, Virginia, a librarian, also kids her husband good-naturedly about his concentration on virtue.
Civility rests on four straightforward cornerstone principles: Life is relational; Quality of life = Quality of relationships; Quality of relationships = Quality of our relational skills; Civility and good manners = Tried and true relational skills.
On the other side of the issue is rudeness, which is destructive in many ways. Incivility weakens our social bonds, erodes self-esteem, adds to stress, bruises relationships, weakens communities, and can very easily escalate into violence. It “poisons the workplace,” and current estimates place the cost of stress at over $300 billion per year, when we figure in healthcare, missed work, and other stress reduction issues.
Why is modern society so uncivil? Dr. Forni attributes this to individuals’ lack of self-restraint, as well as to the real or perceived urgency of personal pursuits, coupled with a lack of time. On top of this, modern society promotes a certain disregard for others, a “who cares?” attitude. In addition, anonymity (in personal vehicles, email, etc.) gives license for people to do things they would never do, were it not for anonymity. For example, a person might flip “the arrogant digit” at another driver, while never dreaming of doing the same thing to someone they knew. And, while we focus on self-expression and encourage self-esteem in raising our children, he cautioned about today’s culture that instills “oversize portions of self-esteem… trapped in a cage of narcissism.”
In order to live lives of civility and grace, awareness is key, as we must strive for a “benevolent awareness of others.” This fabric of awareness must be interwoven with restraint, respect, and consideration. The end result of this blending will be a world where “we care about others and we treat them well. “ A world of civility, which “boils down to a flick of the wrist,” says Dr. Forni, describing the simple movement one makes to protect another person from the umbrella points when walking in the rain. We must learn to “handle others with care.”
Three main arguments exist in support of civility. The first stresses that civility is very important, ethically, following the principle of “respect for persons.” Practically speaking, Dr. Forni urged us all to learn our manners, such as “congratulating a colleague who is not a favorite,” or “replacing paper in the copy machine… even when ONE page is left in the tray after our job is complete.” In other words, to practice civility is to do the “everyday busywork of goodness.” The second argument makes the connection between incivility and violence—a civil society is a less violent one. We “need to be part of nurturing groups,” and important parts of our social support systems, honing our social skills in order to survive and thrive. The third argument connects civility with overall quality of life, emphasizing that we need to connect with others in “circles of acquaintances and friendships” in order to be fulfilled and protected from isolation. While kidding about his “guru-hood,” Dr. Forni went so far as to say “Civility is a factor of life and death” to emphasize the importance of this topic.
In order to live a civil life, Dr. Forni has formulated 8 simple rules. First of all, slow down; learn to be present in your life. Next, listen to the voice of empathy within. Keep a positive attitude. Respect others, and grant people plenty of validation. Disagree graciously, and refrain from arguing. Get to know the people around you. Pay attention to the small things. And lastly—ask, don’t tell.
In some circumstances, we must respond to acts of rudeness—but we should do so sparingly. When necessary, Dr. Forni’s “SIR Sequence” is a useful tool. To employ this tool, first State the facts. Next, Inform the other person of the import of what happened to you, and thirdly, Request that the hurtful behavior not be repeated.
In summing up, Dr. Forni quoted Dale Carnegie, one of his heroes: “No matter what, never argue. If you lose, you lose. If you win, you lose.” In other words, beware of the Pyrrhic victory that comes from humiliating others in “winning” an argument. Never ever make others feel bad about themselves! Give human beings what they really want, which (as Carnegie and Freud put it, respectively) is “to feel good about themselves,” and “to get happy and remain so.”
To be your best with others, it is helpful to remember a couple of key points. Be on the lookout for “toxic stress,” and defend yourself from it. Get to know the people around you. Do not shift the burden of your own insecurity to others in the form of hostility. Think of yourself as a good and accomplished person who doesn’t have to prove their self-worth all the time. Perhaps most importantly, remember to SMILE! A smile is “a promise that we mean no harm,” and a gesture that acknowledges another’s existence. It is the “gateway to rapport that opens possibilities,” i.e. “the master key in the house of possibilities.”
Dr. Forni’s talk ended with the conclusion that civility and politeness boil down to commonplace consideration. Noting that there are two ways to be very successful in life (the first is to treat others very badly, the second is to treat others very well), he advocated the second, which, while it does take longer, leads to lasting fulfillment and strengthened social support networks. Often asked if the adage, “Nice guys finish last” is true, our speaker adamantly replies—“No! Not if they are also smart.” Goodness is good for others. Civility and politeness are good for others—and for us. Kindness is good for the kind. Ahhhh…. I could listen to this man forever.
For more information, please see JHU Dr. Forni’s Civility Website <http://krieger.jhu.edu/civility /index.html>.