Giving up your seat on a bus. Holding a door open for a stranger. Speaking softly as you gab on your cell phone in public.
To most of us, these seem like minor gestures, social customs we perform without thinking—if we remember to perform them at all.
But to P.M. Forni, they’re much more than that. For the past decade, Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, has been on a mission to renew Americans’ appreciation for “civility,” these kinds of everyday actions sometimes dismissed as mere politeness.
To Forni, acts of civility distinguish themselves from politeness or etiquette because they’re based on a fundamental ethical principle: respect for other people.
“Civility is a form of benevolent awareness of others,” he said. “When you tilt your open umbrella away from someone else’s eyes, that flick of your wrist is civility.”
Through public lectures, his 2002 book Choosing Civility, and his work as the director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins, Forni has tried to call more attention to civility’s ethical dimension. He emphasizes that a breakdown in civility often leads to social disharmony, and even violence.
“You start with a slight, and very often the aftermath of the slight becomes violent,” he said. “It’s what makes two drivers go from flipping the bird to a car chase to a resolution with fists or shooting.”
Recent surveys suggest that Forni is combating some strong trends in American society: An ABC news poll conducted earlier this year, for instance, found that 84 percent of Americans say they often or sometimes encounter people who are rude and disrespectful.
Still, Forni takes heart in the growth of school-based character education programs, which stress the respectful treatment of other people. The next generation of Americans must learn to practice everyday acts of civility, he believes, in order to form the strong social bonds necessary for a long and happy life.
“We need to be a part of networks of people for whom we care and who care for us,” he said. “If I were not afraid of sounding too guru-ish, I would say that civility, conceived as a set of benevolent social skills, is a matter of life and death.”