Though Pier Massimo Forni may jokingly refer to
himself as "a self-appointed manners maven,"
he takes civility studies very seriously. Ten years ago
this fall, Forni co-founded the Johns Hopkins
Civility Project — now known as the Civility
Initiative at Johns Hopkins — and heightened the
of our need to be kind to each other.
"The decline of civility is a social phenomenon that
is being discussed now with the frequency
and intensity that was not there 10 years ago," said the
professor, who is known professionally as P.M.
Forni. "That's a good thing."
Forni certainly has done his part to make that happen.
There are almost 100,000 copies in print
of his 2002 book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five
Rules of Considerate Conduct. It has been
translated into Italian and German, with a Chinese
translation in the works. Its follow-up, The Civility
Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, will be
published by St. Martin's Press next spring. In
addition to adding his own writing to the discourse, Forni
has been busy collecting hundreds of books
and thousands of articles to build a civility archive at
Johns Hopkins that is in the process of being
digitized and stored in the university's library.
"Professor Forni and the Johns Hopkins Civility
Project have been recognized here and abroad
for bringing serious thought and study to the important
issue of civil behavior in contemporary
society," said President William R. Brody on the occasion
of the anniversary. "The work done here at
Johns Hopkins University, and the avid interest it has
sparked, indicate that this subject is terribly
important to us all. I congratulate Dr. Forni for reminding
us that civility is not a narrow code of
conduct expected of a few but an obligation we all
Forni recently sat down with The Gazette in his
Gilman Hall office to discuss his devotion to the
art of kindness and civility, and how it intersects with
his role as a professor of Italian literature in
the Department of
German and Romance Languages and Literatures in the
Q: What led you to civility studies?
A: I was teaching my Dante's Divine Comedy
course to my students one day, here on the Homewood
campus, and I looked at them and a thought occurred to me
that had never occurred to me before.
The thought was, I want my students to know everything that
there is to know about Dante, but even
if they did and then they went out to be unkind to a little
old lady on a bus, I would think that I had
failed as a teacher. It was an odd thought, and it stayed
with me. And it made me think, What if
kindness is as important as art? What if kindness is more
important than art, for that matter? I
eventually felt comfortable pursuing work on civility not
only as a researcher but as an advocate.
Q: What prompted you to start the Johns Hopkins
A: When we [Forni and co-founder Giulia Sissa, then
chair of the Department of
Classics and now a
professor at UCLA] started the project in 1997, civility
was hardly part of the national discussion
agenda. Yet, I kept arguing to anybody willing to listen
that civility was an important, underutilized
resource. I had the good fortune that some people at the
university listened and provided us with the
means of starting research and community outreach
activities centered around the notions of civility,
manners and politeness.
Q: What is the Civility Initiative up to these days?
A: Over the years, we partnered with the Jacob
France Institute at the University of Baltimore.
First, we did the Baltimore Workplace Civility Study. And
we recently started to disseminate the
results of a new study, called "The Terrible Ten," which is
about the behaviors that Americans believe
to be the rudest.
Q: What did the results tell you?
A: At the top of the list is rudeness involving
strangers or co-workers. No. 1 is discrimination in an
employment situation, No. 2 is erratic or aggressive
driving that endangers others, and No. 3 is taking
credit for somebody else's work. That is a complaint that
comes up over and over again. It's a common
one, together with treating service providers as inferiors.
Q: What did you expect the survey to tell you?
A: I must say that I didn't have precise
expectations, but I was struck by how on the side of the
workplace these behaviors are. And in reality, so much of
our time is spent at work — we work at work,
we socialize at work, we goof off at work, we eat at work,
sometimes we sleep at work. And so work is
life, and we find that it impacts us very much, and we have
confirmation of this fact in "The Terrible
Q: How do people usually handle incivility in the
A: People will complain a lot É but not to the
person who has made the transgression. We complain
about that behavior with somebody else because we want to
avoid a confrontation. And it's really not a
Q: Why go out on a limb to confront somebody?
A: We teach others how to treat us by how much we
are willing to endure from them. It is better not
to endure even micro-indignities if they are really
bothering you. Find the strength of character to
confront that person in an assertive, nonaggressive way and
say, "This is what I feel. This is how I feel
when you say that, when you do that. I really wish you
didn't." If you keep everything bottled inside,
that person will do it again. And again. And again. And
some day you explode. And at that point, the
other person will say, "What is this? You never told me
that this bothered you so much. How was I
supposed to know?" So now you are doubly at fault, first
because you've exploded, and then because
you didn't say what you felt when you were the victim of
Q: Do your two specialties — Italian
literature and civility studies — ever intersect?
A: This semester I'm teaching Italian Matters,
Italian Manners, which is a course for undergraduates
in which we read a book of manners from every major period
of Italian culture, and we use it as a
window of society; in the spring, I'll be teaching a course
for our graduate students on books of
conduct of the Italian Renaissance. So I am wearing these
two caps. I continue to do my work in
Italian literature; I direct the Civility Initiative at
Johns Hopkins. And whenever possible, I put the
two together. After 10 years of living and breathing
civility, I'm still not tired of it. I'm still
enthusiastic. I still get up in the middle of the night
eager to start working on these projects.
Q: It sounds like civility studies led you to a
renaissance of your own.
A: They did energize and motivate me. I needed
something else in my life together with literature, and
I discovered that this something I needed was in the realm
of ethics rather than in the realm of
aesthetics. I think that in the first part of our lives, we
tend to pursue beauty, and in the second part
of our lives our interests turn to goodness. Working with
this wonderful form of gracious goodness
that we call civility presented itself as the obvious
choice for me — and I never looked back.