I had not punched anyone since I was 15 years old. But as I stood in the lobby, I knew with icy certainty that had one of those boors followed me to continue the discussion, I'd have done something regrettable. Why, I ranted to my exasperated spouse, couldn't people behave properly anymore?
Add one more tale to the social archives of the Uncivil '90s. My response to rudeness in the cinema may not have been reasoned, but my frustration put me squarely in the mainstream. In 1996, U.S. News & World Report surveyed Americans about the condition of civility in modern society. Of the 1,005 respondents, 89 percent said that incivility was a major social problem, and 78 percent said the situation had worsened in the last decade. Ninety-one percent believed that incivility contributed to violence.
Everyone you speak to--everyone--has a ready anecdote to describe the latest outrage: rude and aggressive drivers; sales clerks who ignore customers; students who bring radios to class; kids who run unattended through restaurants; teenagers on the bus who swear like sailors; patrons of the arts who can't sit quietly through a concerto, much less a concert. We each have our list. And we each think that our manners are fine while everyone else's conduct has gone to hell.
For the last five years, Pier Massimo Forni has collected
information on this crisis of manners. The Hopkins professor of
Italian literature and culture is
fascinated by codified behavior, and by this current outbreak of
fretfulness and carping over incivility. A few years ago, Forni
shared his interest with Giulia Sissa, chair of the Hopkins
classics department, and the two of
them put their very civil heads together and cooked up the Hopkins Civility
Project. With $6,000 from the Maryland Humanities Council,
they collected research, created an undergraduate course,
initiated workshops, and organized a two-day civility conference
that gathered historians, philosophers, a semiotician, writers,
anthropologists, social researchers, humanities scholars, and the
popular commentator Miss Manners to discuss some salient
questions: Are we really acting like a bunch of pigs? Are we any
worse now than we've ever been? What is the relationship between
manners and morals? What, if any, are the codes of civility in
schools, in prison, in hospitals, in the military? Is there any
good reason why we can't simply behave better?
Forni and Sissa come at these questions for American society from foreign-born perspectives. Both are Italian. Stories about them and their project in the press rarely avoid describing their accents and manners as "charming" or "courtly." Ask Forni to explain what prompts his interest in etiquette and civility, and he replies, "I really don't know. It may come from the attention given in my family to proper behavior." That, and a desire to read outside the bounds of his usual literary studies (he is a scholar of Boccaccio, and a well-regarded poet in Italy, among other things), started him on assembling a collection of articles on American manners that has grown to stuff five cartons--what he calls "my low-tech civility archive"--in his Gilman Hall office.
He began buying books, whose titles form a sort of commentary:
The Lost Art of Listening, The Moral Animal, How Could You Do
That?, Looking Out for #1, Adult Bullying, Guide to Rearing
Perfect Children, and The Idiot's Guide to Etiquette.
Sissa brought to the proceedings her own fascination with human
social behavior, as well as her knowledge of the ancient world--
of the Homeric warrior code, manners in classical Greece and
Rome, and the roots of our moral sensibility.
"What interests me is how forms of sociability are constantly redefined. It's linked to my interest in social anthropology," Sissa says. "Let's see what's at stake in the transformation of society."
OUR MODERN IDEA OF WHAT CONSTITUTES proper behavior is an amalgam of concepts that date back to ancient Greece and Rome, Western society's Christian heritage, and the influence of such writers as Erasmus and the customs of European royal courts, especially the French court of the 17th century. Throw in the American Revolution, the effects of capitalism, and the modern ethnic congeries that constitutes the U.S. population, and the result is the present code of civility that so many of us think is in flux, if not under assault.
One of the first things that Sissa and Forni did, beginning last year, was create an undergraduate course at Hopkins that would examine the development of social codes, from antiquity to the present, from a variety of perspectives: historical, anthropological, and sociological. Students would read Homer, Euripides, Aristophanes, Boccaccio, Freud, the anthropologist Erving Goffman, and the sociologist Norbert Elias.
Sissa led discussion of Homer. The Iliad and The Odyssey contain much about the social rules of ancient Greece. "Honor and respect are absolutely fundamental in this time," says Sissa. "The gods require that you acknowledge their time, their honor, through ritual, through offerings. If you neglect this, the gods are vengeful, because they have lost face."
The same could be said for the Greek warriors. "In archaic
society, the threshold of what is considered rude is much
different from the threshold in a modern urban society, and the
threat of violence is always close. But the vocabulary of The
Iliad is about lack of recognition and deference." Five
thousand years later, respect, deference, and reciprocity
(another theme in Homer) remain important to the functioning of a
During the semester, the professors steered their class through centuries of social change. They noted that Aristotle, the Roman Stoics, and other classical philosophers preached moderation, and that the Christian thinkers who succeeded them espoused the same belief in self-control. But the Greeks, Romans, and later Europeans lived in immoderate times. During the Middle Ages, Europe still was a collection of warrior societies, in many respects. Feudal lords were the leaders of armed bands, ruling by violence. But in the 16th century, European monarchs began consolidating their power. As their dominions grew, they claimed a monopoly on violence. Feudal lords were now subordinate to the crown, interdependent parts of a broader realm, and their violent ways had to be constrained. "They could not afford to have duels every day," Sissa explains. "The enemy of today could be the useful ally of tomorrow."
This temperance of aggression by a code of civility is a central point of the 20th-century sociologist Norbert Elias. He argued in The Civilizing Process that as kings asserted authority, social pressure influenced individuals to adopt codified civil behavior, and what began as obedience to external authority became an internal mastering of one's aggressive impulses. Elias observed: "People, forced to live with one another in a new way, become more sensitive to the impulses of others. Not abruptly but very gradually the code of behavior becomes stricter and the degree of consideration expected of others becomes greater."
New rules evolved to govern how one behaved while at court. And over time, these rules filtered down to the masses. In 1530, the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus published On Civility in Children. It proved to be an extraordinarily influential work, reprinted dozens of times and translated into numerous languages. That a scholar of his reputation would take up the subject indicates how seriously European society was thinking about how to behave. Erasmus's book, actually a manual of a few dozen pages, addressed children but was widely read by adults. It drew on Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and Quintilian, as well as various medieval writings, and incorporated much of courtoisie, the rules of the court (from whence comes our word "courtesy"). The text covered bodily carriage, gestures, dress, and facial expressions. Don't dip your fingers in the gravy, he advised, because only peasants do that. If you have to blow the contents of your nose onto the ground, rub the discharge out with your foot. Do not expose without necessity "the parts to which Nature has attached modesty."
Following Erasmus, similar manuals proliferated. Part of the fun
of reading them is the picture that emerges of how people must
have been prone to behave, if authors felt compelled to point out
that certain actions were rude. For example, there is this from
the Brunswick Court Regulations of 1589: "Let no one, whoever he
may be, before, at, or after meals, early or late, foul the
staircases, corridors, or closets with urine or other filth, but
go to suitable, prescribed places for such relief." And from
Galateo, by Della Casa, in 1558: "Nor is it seemly, after
wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into
it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head.
...What, then shall I say of those...who carry their
handkerchiefs about in their mouths?" What, indeed.
STUDYING THE HISTORY OF MANNERS made it clear that civil behavior is socially useful. But is that all it is? A means for negotiating power, suppressing violence, and distinguishing oneself from the unwashed classes? Is there no moral component?
Forni and Sissa tackled this question one day in class, discussing Immanuel Kant's Ethics. Kant wrote of doing something as a means to an end versus doing something purely because it is right, regardless of your self-interest. He argued for the existence of a truth that transcends social considerations and should govern one's conduct. Sissa, who spent the mid-class break leafing through Miss Manners' Guide to the Turn of the Millennium, brought up its author's concept of the socially acceptable lie, a lie that violates truth but respects someone else's feelings. What would Kant say? Would the lie still be wrong? Is there no moral value in social grace?
Kant, Sissa said, would advise you to avoid associating with anyone to whom you might have to lie. "He ducked the question," she said.
Forni smiled and responded, "These slippery philosophers."
ON A COLD EVENING LAST DECEMBER, the Hopkins Civility Project headed for an unlikely venue: the Maryland Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison in Jessup. Sissa, Forni, a few of their faculty colleagues, and several students from their class made a sobering passage through the razor wire and several security gates. At the last one, we huddled in what amounted to a cage, waiting for the final gate to open. At least a hundred inmates all stared at us, and one bosomy young woman decided to keep her leather coat on for the remainder of the evening. This did not feel like a civil place.
Nevertheless, the Project was studying civility here. From the start, Sissa and Forni wanted to take their work beyond the academy. They enlisted Brenda Vogel, coordinator of the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries, to help create a five-week workshop in which inmates would read and discuss some of the same texts used by students in the Hopkins course. About a dozen inmates, all going by the first names written on name tags-- Eddie, Mandala, Steve, Ted, John, Z--welcomed us to a common area outside the prison library. We sat in a circle, and as Vogel moderated, they talked about their world, which sounded Homeric with its concepts of honor, deference, and violent vengeance.
There was a code in prison, the inmates agreed, though it didn't
always fit a conventional definition of civility. Said John, a
soft-spoken African American wearing a white skullcap, "I'm a
Muslim now, and I follow the Koran. I act within the limits I
place on myself and the limits placed upon me. But let's be real.
You don't take a lot of uncivil people, put them in an uncivil
place, and then expect them to start acting with civility."
By now, students and inmates alike had waded through a good part of Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, by anthropologist Erving Goffman. Goffman's central concept is of "face," the image of oneself that one presents to the world. Once I take on a self-image, expressed by face, I am expected to maintain it, to behave in a way consistent with that image. I must live up to my social identity. I am also required to respect your face, and to avoid anything that might damage it.
The inmates, many of whom were thoughtful, articulate, and in prison for life, knew all about face. Eddie said, "Face has a high premium here. You can't escape the consequences of losing face in prison. If somebody does something to you, and you don't address it, then you've lost face and you're going to suffer from it for the rest of your term. Remember, for an inmate there's nowhere to go. You're going to see that same guy at mealtime, in the weight room, in the yard. It's not like you can call the police."
Near the end of the discussion, the inmates complained that bad manners were on the rise in prison, especially among the young. Youthful inmates, they said, were receiving longer sentences, entering more crowded institutions, and receiving less education and access to social programs in prison. They were bringing the violence and volatility of the drug culture in with them. In so many words, the inmates agreed--manners were in decline. For them, it was not a trivial complaint. A few days before the workshop, an inmate had been stabbed to death in the room we were using.
IN A WRITING CLASS THAT I TEACH at Hopkins, one of my students
fumbles for a moment trying to ask a question, then says, "What
do you want us to call you?"
The part of me that is 44 years old is surprised that they don't just assume I want to be called Mr. Keiger. But I'm interested that although they don't automatically resort to a safe formality, they are still concerned with doing the right thing. They are informal, but not disrespectful. In their quirky way, they are deferential.
Deference is another of Goffman's big ideas. Goffman regarded face as a sacred thing. Each of us possesses an apportionment of the collective divine soul, and deference acknowledges it. Says Forni, "If I defer to you, I have acknowledged the spark of divinity in you. I have, in a small way, treated you as a god."
Most of us have not been treated much like gods lately. After sitting in on Forni and Sissa's class, I have a much better idea of where civility comes from, but not where it went. Are we really less polite than we used to be? And if so, what happened?
To my first question, Forni responds, "My answer is a provisional 'maybe.' This is a slippery area of inquiry." There's not much in the way of social science data, just a pervasive feeling that things have gone wrong. "When we talk about a decline in civility, we're often talking about a decline in established forms of deference." Students who aren't sure what to call teachers. Young people who do not surrender a seat on the bus to an old lady. "But we tend to overlook the gains we have made in other forms. Every generation develops new forms of respect, which in many cases take the places of other forms that are obsolete. This should not be forgotten." Young people, Forni points out, have much more concern and respect today for the environment. They are more conscious of not being condescending toward women, more sensitive to remarks that might sound racist.
But Forni notes that these new forms of deference do not all make up for the old forms that are disappearing: "The change is not all good and well. It's not that simple."
Adds Sissa, "We shouldn't be Pollyannish about manners. Manners are also a means of keeping certain people outside. If you take a country club in the 1960s from which Jews and African Americans were excluded, people there were experts at handling their forks. Maybe it was a good thing to lose some of what has been lost."
Forni may be reluctant to state for the record that our manners have degenerated, but all the same he offers an explanation for why it might be so. "I now have a much clearer appreciation of the roles that stress and anonymity play in shaping our everyday behavior," he says. "Take the case of behavior on the road that can lead to rage," Forni says. "Person B feels slighted by Person A, and makes a rude gesture with his middle finger. Afraid of losing face, A responds. Jostling may entail, or a collision. Fighting, even a shooting. Now, try to imagine that just as this incident is under way, the two motorists realize that they know each other. Unless they are sworn enemies, they will be immediately touched by embarrassment and cooperate in calming down. What happened? Taken out of the incident was a perilous element of volatility--the anonymity. And drivers bring their lives behind the wheel. It is the whole life that drives the car. If it's a life rife with frustration, pain, and anger, at times this will come out."
He sees other problems besetting American society and
contributing to our deteriorating manners: "What strikes me often
is the premium placed in this country on breaking the rules.
Individualism is glorified. 'I did it my way,' sings Frank
Sinatra, and the applause is universal. There is something
fallacious in this reasoning. What has always allowed great
thinkers to be innovative was a degree of stability in society,
based on conforming to norms. Encouraging a breakage of all the
rules caters to a sort of infantile dream. We are constantly
encouraged, young and old, by the messages we receive from media,
to disregard what we have been handed down from previous
generations, and to build on our own. This can be good.
Innovative thought sustains survival. On the other hand, one of
the hallmarks of the smart is to learn from the errors of others.
We have a lot of trouble doing that."
Concludes Sissa, "In a massive society like the one in which we live, I'm surprised, finally, that people are so polite."
IN THE DARKENED AUDITORIUM of Hopkins's Mudd Hall, the audience giggles at an old U.S. Naval Academy training film on the etiquette of dating. The film's narration advises the midshipman to be polite, but to show the girl that he's the decisive, I'm-in-command type by doing things like going through a door first instead of holding it for her. Apparently, the unfortunate date was supposed to be so dazzled by dinner with a naval cadet she wouldn't notice that he was acting like a self-important ass.
The film is an opener for a lecture on civility in the military, part of the two-day conference that is the culmination of the Civility Project. Scholars from Hopkins, the University of Bologna, the University of North Carolina, and other schools gather to discuss modern manners. The sessions are lively and comprehensible, despite the fact that humanities scholars can be hopeless when it comes to properly using microphones.
The sessions cover a lot of ground. Hopkins professor of philosophy Jerome Schneewind discusses how manners differ from morals. "Being corrected for manners causes embarrassment," he says. "Being corrected for morality will result in shame." His colleague, Hopkins professor of philosophy Susan Wolf, notes that good manners do not always reflect good morals. "At one time, men of education and manners could not see that rape was possible within marriage," she notes. Schneewind concurs: "It is said that the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman."
John Kasson, a professor of history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents research he has done on the history of civility in the United States. He asserts that there has never been a golden age of American manners. Some of the critics who bemoan their decline, he says, are nostalgic for the regulated behavior and lavish manners of the 19th century, "when people knew their place." In Kasson's view, what has been labeled "decline" is simply that people no longer behave as the Victorians did. Civility has always been challenged in America, he adds. First there was the American Revolution, a revolt not just against the Crown's authority, Kasson argues, but also against the social hierarchy of the Old World. The Founding Fathers envisioned a new order of benevolent aristocrats, but the public was less enthused by the idea and pursued a more egalitarian vision that sometimes saw the old civility as incompatible with democracy. Then came a second revolution, Kasson says: "The market revolution created new opportunities for economic and soical mobility. But it created its own class structures. Often, manners became a way of transmuting issues of class. You could disdain someone's class by saying 'he didn't know how to behave.' If class was the dirty secret of American society, manners is how it was laundered."
Judith Martin, Miss Manners, closes the proceedings with a witty
lecture. She notes, echoing Elias, that civility is the
second-oldest deterrent to violence, the first being the fear of
retribution. "It is the rules of etiquette that allow people to
debate," she says. "The stronger the social structure, the more
controversy it can support." She speaks of how American society
has tried expanding the law to govern rudeness, with measures
like campus speech codes. The law, she says, is a clumsy
instrument for manners: "Even I think it should be legal to be
Finally, she asks rhetorically, "Are manners better than they used to be? Yes. Are manners worse than they used to be? Yes. Blatant expressions of racism and sexism used to be considered cute." Now they are considered reprehensible. But... "Petty abrasiveness is everywhere, and that's what has everybody upset."
Well, the abrasiveness part sounds right, but is it really petty that I was ready to punch out some jerk in a theater lobby? What bugs us so much today? If you listen to everybody's stories, they are rarely about what could be called assaults, verbal or otherwise. Except for certain hygienic rules, there's a lot of civility and etiquette that doesn't matter beans regarding our basic survival. What's so maddeningly vital about all of this?
By the end of the Civility Project, I have arrived at this answer: acknowledgment. Though we can stand before mirrors and see proof positive of our existence, that's not enough. We crave acknowledgment. We cover our cars with stickers that announce our religious faiths, our alma maters, our hobbies, our sexual orientation, and our favorite radio stations, as if everyone else should care. We send announcements to "Class Notes," we call in to radio talk shows, and we wave like idiots when the television camera turns our way. We are part of an anonymous society in which we are strangers to our neighbors, hundreds if not thousands of miles from our nearest blood relatives, and one "rightsizing" away from losing our status as productive citizens. What hurts about incivility is that the person being rude to us has failed to acknowledge our existence. Humans are resilient. We can endure a lot. But damn it, we are here, and we crave the reaffirmation of that. Says Sissa, "We need this. It is as important as food. If there isn't this fundamental acknowledgment of existence, then we do not exist. We get the sense of our existence from others." And Forni: "By saying 'good morning,' you are telling somebody, 'You exist, and this matters to me.' Civility is a transcending of the self."
He and Sissa repeatedly point out that we are entering complex times. In the course of a normal day we may have to deal with three races, five nationalities, two sexual orientations, and lord knows how many deeply felt social allegiances. Civility is becoming more, not less, important. There are those who complain that etiquette is elitist, a form of ostentation or class oppression; they echo Jean Jacques Rousseau's opinion that manners veil natural honesty. As Americans, we seem to have an inherent feeling that a code of civility must perforce infringe on our individualism. But we cannot escape our need for acknowledgment, and acknowledgment begins with, "Hello, how are you? Let me get the door."
Perhaps the last word is left best to Miss Manners: "If there were ever a non-controversial topic, I would think it's, 'Hey...let's be a little nicer to each other.'"
Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
RETURN TO JUNE 1998 TABLE OF CONTENTS.