The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 4, 2002
March 4, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 24


Forni Gives Readers a Guide to Civil Behavior

By Amy Cowles
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The driver's seat was a friendlier place to sit Sept. 12. Motorists used their signals when switching lanes, and their fellow drivers actually slowed down to share the road. Left-hand-turners were even given friendly "no, you first" waves from SUVs with the right-of-way. On the side streets, pedestrians were allowed in the crosswalks.

In and out of cars, people shifted gears from selfish to selfless behavior following the terrorist attacks, says Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Italian literature in the Krieger School's Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and an expert in civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society.

Pier Massimo Forni

"Americans say that they think they are kinder, they are more grateful for what they have and they express their love more after Sept. 11," Forni says. "Many people noticed, especially in the early weeks, that people were more disciplined on the road, they were tolerant of other people's mistakes. They seemed kinder, to smile to a stranger on the street, to derive solace from that. What remains to be seen is how long it will last."

Piqued in the 1990s by Americans' renewed interest in civility, Forni has devoted several years to the academic study of thoughtful behavior. After serving as an expert source for many news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp., Forni has written his first book on the subject, Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin's Press, March 2002). He will be signing copies of the book at 5:15 p.m. this Thursday, March 7, in the Johns Hopkins University Bookcenter, in the basement of Gilman Hall on the Homewood campus.

Writing with a mass-market audience in mind, Forni says he intends the book to be like the person who ran along next to you while you learned to ride a bicycle--an invisible, steadying hand. "You exercise these social skills until they become a second nature," Forni says.

The $20, 196-page hardbound book includes a list of 25 rules to give readers some direction. The rules are basic, common-sense suggestions that encourage readers to brush up on some of life's simple courtesies.

Take Rule No. 4: Listen.

"To listen to one another is one of the first duties that we owe to the people who are around us. When we listen, it means that we are paying attention," Forni says. "It's impossible to be considerate without paying attention."

And then there is Rule No. 6: Speak Kindly.

"We are uncivil when we forget the fragility of others, when we forget that the people with whom we are interacting are flesh and blood people who are easy to bruise, just the way we are," Forni says.

All the other 24 rules aside, Forni says it's important not to lose sight of your feelings, also known as Rule No. 17: Assert Yourself.

"I certainly didn't want to give the impression that being civil means being extremely meek and self-effacing," Forni says. "Expressing yourself, expressing your feelings, is part of the mental and emotional tool kit of the civil person."

Forni hopes Choosing Civility will give readers the basic skills they need to convey the respect they have for the people in their lives.

"In order to live a sane and serene life, we need good relationships. We need a network of social support," Forni says. "In order to gain and maintain social support, we need social skills. The rules of civility and manners give us the social skills that allow us to live well among others."

For more information about Forni's work, go to