Choosing Civility

Many people seem to long for a simpler time, and when they are pressed to articulate what they mean, “respect for others” invariably is part of the definition. According to a study recently completed for KRC Research, 70 percent of Americans believe incivility in our country has reached crisis proportions. Professor P.M. Forni, who is founder of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, has captured ways for all of us to live well, reflecting that “a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another.” His book is Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. By modeling civility in our lives, Forni contends that we will be making our own lives better, for civility is fundamental to the making of a good, successful and serene life. In other words, being good is good for you.
So what is civility? It is to choose respect, empathy, and consideration of others at every opportunity—at work or in our personal lives. It also entails “an active interest in the well-being of our communities.” Forni expands on twenty-five rules of conduct, such as “acknowledge others,” “think the best,” “speak kindly,” “respect other people’s time,” “don’t shift responsibility and blame.” Our parents may have called these “manners” and indeed, Forni says, “Manners do the everyday busywork of goodness.”
Much of this seems to be common sense, but Forni notes, “common sense has taken eons to become common.” “Angrily contested parking spaces, cellular telephones ringing everywhere, offensive anonymous Internet messages, volleys of racial or homophobic epithets in the streets and out-of-control bullying in the schools; shrill fellow air travelers, narcissistic co-workers, yelling supervisors, pushy shoppers, surly salespeople, self-serving friends. . . .” In such a world, perhaps this sense isn’t common at all. To offset such a coarsening of our society, we need to choose civility.
Entire tomes are written about the philosophy of civility in society, but Forni’s work is practical and adaptable. What would make our community better? What would be the brightest sign of hope and promise for all of us? Certainly we could aspire to be known as the place where we all treat each other with respect, where our leaders speak to each other collegially, where our students refuse to bully each other, where kindness is paramount. To become such a community, reading this book (and perhaps discussing it with a group as we did recently at the library) is a good place to start.

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