Civil words

Pier Massimo Forni is a professor of
Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who has launched an
unusual initiative – the Civility
. This is an attempt to bring urbane good manners to the American
scene in an era of road rage and shock jocks. He was gracious enough to give
MercatorNet some guidelines about how to be polite in an election year.

MercatorNet: An issue in this year's election campaign is politeness, or civility,
as you call it. McCain (and some of his advisers) is said to have a volcanic
temper while Obama projects himself as Mr Unflappable. Do you think that this
will affect the outcome?

Forni: Obama’s handlers will tell him to be more passionate in his attacks and
John McCain will be advised to watch his temper. That will make no difference in
the end because Senator Obama has already won.

MercatorNet: Do rudeness and anger actually motivate
people, as some campaign managers, and bosses, seem to think?

Forni: Rudeness
and anger are two different things. One can be rude without being angry and
angry without being rude. Anger can indeed be a motivating factor for a
politician. Good politicians convey the message that their anger is a justified
stance against injustice. They will define their anger rather than being
defined by it.

MercatorNet: In reading political blogs, I am sometimes flabbergasted at how quickly
debate turns into poisonous invective. Is the internet making us a ruder

Forni: The
internet is the product of societies with high levels of rudeness. In turn, it
contributes to societal rudeness. Are we making the internet ruder? Yes. Is it
making us ruder? Yes.

MercatorNet: I know that Americans fret about stemming a tide of national
boorishness. But my impression is that Americans are formal and polite compared
to other cultures. Kids don't say "Yes, Sir" and "Yes,
Ma'am" here in Australia. How do Americans score on a world scale?

Forni: In
my experience the average American child does not say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes,
Ma’am.” Those forms are more common in the Southern states. But I believe you
are right, Americans fare relatively well when it comes to manners. Europeans
do not think so, but they often focus on American informality mistaking it for
incivility. They tend to forget the formal side of the nation.

MercatorNet: Anger management courses are all the rage, so to speak, in the US and
elsewhere. Do these really do any good?

Forni: Yes
they do, but they are a reactive remedy. It would be much better to seriously
train our children in good manners, so that they would acquire the ability to
exercise restraint. Explosive anger would thus be prevented. No need for anger
management programs.

MercatorNet: In some circles, there is a feeling that manners and politeness are
elitist ways of subtly perpetuating class distinctions. How would you respond
to this?

Forni: The
genuinely polite person treats everybody with the same degree of respect and is
inclusive in his or her attitude towards people.

MercatorNet: As the election campaign heats up, have you any advice on how to debate
issues at the water cooler without getting heated?

Forni: Listen to the other person and look for points of
agreement. As you mention them, begin to qualify your approval and finally show
where your substantial disagreement (if any) lies. End the conversation in
cordial tones and with a smile, if you can. Remember that the elections come
and go but your job remains (one would hope). The colleague with whom you had
an unfortunate exchange of ideologically inflamed words? You will have to see
him or her every day at work. Detailed advice can
be found in my website!

P.M. Forni is director
of the director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University. His book, The
Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude
, was published in June.


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