Campaign for Courtesy Gets Attention, Funds
'Choose Civility' Is in Its 2nd Year

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

The "Choose Civility in Howard County" movement all started with a craving for kindness -- and a book.

Over the past year, the Howard County Library system has purchased 2,000 copies of the slender volume "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct" by P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University.

The book, featuring three rules about speaking kindly, apologizing earnestly and being agreeable, has been widely distributed and discussed by students, civic leaders and reading groups. A supply of 17,500 green "Choose Civility in Howard County" car magnets is dwindling, and thousands more have been ordered. "They've flown off the tables," said Howard County Library director Valerie J. Gross.

"I think we've touched a nerve," Gross said. "People are longing for civility."

She hears stories, too, about people remembering that they have the magnets on their cars and driving more politely.

"I myself chose civility yesterday with United Airlines after they changed my itinerary four times," she said with a smile.

The campaign has gathered dozens of corporate, civic and charitable partners, and thanks to a new $10,000 grant from local philanthropies, the Choose Civility campaign, originally planned for a single year, will continue for a second.

The library is hosting a free Choose Civility spring symposium May 14 at the Grace Community Church in Fulton.

And library educators are leading Kindness Counts programs for children, such as one recently for 80 second-graders from Cradlerock School at the library's East Columbia branch. The children listened to a story about neighborliness -- "Do Unto Otters" -- and played games that reinforced its lessons.

"Who can tell me what kindness means?" asked Stacey Freedman, children's library services supervisor.

"Respecting others," Kyle Heflinger suggested.

"Don't push or shove," Robert White offered.

Thoughtfulness has been part of the lesson plan for the past month at the school, teacher Sarita Campbell said, with each of the children trying to perform 100 considerate acts.

"We really saw the kindness come out," she said.

A Canadian film crew making a documentary about manners was on hand for the library lesson. The same craving for civility that inspired Forni's book and Howard's movement is what helped launch the film project, director Bree Tiffin said. She had experienced a particularly bad day in traffic when she came up with the idea.

"Why don't we do something about rudeness?" she asked.

And like so many Howard residents, she was drawn to Forni's message: Modern society's focus on self-esteem has resulted in widespread narcissism, self-absorption and even bullying that constitute the opposite of civility.

Forni encourages readers to honor the existence of others by allowing fellow drivers to merge, saying good morning to co-workers, listening attentively and respecting diverse opinions.

"Civility requires work and dedication," he writes. Yet following the rules, distilled through centuries of civilization, can provide "a path to serenity and contentment."

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