Monday, Sept. 22, 11 a.m. ET

The Civility War

Dan Zak and P.M. Forni
Washington Post Staff Writer; Professor, Writer and founder of the Civility Initiative
Monday, September 22, 2008; 11:00 AM

Post staff writer Dan Zak and Civility Initiative director Dr. P.M. Forni were online Monday, Sept. 22 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss why it's important to treat each other civilly and how to get people to choose good behavior.

A transcript follows.

Forni is a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Choosing Civility" and "The Civility Solution."


Dan Zak: Good morning. I'm here with Dr. P.M. Forni, whose resume is somewhat more accomplished than mine. He's a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, founder of the Civility Project and author of "Choosing Civility" and "The Civility Solution." He's officially pondered civility for almost a decade now, so here's your chance to pick the brain of a leading authority on the matter. I'm also happy to answer questions about my reporting.


Arlington, Va.: Is there really data that says we're less civil today than we used to be or is this just another "trend" built on anecdotes that the press loves to play up? If there really is evidence, what are the causes?

P.M. Forni: There is plenty of evidence that we are dealing with plenty of rudeness. Less civil than we used to be? Difficult to say for certain. Causes: anonimity, stress, lack of time, lack of restraint.

Dan Zak: My story was not about how we are less civil today than any other point in history; as I quote Dr. Forni, comparing eras is impossible to judge. My story is about how we're refining the "art" of encouraging civility: through codes of conduct, independent associations, and academic initiatives like Dr. Forni's. The trend isn't how we're more or less civil. The trend is about how we're institutionalizing civility.


Lewes, Delaware: What produces a nice person? What produces a rude person?

P.M. Forni: Natural inclination is a factor. Good parenting and good schooling are very important factors as well.


Washington, DC: I almost witnessed a fistfight last week because a man perceived a woman cut in front of him in line at a CVS, complete with use of the "F" word. What gives?

P.M. Forni: When stress and anonimity work together situations like this happen.


Squeakly Wheels: In my experience, the loud and boorish gets results in basic transactions...gets the upgrade, the free dinner, the whatever. Is this because there are no incentives for good behavior? Because service is so degraded that the only way to get attention is to be horrid? Because there's no shaming and public retribution or strangers to come to someone's aid so there's no repercussion for treating someone poorly so folks get away with it? Because people who feel entitled are those who have gotten ahead and done well and made money and too often doing so requires being a jerk (think classic Wall Street stereotype)?

P.M. Forni: No doubt the explanations you give can explain many instances of rudeness. It is also true, however, that one can get results also by being considerate and kind. It is a skill that I describe in The Civility Solution: What to Do when People Are Rude.

Dan Zak: You've highlighted an obnoxious social conundrum. I think the loud and boorish get results because customer service reps want to resolve a sensitive situation as quickly as possible. As far as incentives for good behavior, those should probably come earlier. Like during toddlerhood. For adults, the incentive should just be the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you are selflessly kind to someone. That movie "Pay It Forward" makes me vomit, but the basic premise is, well, a good one. Being civil can be contagious.


spot the err, OR: Dear Dan and P.M., I am extremely polite to everyone all the time. Why is everyone else so rude? I just can't understand why others are not as polite as I.

P.M. Forni: They may have not been trained in good manners. They may have less self-control than you do. They may be reacting to stress. They may shifting the burden of their insecurity upon you in the form of rudeness.

Dan Zak: Is this a trick question? Looking at life with an "I'm better than everyone" attitude ain't a good starting point. I'm no expert, but I think civility and politeness can't be preceded by haughtiness.


Washington, D.C.: Would you recommend that a university adopts a civility code? What would be a model civility code? What population would this be targeted to -- the faculty, staff, or students?

P.M. Forni: What about a pro-civility statement instead? Directed to everybody on campus.


Montclair, NJ: Dr. Forni,

Civility isn't enough. A more active behavior is needed, to achieve truly civil society. This will involve actively seeking out others to give help and give thanks -- not just waiting passively until social situations require civil interaction.

What would you think about adding a 26th rule? Actively seek out others, give them help, and give them appreciation.

Thank you!

P.M. Forni: My idea of civility includes your definition. However, you are right, it would be a good idea to make this explicit. Thank you for your suggestion.


DC: Aren't there occasions when rudeness is required: when customer service isn't servicing, when an individual is having a cell phone conversation in the quiet car, when civility has failed?

P.M. Forni: It is in those very circumstances that we must find the strength non to respond to rudeness with rudeness. See my book The Civility Solution.


Rockville Md.: Hi Dr. Forni,

I just began a new job and one of my co-workers, who is junior to me, has repeatedly raised her voice at me in public and in the office. I really don't know how to handle such rude behavior. So far my responses have been silence, because I'm stunned. How do I handle this without going down to her level?

P.M. Forni: State what happened, inform the other person of the impact that his or her action had on you, and request a change. May I suggest that you check out my book The Civility Solution: What to Do when People Are Rude at your local library? I think it would help you prepare yourself for this assertive course of action.

Dan Zak: Again, I'm not expert, but I've always found it's best to talk it out. Go to lunch with your co-worker and just be honest. This has always worked for me.


Miss Manners: I'm trying to hold back on the sarcasm, but if the Post was so concerned with the topic of civility, why did they stop carrying Judith Martin's Sunday Miss Manners essays?

Dan Zak: Judy, is that you? Get over it.

(Ha! Just kidding. Don't kill me, Miss Manners. Look: I have no idea if or why the Post stopped running Miss Manners' essays. If you're deeply concerned about this, e-mail to register your complaint. As for the Post being "concerned" about civility, let's not personify an inanimate object. We at the Sunday Source came up with the idea for the story not because we are "concerned" about civility, but because we thought it would make for an interesting report and topic of discussion.)


Pittsburgh: How do you feel about the concept of enlightened self-interest? Do you think it's effective in getting people to realize they can sometimes actually get further ahead by being courteous instead of rude?

P.M. Forni: I am all in favor of it. I suggest that you go to my website and look for the article The Other Side of Civility, which to a large extent is about enlightened self-interest.

Dan Zak: Find the article here:


What to do?: What's the best way to combat incivility when you encounter it? Is it just a leading by example situation or is there something you can say or do to step in? I would think that saying something would be a good step, but that is easily ignored or can quickly escalate. Thanks for any tips.

P.M. Forni: It really depends on the situation. I address this topic in my new book The Civility Solution. We cannot fight all battles. Sometimes it is better to ignore the slight. However, do not make a habit of it. Assertiveness is very important. We need to teach others how far they can push the envelope with us.


Madison, Wisc.: Hello -- What is the best response when confronted with verbal rudeness? Or, when someone steps in line in front of you?

P.M. Forni: I address this very topic in The Civility Solution: What to Do when People Are Rude. See the SIR sequence (State, Inform and Request:

State the problem

Inform the other person of the impact the probleem has on you

Request change

Dan Zak: Sounds easy, right? The hard part is actually doing it. But it's better to act politely than to not act and stew in aggravation.


Bethesda, Md.: Dear Dr. Forni: I found the article about your work in the Post very refreshing, and refer to the list of ways to act civilly often. I find that when I am tired, hormonal, frustrated, or otherwise not feeling like my usual self, I tend to get snippy and be short with people. Do you have any tips for being civil in these types of situations, when you're a bit out of whack?

P.M. Forni: A good physician is more qualified than I am to answer this question. Rest assured that what is true for you is true for millions of other people. TRy to reduce the levels of toxic stress in your life.This would be a good beginning.

Dan Zak: Alinda Lewris, founder of the International Association of Protocol Consultants, said in our interview that she simply allows herself time before she responds to a situation. By pausing before you speak or act, you give yourself an opportunity to settle down a bit and avoid an irrational response. Again, this sounds simple. But the more you do it, the more natural it will become.

Also, for those joining us who haven't yet read my story, you can get it here:


Manassas, VA: What about with family? I have two siblings that think all I do is want to fight, when really, that's not true! There was a lot of dysfunction growing up that none of us had control over, but if I talk to them about it I get blown off. However, I get yelled at and no one seems to think that's wrong. How do you maintain civility with family when you feel that tension?

P.M. Forni: Talk, talk, talk. Ask another family member you all like and trust to help mediate. Doing nothing will accomplish very little.


I apologize: You are right. I took out my frustration at being deprived of the great Judith Martin's timeless wisdom and priceless prose on you, and that was wrong of me.

Dan Zak: Ha! Lovely. Miss Manners 4eva.


South of the Beltway: It never ceases to amaze me how incredibly rude bloggers are, especially on blogs at the Washington Post. Two major examples -- 'On Balance' and 'On Parenting.' It scares me to think what horrible children are being produced by those posters.

Also -- how do you ask someone (like a coworker sitting at the next desk) to stop a very annoying habit. I have two coworkers within earshot of me. One clears her throat EVERY FIVE SECONDS. Drives me nuts. Another complains constantly about every ache and pain. One day it's a shoulder, the next day it's a bunion. Then it's an elbow. I try to ignore her but she'll stop at my desk and stand there until I acknowledge her, then she starts the litany of aches and pains. I don't want to be rude, but these people just don't realize how annoying they are.

Dan Zak: The Post's online comment sections are often plagued by incivility, venom, bigotry and/or idiocy. There is a constant discussion within the newsroom: do we allow people their freedom of speech, or do we try to spare our readers the truly offensive, purposeless rants? The Internet is all about anonymity, which is one of the four main causes of incivility, according to Dr. Forni. If you're anonymous and immune from repercussions, then you're more likely to act inappropriately. Our Web site allows readers to report abusive comments, which are then sometimes removed by administrators. But this alone doesn't deter people from writing what they want. It just goes with the territory, I guess. As for your workplace situation, I'll let the doctor prescribe advice:

P.M. Forni: Choose your battles. If the other person's behavior is really problematic, speak to him or her in private and very tactfully state, inform and request:

You may not be aware of it, but you clear your throat often

I am sorry, but I find this very distracting. It makes it difficult for me to concentrate

Would you please keep this in mind and refrain from doing it?


Pittsburgh: I take issue with the notion that the obnoxious among us get better results from customer service personnel. My husband is unfailingly polite in his interaction with customer service representatives. He may be very angry about a problem but he sets that aside and approaches the problem with exceedingly gentle manners. I, on the other hand, have been a bit of a hot-head on occasion. His results have been much better than mine so I have modified my approach and see a positive outcome more frequently.

Dan Zak: Your husband sets a good example. And I didn't mean to suggest that obnoxious people are always good at getting results; I posit that they are good at forcing customer service reps to act quickly. I guess it depends on the temperament of the actors in any given situation.


Rockville, Md. again: Thanks! I'll make sure to read your book before I speak to her. Lunch is a good idea, intimidating but a good idea.

Dan Zak: You'll be happy you did it.


Springfield, VA: I find that my school-age kids are less polite than I would like, especially in social situations. I always tell them that the most important thing is to be nice and that the way they behave can have a positive or negative impact on someone elses day (sort of a "pay it forward" philosophy) but it doesn't seem to sink in. Part of the problem, I think, is the the informality of the way kids talk to adults these days. Any advice in helping me train my children to be more polite?

P.M. Forni: Use the notion of fairness, one that is dear to them. Show that being rude is tantamount to being unfair to the other person. Ask your children if we bruise only in our body or also inside. They will say that one can bruise inside. Do we like it when someone makes us bruise inside? No. Do other people bruise as easily as we do? Yes. Then we must be careful with our words and actions so that we don't hurt others.


Re: Squeaky Wheels...:

I recently had a problem on an Air Tran flight. But I did not get mad, loud, or boorish. I just calmy and politely discussed the matter with the agent supervisor. Even before I started, I remarked how friendly the agent supervisor looked. Not only did I end up getting a free ticket but I also got a free hotel room at the Crowne Plaza; a very nice hotel.

So, I would have to disagree with Squeaky Wheels. Civility can earn one rewards; although this is not to suggest that civility should not only be practiced in anticipation of rewards.

Dan Zak: It certainly is easier to "reward" a nice person than it is a mean person. I think we all learned this from Sesame Street, but sometimes we forget as we age.


Arlington, Va.: Can we go back to the Squeaky Wheel observation. How do you deal with the rude, loud , boorish at a professional meeting? We seem to be in the throes of incredible bullying in professional meetings with those who want others to recognize there authority, while poisoning all interaction with this type of behavior. How do you call them on it while not resorting to same behavior?

P.M. Forni: This problem would require an entire workshop. Allow me to suggest that you check out my book The Civility Solution at your locar library. There is plenty of information in it on how to handle incivility and hostility in the workplace.


For the person whose coworker raises their voice: What about saying to the person, "please do not raise your voice to me." I know its easier said than done but maybe they don't realize how loud they are getting? Or maybe a simple "Please do not talk to me that way."

P.M. Forni: Yes,this is a situation that requires assertiveness. Among other things, raising one's voice at work is unprofessional.


Sometimes it is better to ignore the slight: While no one method works all the time, I find this -- along with refusing to argue at length -- can elicit more sympathy from witnesses to an event where one is treated rudely. Sort of the old "There but for the grace of God go I" phenomenon. In other words, the rude person can win the battle but lose the war.

P.M. Forni: Very true about ignoring the slight; and very true about refraining from arguing


Boston: Could you elaborate on the relationship between civility and respect? What you describe as a loss of civility in superficial interactions I see as some peoples' disrespect for anyone other than themselves. Thank you!

P.M. Forni: Respect is part of civility; disrespect is part of rudeness.

Dan Zak: During one of my interviews with Dr. Forni, I asked him to tell me the difference between civility, etiquette, protocol, etc. Here is his answer, from my notes:

"Civility is a larger umbrella term and the best way to understand the cloth of this umbrella -- what this umbrella is made of -- is to think of the origin of the word. The etymology of 'civility' rests in one of the Latin words for 'city' -- not the city of mortar and stone but the city of flesh and blood, the body politic, the state, the community. The word is 'civitas,' which is the same word that gives us 'civilization.' So civitas really means 'the community.' So first and foremost the civil person is the good citizen and the good neighbor."


Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for having this discussion. My dear mother always noted that being civil did not assure that I would "win" in life, which is very hard for people to accept. The obnoxious often do get their way, speeders on the highway often do get there first and aggressive people can earn more money and have nicer homes.

Living your life well and being kind to others may be the only reward you get. Serenity now!

P.M. Forni: And yet, very often nice guys finish first, especially if they are also smart. Smart and nice is a very powerful combination.

Nice people are liked and this allows them to enjoy social support, which is an important quality-of-life factor.


Washington, D.C.: Three comments and question: I think as times change so do our "opportunities" to be rude. Remember boom boxes? Thank goodness they were outlawed in public places (and then were replaced with iPods with earbuds). Now we have cellphones to contend with. Don't know how we're going to get people to turn those off in public places. Or at least turn down the volume of their voices.

I wish we had public service announcements with messages like the (Liberty Mutual) insurance company commercial in which individuals "pay it forward" in acts of kindness. Or more bumper stickers like the one I saw the other day that says "Just be kind."

Keep up your good work promoting civility.

How can we help children -- our own and others -- be more thoughtful of other people?

P.M. Forni: Teach your children that others bruise as easily as they do. THerefore it is unfair to them to treat them in rude ways.

Dan Zak: Yeah, the "pay it forward" mentality does apply to one's own children. As for loud people on their cell phones...that's a bit confounding. Talk at a normal volume, people. The cell technology will do the rest.


Civility: Why do we need a code when we have "Treat others the way you would want to be treated." Or maybe I'm making the assumption that people don't want to be cursed at, treated with disrespect, etc.

P.M. Forni: The Golden Rule is always a good compass. But How about treating others the way they want to be treated?

Dan Zak: I think official codes are established to show people that something is being done to ameliorate a situation. Take the NFL: Their fans complained, so they took action by producing a code. Installing the code is something concrete, even if following and enforcing the code is a bit murkier.


Lunch with Junior Co-worker: I would just make sure she knows this is a business lunch vice a social one. I had a supervisor ask me to lunch without telling me that it was to discuss work issues and I was so blindsided that I had trouble listening to what she had to say.

P.M. Forni: Always be clear about the formula of the encounter.


Pittsburgh: Do you think one cause of increased incivility nowadays could be the proliferation of communications technology creating more opportunities for incivil behavior? Baby Boomer children like me had only transistor radios, but not portable devices like phones, pagers, PDAs, Walkmen (and now iPods), etc., to contend with and to distract us when we were growing up and learning manners.

P.M. Forni: These electronic gadgets are not the culprits. The problem is the use that we make of them.

Dan Zak: And with that, we close our discussion. Thanks to all readers and writers, and thanks to Dr. Forni. If anyone still has questions or comments (or ideas for future stories), e-mail me at


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