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by P. M. Forni
St. Martin's Press, 2002
Review by Daniel L. Buccino, L.C.S.W.-C., B.C.D. on Mar 25th 2002

Choosing Civility

            As a psychotherapist, I work with many patients who, for a variety of reasons, just can’t seem to get along with other people.  As a teacher of psychotherapy, I work with trainees who are learning how to get along with their patients, who, in turn, can’t get along with others.  As a parent educator, I face many questions about how to help families run better and how to help children behave better.  As a corporate consultant, I work with organizations that aspire to higher levels of service excellence with both internal and external customers.  And, after 9-11, many have argued that the best first line of defense against terrorism must be not to inflict the “microcruelties” of incivility on those with whom we come into contact daily.

P.M. Forni’s small but mighty new reference, Choosing Civility, is the only book I can recommend to all audiences.  And if readers are open to his insights and willing to do things differently to improve their relationships at home and at work, Choosing Civility may be the only book they’ll ever need.

            Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University and cofounder of the Hopkins Civility Project, has produced a book that is at once smart yet accessible to a wide audience.  It is full of concrete examples and personal anecdotes, and it is written in a warm, engaging tone that is usually impossible for academics to achieve. 

Forni offers 25 bite-sized meditations on topics central to civil living such as acknowledgement, agreeableness, attentiveness, assertiveness, and apologies.  His insights may appear simple but they are far from easy to put into practice on a regular basis and remind us that the eternal truths do bear repeating.  Common sense is not always common practice.  Yet choosing civility is the best way to choose a better quality of life.

“We don’t wait for civility to happen,” offers Forni.  “We work for it when we are smart enough to imagine its rewards.”

Though it will eventually appear effortless, civility requires work, conscious effort guided by vision and perseverance.  We “make” nice after all, but the practice of civility, as Forni’s well-sourced text reveals, is the royal road to health and happiness.  Not only is civility the path to personal contentment and connection, but it’s good for business too.  Often, nice guys do finish first.

Those with an interest in good manners are often accused of being either fussy or superficial, or masters at the art of duplicity.   Civility is about far more than how to set the table.  Choosing Civility makes the argument most persuasively that civility does not represent concealment and inauthenticity but rather offers a model of restraint and tolerance that makes real expression and meaningful relationships possible.   Forni has described excess self regard as being a “drunkenness of the self” and calls civility our “inner designated driver.”

We have been led astray by the culture of therapy and self-esteem into thinking that it is somehow more honest to be in touch with our feelings and blurt out whatever comes to mind to whomever we encounter rather than seeing training in etiquette as being training in sensitivity.  Civility does not deny us the opportunity to express ourselves (Indeed Forni himself has noted that his longest chapter is, “Assert Yourself.”), but it helps us find the tools to say the right thing at the right time to the right person, not everything to anyone.  This is consistent with Freud’s lessons on free association that often come as surprise to students of, and patients in, therapy. Good psychotherapy will help people speak freely, not intemperately or abusively.

            Most therapists know that establishing a warm, empathic, genuine, and collaborative relationship with our patients is one of the most central features of the treatment.  Choosing Civility offers many valuable relationship management strategies to guide the practice of psychotherapy.  Most therapists are thought to be good listeners but Forni offers more specific guidance for listening, paying attention, acceptance, creating hope and speaking kindly.  Therapists are not just born, but can be made; Forni’s instruments of civility can be used to help make better counselors, just as the surgeon’s equipment can improve her performance.

            Research continues to reveal that relationship factors common to all forms of psychotherapy are more important to successful outcome than specific technical factors unique to one particular model.  Choosing Civility offers specific recommendations for things to say and do differently, and we know that thinking and doing things differently can cause one to feel differently.  And insofar as a text in civility offers lessons in positivity, as Forni’s does, we can build on its hopefulness to restore some healthy optimism in our colleagues and our patients. 

            “Pessimism is like deliberate trudging in the mud,” cautions Forni, and we must be mindful where we spread our mess if we can’t always avoid the muck.

            Research on successful, long-lasting marriages reveals that those in which partners are able to be open to each other’s influence and opinions and be ready to say, “maybe you’re right,” are those with a better capacity to endure difficulties.  Choosing Civility implicitly builds on these findings and offers useful insights for domestic life.  In chapters on how to “Respect Others’ Opinions,” “Be Agreeable,” “Respect Even a Subtle ‘No’,” and “Accept and Give Praise,” Forni provides tips on how to build bridges to connection rather than to difference and disagreement.  If we can agree that it is with those to whom we are closest that we should most want to get along, and therefore be on our best behavior, than lessons in civility will offer pathways to openness, compromise, and appreciation which will help any family navigate the toughest of times.

            For many families, a principal responsibility is raising children.  “A training in civility is part of our basic training as social beings,” Forni tells us:  “First manners, then love.”  And it is at home that these lessons are reinforced and “all will have learned to practice respect, restraint, concern, and benevolence.”

            It is in today’s workplace that many complicated and painful issues of difference and diversity are played out.  Though we know workers at all levels and in all industries are distressed by specific discourtesies, civility in the workplace goes far beyond concerns about who took the last cup of coffee and didn’t make a new pot, or who ate another’s lunch from the communal refrigerator.  Choosing Civility offers guidance about not only how to take better care of our customers but how to take better care of each other.  “A civil workplace is productive in more ways than one, and one of the things it produces is good service,” argues Forni.  In chapters on respecting others’ time and space, thinking twice before asking for favors, avoiding personal questions, giving constructive criticism, and on how to play the game rather than just win it, Forni offers useful interventions for us to better work among colleagues toward a common goal.

            “The powerful combination of self-respect and respect for others should make it almost impossible for us to choose incivility,” Forni says, yet many do.  And when they do, whether at the office, on the road, in the store, or at home, we are struck out by the “Three Strikes of Incivility.”  First, we are inconvenienced or treated rudely by others.  Second, we are diminished by the other’s dismissal of our existence in their uncivil actions.  Third, we are left with the burden of how or whether to respond to the slight.  Rudeness, therefore, “begets conflict with others but also conflict within ourselves, and the latter can prove as hurtful as the former.”  We all strive to not give our power away to those uncivil souls in our midst.  Civility requires that we try to be polite to everyone, even those who have been rude to us, not because they are civil but because we are.

            Another important intervention in Choosing Civility is in its calling attention to the insincere apology and the blame shift.  Politicians, corporate malefactors, and other uncivil sorts are quick to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” as if our reactions are the problem, not the result of something they did.  “Lighten up,” we’re told after the offensive comment or insensitive work assignment.  Civility requires taking responsibility for one’s actions, a reality that is rapidly receding, most recently at Enron where nobody seemed to know what was going on.  Forni offers very particular language for making sincere apologies, “the simple decent words that soothe the bruised soul,” rather than exacerbating the offense by shifting blame.

            Though choosing civility resembles living by the Golden Rule, Forni helps us take it one step further.  In a radical yet liberating proposal, Forni suggests that even though we may tolerate some behavior and think it OK for ourselves, others may not.  Therefore we will want to restrain ourselves on the chance that we may offend others.  We should not always be so quick to assert our own “rights.”  It is rude to expect others to “just get over it” if they are uncomfortable with choices we make.  They are as entitled to their feelings as we are to ours and if we are all to get along we must stay open to the influence of others.  Especially in our post-9-11 environment of renewed patriotism, one of the best and most consistent ways we can stand united against terrorism is to not be rude to each other.

            Though there is a profoundly spiritual dimension to civility and how we choose to conduct ourselves in the world, Choosing Civility makes clear that there are very compelling secular reasons for choosing civility.  It’s good for us.  It’s good for business. It’s good for our families, our children, our pets, our patients, our colleagues, our customers, our health, and our environment. 

            P.M. Forni deserves great acclaim for developing such potent yet easy to digest remedies for many of today’s ills and for offering all of us an invitation to reconnection.  Everything about relationships is knowable, if we want to know it and do it enough.  Choosing Civility is the ideal companion while we risk reaching out.


© 2002 Daniel L. Buccino


Daniel Buccino is Co-Director of The Baltimore-Washington Brief Therapy Institute and on the faculties of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Smith College and University of Maryland Schools for Social Work.