Civility Gets a Reprieve

If you live in or near Howard County, you've undoubtedly seen bumper stickers like this:



You've also undoubtedly discovered that they appear most frequently on the cars of the worst drivers in the state.  Normally, that refers to soccer moms driving SUVs that are way too big for them to maneuver while also sipping a latte and casting glances at one of the DVD / DS screens in use in the backseat.  This is so widely understood that a host of spoof stickers have popped up ("Choose Hostility" is my favorite.)

The bumper sticker includes a website, which claims the movement was launched by Howard County Library and inspired by "Choosing Civility," a book my Hopkins professor P.M. Forni.  And it's this book that I want to talk about for a minute.

There are so few really helpful self-help books in the world, books that challenge you to a rigorous self-examination while avoiding preachy condescension, that entertain and inform at once.  This is one of the few.  I happened to pick it up at a used bookshop last year, and I just finished it; not because it was long (under 200 small pages) but because I enjoyed it so much I wanted it to last -- and because the advice within it merited further thought after every chapter.  Professor Forni takes 25 very basic rules of etiquette and talks briefly and eloquently about each one.  I'll quote from one of my favorite sections, "Apologize Earnestly":
Apologizing is one thing; exculpating yourself is another: don't mix the two . . . This muddying of the waters of apology is quite common. How many times do we hear pseudo apologies such as: "I'm sorry I yelled at you on the phone, but I'm under a lot of stress these days"? This is how a real apology sounds: "I want to apologize for yelling at you. There is no excuse for that. I can only say that it won't happen again." Sometimes those who accept your apology will provide your excuse for you: "Apology accepted. I appreciate your saying that. We are all under a lot of stress these days." But they don't have to let you off the hook and you should not expect that they will.

No matter how polite you think you are, you owe it to yourself to read this book.  Forni appeals to the bigger person in all of us; he is not a pacifist ("Be Assertive" is one of the rules, too) but maintains that even a confrontation can take place in a respectful manner.  He exhorts you to think twice before asking for any favor, for instance, especially one that belies laziness on your part.  Because of my extensive experience with e-mail laziness, I make an effort to respond in a timely manner and completely to e-mails, and I rarely delete anything in case I may need it later; when someone says, "Can you send me that schedule again?" I hear, "It would be much easier for me if you'd go the work of locating the schedule, rather than my trying to remember where I filed it."  However, I frequently request that people call or e-mail me when they make a request in person, mostly because it would be inconvenient for me to stop and write it down -- and really, that's no different.

This book has made me re-examine quite a few small uglinesses in my own character.  And as soon as I read the sequel, The Civility Solution, I'm sure I'll have more to add to the list!