"Whatever happened to Good Manners?" wondered the editors of U.S. News & World Report in a recent cover story. These days, as champion athletes snack on each other's ears, bemoaning the collapse of civility has become a bipartisan cottage industry. Conservative pundit George F. Will laments the "coarsening of America"; in his new book, The Triumph of Meanness, leftist critic Nicolaus Mills denounces "a new savagery" afoot in the land. In Civility, slated for publication in May, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter deplores the current "crisis" in American manners and morals; in The Argument Culture, another shortly forthcoming book, Georgetown professor Deborah Tannen decries "our culture of unrelenting contention." Even members of the U.S. House of Representatives, perhaps the ultimate hotbed of discourtesy, are confessing to rampant intemperateness and vowing to mend their ways. Last March, 224 congressmen attended a Civility Retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where they were instructed to be more flexible and deliberative.
Into this slough of despond wades a mild-mannered Italian expatriate with an uplifting message: All is not lost in America. Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Italian at Johns Hopkins University, has spent much of the past five years pursuing what he describes as an ardent "side interest" in the sociology of civility and politeness. He has scoured etiquette guidebooks, convened blue-ribbon panels, haunted the hallways of local high schools and hospitalsall in an attempt, he says, to "give some intellectual mooring" to news accounts of mounting rudeness. But his years in the civility trenches, Forni says, have led him to an unusual conclusion: These calamitous accounts, far from mirroring reality, reflect instead a "phenomenon of public misunderstanding."
To hear Forni tell it, America is experiencing something of a Manners Renaissance. True, he says, some of the traditional forms of deference and etiquette have been swept asidebut if we understand manners in the right way, we'll understand that new, equally worthy forms have sprung up to take their place. Asked for examples of this new-style politesse, Forni cites a burgeoning environmental awareness among Generation Xers. Ten years ago, he says, college students would guzzle Cokes, then simply throw their empty cans on the grass. Now, even the most apathetic teen makes a point of toting her aluminum to the nearest trash canor better yet, recycling bin. "Consciousness about ecology," Forni says, "has become part of the good, civilized person."
Forni's colleague Giulia Sissa, a classics professor with a background in anthropology, is helping Forni coordinate his research. She, too, is sanguine about the state of manners in contemporary culture. Far from mourning the coarsening of America, Sissa detects a "softening of America"a national outbreak of mutual respect and civility, as embodied in the much-maligned Antioch rules regulating sex play on college campuses. "The Antioch rules are grounded in an aristocratic and bourgeois code of behavior, which is that a true gentleman will never go beyond a `No,'" Sissa enthuses. "I would not call this an absurd and persecuting way of intruding into private life."
To ponder these and other questions, Forni and Sissa have organized the Hopkins Civility Project, a marshaling of resources for what they hope will be an ongoing study of courtesy, civility, and etiquette in America. The project is part buzz session, part missionary pilgrimage. With the help of a $6,000 grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, Forni has conducted colloquies on civility at inner-city high schools, hospitals, even a local prison. He has taught an undergraduate course on the history of manners and politeness. ("It's not a course on etiquette," Forni says. "Students don't learn what fork to use when they eat their salad.") He has assembled a low-tech civility archive, three shelves of color-tabbed folders of clippings on the state of manners in America. The folders bear such eclectic subject headings as table manners/morality; leaf blowers/california; katha pollitt. Some are even less scrutable: pedagogy/ against; pedagogy/ against-against. "There are those who argue against civility in pedagogy," Professor Forni briskly explains. "Then there are those who argue against those who argue against civility."
The project will culminate this March with a three-day international symposium on civility. Titled "Reassessing Civility: Forms and Values at the Turn of the Century," the symposium will feature middle- and highbrow avatars of decorum, from syndicated columnist Judith Martinpopularly known as Miss Mannersto the French anthropologist Marc Augé, whose presentation will be called "Identity, Alterity, Civility." There is giddy talk of a trade journal, town meetings, a statistical survey of social conventions across cultures.
Over lunch at Johns Hopkins's swank faculty club, Forni acknowledges that his and Sissa's undertaking has drawn ire from several of their colleagues, who regard manners and politeness as the oppressive tools of a bourgeois culture. "There are those who say that these terms have outlived their historical usefulness," admits Forni. But when he talks about manners, of course, it is not in the Edith Wharton sense of a pinky-in-the-air atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies. Forni has a more robust definition of civility, which he links to the Latin word civitas: "doing the right thing in and for the collectivity." Forni's definition of good manners? "A habit of concern for the welfare and for the well-being of individuals, for the planet, and for the global village." Indeed, far from dispensing virtues to the citizenry, Forni seeks to recast the very notion of civility in new, progressive terms. One benchmark of progress on the civility front, for instance, is the emergence of what he calls a "culture of concern": concern for the disadvantaged, concern for women, concern for the welfare of historically oppressed minorities.
These may all be welcome developments, but are they best understood as changes in manners? For one, many of the trends hailed by Forni and Sissa as harbingers of a new politenessheightened gender sensitivity, accommodation of the disabled, and so onare often motivated by legal necessity as well as by a spontaneous upsurge of considerateness and fellow feeling. The professor replies: "I do not delude myself that acts of politeness are always spontaneous. They can be the result of rules and regulations. But the sensitivity had to be there to create the rules! So it's difficult, sometimes, to decide which came first."
But such a dilemma is far from the only quandary posed by this complex new field. During our lunch, Forni politely looks the other way as I tussle with my cold poached salmon. A large chunk of the grayish, rock-hard fillet flakes off and onto the floor. I want to crawl under the table; but Forni knows just what to do. "I think you should send it back," he declares in his charmingly accented English. "Why don't you order something else? I don't think this is edible."
After the catch of the day has been whisked away and replaced by a tasty lobster salad, I ask Forni to explain the cultural subtext underlying such an insouciant act. In rescuing me from the noxious dish, I suggested, perhaps he was honoring an ancient code of gallantry toward luncheon guests in distress.
Forni throws back his head and laughs. "I sent back your salmon," he says, "because it had the consistency of a hockey puck." And with that, Pier Forni proceeds to tuck into a delicious-looking shrimp Caesar salad. He uses the correct fork.