Mar 10 2010

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Symposium kicks off program urging people to Choose Civility

By Don Aines, The Herald-Mail

From shoves to shootings, more than 1.8 million acts of workplace violence are reported yearly in the United States, according to P.M. Forni, incidents that usually “have their origins in an act of disrespect … that escalates into physical violence.”

Rudeness weakens social bonds, erodes self-esteem, increases stress, hurts relationships, weakens communities and escalates violence, Forni told community and business leaders attending a symposium on civility Tuesday at Hager Hall Conference & Event Center.

The author of “Choosing Civility, Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” Forni was at the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce event to kick off Choose Civility Washington County, a program that grew from efforts by the Washington County Public Schools to draft a policy on bullying and harassment, said Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan.

“You’ve got to get to the root of the problem, not just treat the symptoms,” Morgan said of bullying and harassment. Civility “has to be part of a child’s total education. In the final analysis, they have to be good people,” she said.

Training and programs aimed at teaching and practicing civility are being developed for administrators, faculty, staff and students, Morgan said.

Forni’s epiphany on civility came to him more than a decade ago as the professor of Medieval Italian literature was teaching a course at Johns Hopkins University. He realized that his responsibility to students went beyond teaching Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to helping them learn “that gracious form of goodness we call civility.”

In 1997, he co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project to examine the influence of civility, manners and politeness on society. The influences of incivility, he said, go beyond bruised feelings, exacting a toll on health and commerce, as well.

Workers who think their bosses are unfair are more prone to heart disease; intensive-care units with a “culture of incivility” have higher mortality rates; and rudeness impairs cognitive function, he said. Forni said the cost to businesses is about $300 billion a year in absenteeism, personnel turnover, health care costs and the other effects of an unhappy workplace.

“We want to do business with people we like” and social skills are often more important to advancement than intellect, Forni said. Today’s leaders need to be communicators and consensus builders capable of managing diversity, he said.

“Sixty percent of incidents of rudeness is shifting the burden of your insecurities to others in the form of hostility,” said Forni, who came to the United States from Italy in 1977 to attend graduate school. Lack of self-restraint, stress and putting personal pursuits above others’ needs also contribute to incivility, he said.

The lessons learned by previous generations around the dinner table have largely been lost in modern society, Forni said.

“The parents of the last two generations have not very often found the time and energy to impart serious lessons in self-restraint to their children. Restraint is an essential skill that needs to be learned and cultivated,” Forni said after the symposium. The coarsening of popular culture also bears “serious responsibility for the situation we are facing,” he said.

Nice guys don’t have to finish last, if they are also smart, and a smile is a smart way to start any relationship, Forni said.

“A sincere smile is the gateway to rapport,” Forni said. “How many children were born from a smile?”

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