Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1


Focused Intent

Cosmic Gamble

The Speech

> Civil Solutions to Boorish Behavior

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Civil Solutions to Boorish Behavior

Illustrations by Elwood Smith

Stand up for yourself or suffer in silence? Walk away calmly or flip someone off? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…or give 'em a taste of their own medicine? If you're asking P.M. Forni, the answer is always to be civil. But that doesn't mean you need to be a doormat. As Forni, a professor of Italian literature and director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins, instructs, fighting the good fight means standing up for common decency and refusing to perpetuate the vicious cycle of incivility. With his follow-up to the wildly popular Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (2002)—which helped launch civility movements in communities around the country—Forni has delivered a new handbook for dealing with life's everyday insolence. The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude (St. Martin's Press, 2008) is complete with specific advice on handling more than 100 sticky situations. A sampling of Forni's sage—and abundantly civil—advice is excerpted here.

The situation.

Another Driver is Tailgating You. For the last two or three minutes, a large SUV has been tailgating you in the left lane. Since you are doing the speed limit, you feel that you are not in the wrong and should be left alone. To stay the course is your right and your intention.

The solution.

You may be right in the abstract, but that does not necessarily make you safe. The real issue is the smart management of a dangerous situation. Do not brake, and do not start slowing and accelerating to shake off the other car. Turn your signal on and move to the right lane as soon as possible, so that the faster car can overtake you. Do not honk or gesture. Be happy instead that you are off the hook. Now, be proactive. Whenever a lot of cars overtake you on the right, realize that you should probably not be in the left lane. Move to a slower one.

The situation.

A Colleague Won't Chip In. Standing at the office watercooler with a paper cup in his hand, your colleague Roger looks around and announces: "It's down to drips." The message is to everybody and nobody in particular. After the announcement, he throws the cup into the wastebasket and leaves without even glancing at the fresh tanks of water stored by the doorway. All he knows is that he is not going to be the one to replace the empty tank. When it comes to that little office chore, Roger holds a perfect record: He's never done it, not even once. You think it's time for him to do his part.

The solution.

The next time Roger points out that the tank is nearly empty, say immediately: "Let me help you with the new tank." If he responds that he has no time now, just say: "It's only a matter of a minute. Take the empty tank off and then we'll put the new one in together." Of course, he can refuse again, but not without his ruse being exposed.

The situation.

A Neighbor's Dog Soils Your Lawn. As he walks his two small dogs twice a day, your neighbor lets them stray onto your lawn, where they occasionally relieve themselves. Mr. Stanton picks up what he can, but you still feel that his continually allowing his dogs to be on your property is unwarranted.

The solution.

At the first opportunity, say: "Mr. Stanton, would you please keep your dogs on a shorter leash so that they won't stray onto my lawn? I know you have your plastic bag, but I wish they would relieve themselves elsewhere all the same. There is plenty of room by the curb, there is the wooded area behind the cul-de-sac, and there is the parking lot. Would you mind training them to use those places?" Expect him to deny your charges or minimally concede that "it might have happened once or twice." If so, reply: "Well, it's no use quibbling over numbers, Mr. Stanton. If you'd be so kind as to make sure that it doesn't happen at all, I would really appreciate it."

The situation.

You Are Made to Wait an Unreasonably Long Time at Your Doctor's Office. Your scheduled time to see Dr. Roselli was an hour ago. The clipboard-toting nurse calling the patients' names has disappeared, and the administrative assistant has ignored you all along. You can't believe that nobody explained to you the reason for the delay or apologized for it. Actually you can, your customer service expectations being what they are. This is still not right, however. Your time is valuable too.

The solution.

Walk to the administrative assistant's counter, inform her that your appointment was an hour ago, and ask when you can expect to be summoned. If she barely lifts her head as she curtly tells you that you will be called when it's your turn, say: "I'm afraid that doesn't answer my question. Having been waiting for the doctor the past sixty minutes, I feel entitled to an estimate of when I may actually get to see the doctor. This is a workday for me as well, and I have commitments to keep. Please find out from Dr. Roselli, if necessary."

When you finally get to see the doctor, say: "Dr. Roselli, I trust you as a doctor and I like you as a person. I want you to continue as my physician. However, please understand that I need to rely on your punctuality. I sit in your waiting room an average of thirty or forty minutes every time I come here. No one ever offers explanations or apologies. On the days I see you, I have to schedule work appointments too. I need you and your office to be mindful of the value of my time."

The situation.

Your Mother-in-Law Gives Backhanded Compliments. Instead of a warm, "How are you, dear?" at breakfast, your visiting mother-in-law says, "That's such a pretty dress—so much nicer than the one you had on yesterday." You think, "It's going to be a long week," as a couple of barbed replies come to mind: "That's ironic, I like what you had on yesterday much more than what you are wearing today," or "When did you become the family fashion expert?" Either would serve her right, you muse. But then incivility would win out.

The solution.

This is a situation falling squarely under the "Choose Your Battles" heading—meaning you should let this one go. Your preferred response to your mother-in-law's qualified praise of your taste in attire is the simple and civil, "Thank you, I like it too."

A Final Thought

Someone was rude to you, you were hurt, but you responded in a temperate, assertive, and overall effective way. Maybe the other person proffered an apology. What now? Forgiving is next. By granting forgiveness, you come to terms with what happened, obtain closure, and thus find yourself better equipped to go on with your life. Forgiving (which, like gratitude, is a form of acceptance) has a healing effect not only on you but also on the person who hurt you and in the process hurt him- or herself. It creates an eleventh-hour bond that can keep your relationship alive. Apologies and forgiveness are the lifesavers of relationships. They are two splendid examples of smart ways of treating others well. Use them unsparingly as you go through the wonderful and difficult experience in relating and connecting in what we call life.