Speaker Discusses Why It's Important to Be Nice

June 1, 2012 — One driver cuts in front of another, and then the second driver changes lanes to make a rude gesture at the one who cut in – or even forces the other off the road. Good manners and civility can become a matter of life and death.

What if, instead, the two drivers recognized each other? Wouldn't they make apologetic gestures for their rude behavior? Seeing each other at church or a meeting a few days later, the two, still embarrassed, would probably apologize again in the interest of repairing their social bond.

The connections and communications between people – from family, friends and coworkers to members of groups, acquaintances and even strangers – make a profound difference to everyone's quality of life, according to according to Pier Massimo Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who spoke May 30 at the University of Virginia.

Forni, a scholar and author who founded and directs the Civility Initiative in Baltimore, addressed about 60 U.Va. employees, including members from the Alumni Leadership Network and Dialogues Across U.Va., about the importance of cultivating a culture of civility in the workplace.

Until the late 1990s, little scholarship had been done on civility, Forni said. It came into public awareness after school shootings – especially the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, where student perpetrators were said to have acted in response to bullying – making the connection between incivility and violence.

Even as people acknowledge the effects of incivility, they usually don't see themselves as part of the problem, he said. That's why public conversation is necessary, he suggested, to discuss what incivility is, how it hurts, and in contrast, what civility is and how it helps.

Forni gave some startling statistics: The number of violent incident reported in the workplace in a year has reached 1.8 million, and that doesn't include rude behavior by itself, he said. Protracted exposure to stress caused by living in an uncivil environment increases the chances of contracting cardiovascular disease. And the American Psychological Association has estimated that workplace stress (considering absenteeism, loss of productivity, medical expenses and turnover) costs U.S. businesses about $300 billion a year.

Forni ticked off a list of examples of incivility in the workplace, from the petty to the important: leaving the photocopier jammed or the coffee pot empty, ignoring coworkers, rolling one's eyes, toxic gossiping, yelling and berating another, and taking credit for someone else's work – just to name a few.

"We can't have a good life alone," Forni said. "We need others, we need their social support, and we need the social skills to keep ourselves attached to groups."

He discussed skills that help individuals harmonize their sense of self with their social situations. Good manners are not trivial or superficial, even if they're not used with complete sincerity. They still reinforce the habit of treating others with respect.

He defined civility as starting with "a benevolent awareness of others." It includes being empathetic and believing each person's claim to well-being and happiness is as valid as one's own; listening with respect to others and refraining from arguing or losing one's temper; expecting good manners of yourself without boasting; and realizing that being nice to others and likeable are not signs of weakness.

Forni acknowledged that people are often motivated by self-interest, but he asserted that acting civil is not just altruistic. It's also good for oneself, because when a person feels good about helping someone or just being polite, it also improves his or her own well-being.

In other words, "The quality of one's life depends on the quality of his or her relationships, and the quality of one's relationships depends on relational skills," he said.

Forni asked the attendees, sitting in groups at round tables in Newcomb Hall's South Meeting Room, to take something from the material he'd conveyed and identify a related issue the University should focus on to improve the workplace – for example, starting the Respect@UVA initiative.

The groups recommended programs to provide civility education and emphasize civil behavior; promote servant-leadership; improve customer satisfaction; combat bullying in the workplace; add some form of employee evaluation of supervisors; and have civility ambassadors who visit different offices.

Bryan Garey, director of employee development and U.Va.'s Leadership Development Center, said he received much positive feedback from workshop attendees, including responses like this: "the training on civility and respect at U.Va. ... was quite interesting and indeed provided me with additional insight on how I can improve both my personal and workplace relationships."

– by Anne Bromley