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Johns Hopkins Civility Project makes peace person to person, then nation to nation

Piero Massimo Forni sees being considerate to one another as the foundation for everything from the environmental movement to women's rights.

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Pier Massimo Forni is a peacemaker, not between nations, rather on the fundamental level of individual personal relations. He's not a therapist, psychiatrist, or such. He's a master of the ameliorative skills that are as old as human society and, to him, more productive of social harmony than most people realize.

We're talking about manners, courtesy, civility.

Mr. Forni, a professor of Italian literature, was among those who a decade ago, spurred by widespread concern over the coarsening of society, created the Johns Hopkins University Civility Project. Its purpose was to learn what influence these old conventions retained in modern society. What is the effect of politeness and respect in the work place, and in more tightly closed aggregations like the military and prisons? What are the consequences of their absence?

Since then, Forni, who personifies the project, has gathered a modest fame: His book, "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct," is out in three languages. He gives talks on the mitigating power of politeness. He writes for major newspapers, goes on network TV and radio. His efforts have inspired programs to discourage incivility in two Maryland counties, complete with refrigerator magnets and bumper stickers reading, "Choose Civility." The Howard County, Md. library ordered 2,000 copies of Forni's book, "the biggest purchase ever made," says library spokesperson Christie Lassen. "Bigger than Harry Potter."

Similar programs have popped up in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota. Who knows, but perhaps a tsunami of benign intent is imminent, inspired by this mild and mannerly man from Treviso, Italy, who "came to these shores in 1978" with a master's degree in Italian literature from the University of Pavia. Eight years later, packing a PhD from the University of California, Forni landed at Johns Hopkins, where for the past two decades he has shared his knowledge of Giovanni Boccoccio, Dante Alighieri, and other Italian literary stars of times past.

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