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Mind your civility footprint

Ever measured your impact on the "ethosphere"?

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Being a good citizen these days, we're told, means striving to reduce our carbon footprint – to walk in a way that reduces our detrimental impact on the planet's biosphere. A "footprint" is a good metaphor for our individual impact on the social or natural environment. It's personal, tactile, organic, and immediately comprehensible. It's elementary. We're bipeds; we all walk and leave tracks. At my school, the students in sixth-grade science class can calculate the size of their carbon footprint with an online tool – based on heating fuel, car type and annual mileage, electricity use, and other factors.

This is, no doubt, a valuable component of citizenship. But there's another footprint we ought to consider, too – one that has every bit as much to do with the quality of life here in the biosphere as fossil fuel emissions or ozone depletion, if not more. I'm thinking of our "civility footprint." It's not a physical emission, but, just as with our carbon footprint, civility has a huge effect. In this case, the benefits go up as the size of the footprint increases.

And what is that benefit? I used to think that civility just meant "be nice," as mom used to say. Now I realize there's a lot more to it – a more global consideration of being nice, attentive, focused, generous, humble, and thoughtful. The trick is measuring the footprint.

I recently discovered "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct," by Piero Massimo Forni. (Mr. Forni is the cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and a professor of Italian literature.) His rules of civility begin with "Pay attention."

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