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Dr. P. M. Forni
Department of Romance Languages and Literatures
Johns Hopkins University
3400 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218

phone: 410.516.8047
fax: 410.516.5358

forni@jhu.edu

Untitled Document

IF YOU WOULD BE LOVED, LOVE AND BE LOVABLE.
                                                               –Benjamin Franklin

I DO NOT WANT PEOPLE TO BE VERY AGREEABLE, AS IT SAVES
ME THE TROUBLE OF LIKING THEM A GREAT DEAL.
                                                                        –Jane Austen

Do you know people who are incapable or unwilling to harmonize their needs and preferences with those of others–even their closest friends? I do, and I am both fascinated and put off by them. I am put off by them for the same reason most people are: chronic dissenters are a tiresome bunch. I am fascinated by them because they seem to be at ease with their own inflexibility. I'm the opposite, probably to a fault. I'm made uneasy by conflicts big and small, and I'm happiest when I can easily agree, especially with those closest to me. Compromise is not a dirty word in my book. So I inevitably look with puzzled awe at those who seem to thrive on confrontation and disagreement. I'm not speaking of political dissent here or fighting for just causes. I'm speaking instead of an inclination to disregard others' desires in everyday occurrences.

• Rachel, Taniyka, Ramona, and Sally are planning their monthly girls-only after-work dinner. A few minutes into the discussion a consensus seems to emerge. As Rachel suggests a new restaurant that has received excellent reviews, Ramona interjects that she, too, has heard of the restaurant's wonderful Moroccan dishes. "Sounds exciting," says Taniyka. "I'm game." Now it's Sally's turn to chime in. Although she has nothing against Moroccan cuisine, she vetoes the others' choice. The restaurant is no good because it has no outdoor dining. Her three friends reply that it's still early in the season for eating outside–in fact, it's downright chilly–so the new Moroccan restaurant sounds really good. Sally, however, knows what she wants and won't budge.

• On their first full day in Paris, Louise and her husband, Herb, join their good friends Lana, Bob, Karen, and John, with whom they are vacationing in Europe. "Time to see some churches," says John. "Anybody interested?" It turns out that almost everybody is. Only Herb happens not to be in the mood for art and architecture. He wants to shop for a sports coat. Although Louise would like to join the group, it's also important for her to share her day's experiences in Paris with her husband. "Why don't we all go see the sights together today," she suggests to him, "and tomorrow I'll go shopping with you?" But Herb doesn't seem to understand or care. He won't change his mind no matter what anybody else–his wife included–wants or intends to do.

• Ted and Terrence are teaching assistants at a liberal arts college. They both teach an undergraduate introductory class twice a week. For the last two years Ted has taught the Tuesday-Thursday section and Terrence the Monday-Wednesday one. They have gotten used to their routine and look forward to a few more years of the same. Ted's wife's difficult pregnancy, however, changes everything. Now it would be much more convenient for him to teach the Monday-Wednesday section. He explains the situation to Terrence, hoping that he will be willing to switch sessions with him. Terrence doesn't see why his routine should be disrupted. He likes it just the way it is. Why should he be penalized for being single? His answer is no.

Now, Sally, Herb, and Terrence are entitled to their own preferences. None of them is guilty of major wrongdoing. And yet more flexibility would certainly make them more endearing. We are not expected to comply with the preferences of others in every situation of our lives. That would be absurd, not civil. However, civility mandates that we at least make an effort to harmonize our plans with those of others whenever we have no compelling reasons not to do so. Whenever is key here: agreeing once in a blue moon–and maybe begrudgingly–doesn't make you an agreeable person.

One major area of everyday life to grace with agreeableness is that of conversation. Respect for others entails having an essentially welcoming attitude toward the words they address to us. This means, among other things, that contradicting for its own sake should be banned as utterly uncivil. There are two fundamental abilities to cultivate in order to be agreeable in conversation.

• The ability to consider that you might be wrong.

• The ability to admit that you don't know.

At any given moment, on any issue, there is the possibility that You might be wrong and someone else might be right. Keep that possibility in mind. Then, if you realize that you are wrong, find the strength to acknowledge it openly. Do so graciously, without harboring resentment toward the person who happens to be right. The same awareness and openness apply to not knowing. We are not omniscient and nobody expects us to be. So, reconcile yourself with not knowing and admit that fact to your interlocutors. Training yourself to consider that you might be wrong and to admit that you don't know will mark a crucial point in your relationships. Accepting those limitations about yourself will make you much more accepting of others. You will listen to learn rather than to react and you will be less likely to attack, to be dismissive, to doubt good intentions, and to be dogmatic.

One of the most important things you can do to improve your relationships–both in your private life and at work–is listen to agree. Again, I am not saying that you have to agree with whatever is being said (see the rule "Assert Yourself"). Rather, I am encouraging you to look for possibilities of agreement. Condition yourself to recognize similarities between your views and those of others. Very often we do just the opposite: we emphasize our differences in order to strengthen our identities and show our independence. Sometimes we need to do that, but most of the time we don't. We may feel good about ourselves doing it, without realizing that we are alienating our interlocutors. Keeping an open mind is a good starting point for the building of meaningful connections. We should, however, make the further effort of identifying and pursuing points of agreement in the myriad of words that are addressed to us every day.

Following the advice of age-old wisdom, choose your battles. Fight only those that need to be fought and steer clear of all others. Think of all the physical and nervous energy that an inane argument requires. Ask yourself. "Do I want to engage in this argument? Is there a compelling reason to do so? Am I being strong or weak by doing it? Am I championing a valid cause or am I just being defensive?" We often entangle ourselves in disputation just because we are afraid that if we don't, someone else will look good–not the noblest of reasons, to be sure. So, show your strength: let others shine. That's being agreeable.

We need agreement in our lives because it is gratifying and healing, because human bonds could not be forged without it, and because it is the foundation of social harmony. Of course disagreement can be productive. "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing," observed Thomas Jefferson. In disagreement alone, however, we couldn't survive. In ordinary circumstances–at home, at work, at school, in traffic, at the grocery store, in a restaurant, at the mall, at the library, in church, on a bus, in a doctor's office, or inside a crowded elevator–we can make a positive difference in the life of others (and in our own) by just being pleasant to them. One essential way of being pleasant is being agreeable. Plentiful rewards await those who manage to be just that.

ON SAYING YES TO CIVILITY

Another way of being agreeable is saying yes to civility. By allowing others to be civil–and thus pleasant–to us, we please them. Whenever possible, let's say yes (and thank you) when others offer us the gift of their regard, kindness, and consideration. By accepting, we reward the giver. We often decline kind offers because we don't want to inconvenience the other person, because of excessive pride, because we lack self-esteem (we don't think we deserve the attention), or because we feel we are losing control. But others need to give us their kindness as much as we need to receive and treasure it.

As you say good-bye to your friend, he hands you his spare umbrella, telling you that he doesn't need it. Consider taking it, even if you are thinking that your raincoat may give you enough protection from the drizzle. Walking your dog on a hot summer day, you stop to exchange a few words with an older neighbor relaxing in his yard. He volunteers to get a bowl of water for your panting puppy. Even though you are almost home, you may want to say yes. Tending to a thirsty puppy (and petting him) might make your kind neighbor's day. Noticing that you look tired after a grueling week at work, your wife tells you to take the passenger's, rather than your usual driver's, seat for the three-hour drive to your weekend destination. Don't fight her good intention.

Let's learn how to give. But let's also become proficient in the difficult art of receiving.

Thomas Jefferson. See Jefferson's letter to James Madison of Jan. 30 and Feb. 5, 1787, in The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1776-1826, edited by James Morton Smith, vol. I (New York: Norton, 1995), p. 461.

From Choosing Civility. Copyright © 2002 P. M. Forni. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.


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