Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct

by P.M. Forni

Choosing Civility is about counteracting the “coarsening of America.”  It was published in 2002, but is more relevant than ever.

“Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the fabric of this awareness… When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that.”

“Every act of kindness is, first of all, an act of attention… When we relate to the world as if we were on automatic pilot, we can hardly be at our best in our encounters with our fellow human beings.”

“Restraint is our inner designated driver. We all have it, and we all can learn to summon it whenever we need it… Restraint is an infusion of thinking—and thoughtfulness—into everything we do.”

“Apologizing is one thing; exculpating yourself is quite another … If you believe that you are at fault, apologize in earnest. Expressions such as … ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ … are pseudo apologies… used in place of real apologies by those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions… A real apology is never a self-authorization to be inconsiderate.”

“Don’t be afraid to smile, if for no other reason than it is an easy way to brighten somebody’s day. Turning both your face and body toward your interlocutor will show that you are committed to communicating.”

“What prevents us from doing a good job of listening is that instead of focusing on other people, we focus on ourselves and our own needs. This is what we do, for instance, when we interrupt… We will rudely push others offstage. Along with narcissism, a power game is sometimes involved here.”

“Present your opinions as just opinions, rather than transcendental truths. Make room for disagreement. Invite feedback. Among the most civil utterances of all time is the simple, humble, and smart question, ‘What do you think?’ Let’s use it generously. Who knows, we may learn something by listening in earnest to an opposing view… Respecting others’ opinions doesn’t mean being untrue to our own. It simply requires us to recognize that others are entitled to look at the world differently and that when they share their views with us, they can expect a fair hearing.”

Civil conversation requires “the ability to consider that you might be wrong [and] the ability to admit that you don’t know.”

“Instead of looking for any vulnerable areas to attack in a strategy of overkill, try to address directly the substance of the issues… 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… Keeping an open mind is a good starting point for the building of meaningful connections.”

“Never lose sight of the humanity of your opponents. Resist the temptation to think of them as faceless, nameless agents of the ‘wrong side.’ No matter how much you happen to disagree with their ideas or positions, never cease to feel that they are entitled to at least a modicum of sympathetic understanding.”

“Silence is not necessarily the sign of a failure to communicate. Instead, it can be the refreshing result of a choice… Sometimes silence can be kinder and more considerate than words.”

“Noise is among the most pervasive and frustrating sources of everyday annoyance… We seem to be forgetting today that libraries call for a quiet demeanor.”

“Respecting the ‘No’ of another is one of the most elementary and significant rules of respect. Refrain from interrogating. When someone declines you invitation, asking why is both intrusive and guilt-inducing. Instead, you might say…  ‘Maybe another time…’ Learn to recognize a ‘No’ when it’s not stated in the most explicit of ways.”

“It is a bad conversationalist who finds no other way of keeping the conversation alive than by asking intrusive questions. A good conversationalist makes the most of the information that his or her companions volunteer… Seeking permission to ask an intrusive question doesn’t make your question any less intrusive.”

The rules of civility apply when driving. “Your car horn is neither for saying hello nor for venting your frustration… The driver who tailgates [is] acting rudely” as is the driver who “occupies two parking spaces instead of one… Unauthorized parking in the spaces for the handicapped is a similar breach of civility that seems to be on the rise. There is simply no excuse for it.”

The rules of civility also apply when interacting with service providers. “Demanding immediate attention is uncivil and ineffective. By waiting your turn you don’t waste the time and energies of those whose job is to help you. The quality of their work will be better and so will the quality of life of all involved.”

“Employees should expect to work in a civil workplace. Such a workplace is, however, a goal achieved and maintained through every employee’s effort. Corporate responsibility does not erase individual responsibility. We don’t wait for civility to happen. We work for it when we are smart enough to imagine its rewards.”

Civility in the workplace can also improve customer service. “A stressed, overburdened, fatigued, harassed, or underpaid employee is not likely to provide the best service… If the employees are full of energy and patience because their workload is reasonable, if they are at ease because they are asked to do things within their job specifications, if they work in harmony because they do not feel threatened or defensive, then all this has a positive effect on the customer’s experience.”

U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicate that “feeling unappreciated at work is a leading cause of leaving a job… A sincere and straightforward work-related compliment is always appropriate and welcome in any workplace; [however,] a consensus has been emerging that compliments on attire and physical appearance do not belong in the workplace.”

“One key measure of our satisfaction at work is the quality of the relationships we have with our coworkers. Good relationships contribute to keeping stress down… If we manage to lower the stress level in our lives, our everyday encounters with others are less confrontational.”

Forni addresses the question:  why are we rude? “Anonymity is our constant companion… We often have few significant ties with the communities in which we live… Nowhere in sight are the penalties of shame that would be paid in a more cohesive community.”

“If we are kind and considerate, people will want to be around us, and we benefit from enduring circles of attention and care.”

“Our happiness does not spring from the events of our lives but rather from how we choose to respond to those events… If we have control over what we think about what happens to us, we have control over how we feel about it as well. This means, in turn, that we can be the makers of our own happiness. To say that this is an empowering message is an understatement.”

Forni, P. M. Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2002. Buy from