Celebrating Dr. P.M. Forni: Modern Civility Visionary

Dr. P.M. Forni

Dr. P.M. Forni (1951-2018) was an award-winning professor of Italian Literature at Johns Hopkins University. In 2000 he founded The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins and taught courses on the theory and history of manners. He is the author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (2002) and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (2008). Reports on his work have appeared on The New York Times, The Times of London, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. He has been on a number of radio and television shows, including ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Sunday Morning and BBC’s Outlook. He lived in Baltimore, Maryland.

Contributed by Cindy Ann Peterson, VP Communications, Civility Ambassador for Alexandria, Virginia and Co-Author of The Power of Civility

A gift of a conversation with an experience of a spirited, reflective moment has made a significant mark in my life. Ten years ago, at a global conference in Orange, California, the Forni keynote would open eyes and ears to many books and insights of Dr. Pier Massimo “P.M.” Forni.

In May, 2009, Dr. P.M. Forni and I met and enjoyed a 20 minute discussion surrounding the need to write books based on civility. According to Dr. P. M. Forni, books reach society and teach that civility and considerate interaction is an act to be exercised and shared.

“The need is real and we have to speak up with common courtesy,” shared Dr. P.M. Forni.

With the introduction of social media and changing social norms, Forni addressed the modern challenge of our changing society and how we can each make a difference; detailing the need for civility, both for its understanding, as well as its relevance today.

Dr. P.M. Forni spent his formative years at the University of Pavia, one of the oldest universities in the world, and possessed a keen thirst for knowledge and the use of historical means to learn from the past to make the world better.

It was while at Johns Hopkins University, as a longtime professor of Italian in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, that he was awakened with a curiosity and calling to open the new dialog on social capital.

The origin of civility in America goes back to its very founding. A young George Washington would study fifteenth century French manuscripts on rules of conduct and write notes while studying. Late in the nineteenth century, the discovery of these study notes formed the basis of the book The Rules of Considerate Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation by George Washington, based on George’s study notes. This was how the study of civility was conducted in the 1700s.

George Washington’s notes inspired Forni to draft the modern guide to social capital with a new twist by sharing a list of 25 actionable rules to take into business around the world. Forni juxtaposed Washington’s rules against his own to show how the correlation and integration fit in our modern world, giving us a roadmap for adoption in modern society.

Thank you Dr. P.M. Forni for your vision. The civility message will continue on to a new generation and make a difference, one conversation at a time.

Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni (1)   

Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct by P.M. Forni (Co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project)

  1. Pay attention
  2. Acknowledge others
  3. Think the best
  4. Listen
  5. Be inclusive
  6. Speak kindly
  7. Don’t speak ill
  8. Accept and give praise
  9. Respect even a subtle “no”
  10. Respect others’ opinions
  11. Mind your body
  12. Be agreeable
  13. Keep it down (and rediscover silence)
  14. Respect other people’s time
  15. Respect other people’s space
  16. Apologize earnestly
  17. Assert yourself
  18. Avoid personal questions
  19. Care for your guests
  20. Be a considerate guest
  21. Think twice before asking for favors
  22. Refrain from idle complaints
  23. Accept and give constructive criticism
  24. Respect the environment and be gentle to animals
  25. Don’t shift responsibility and blame

 Choosing Civility  – Civility Resources

“I suggest in this book that we agree on one principle: that a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another every day of our lives.” – Dr. P.M. Forni


  1. As you begin to consider Civility, Dr. Forni suggests that you make a list of the words you think of when you hear the word “civility”.  Think about words that sound like “civility”–civics, civilization—what do these words have in common?  Put your list of words together to develop a definition of civility.
  2. Divide into small groups and give each group an equal number of George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior to review.
    1. Based on your review, do you think civility is more of an issue today or during George Washington’s time
    2. Identify which of Dr. Forni’s 25 Choosing Civility rules match George Washington’s rules?  
  3. Include Choosing Civility as one of the first English class reading assignments for the incoming freshmen class
    1. Discuss how civility impacts a classroom/school
  4. Provide the class with a few recent newspaper articles as the basis for a civility discussion. An Example – No-Snow-Day Question Gets Frosty Answer, Washington Post, Wednesday, January 23, 2008; A01
    1. Were any rules of civility violated? If so, which ones and by whom? Explain.
    2. How could the situation have been handled differently if either party had followed the rules of civility? Give examples.
    3. Would the outcome have been different? If so, how?
  5. Highlight one or two Rules of Civility in the school/organization’s newsletter each week/month and provide relevant examples

 Discussion questions:

  1. Dr. Forni writes, “Our contentment and happiness are a matter of personal attitude.” Do you agree? Does your attitude affect the people around you?
  2. Dr. Forni writes, “Our challenge is to pursue relationships while keeping at a minimum the hurt that they entail. How can we do that?”
  3. “Restraint is the art of feeling good later.”  Think about things you’ve done that feel good immediately. Think about things you’ve done that feel good later. What do these things have in common? What separates them?
  4. What does it mean to go “one step beyond the golden rule”?
  5. We often ask, “What’s in it for me?”  Can you think of a time when your life has been improved by a personal relationship?
  6. What do all of these–personal attitude, kindness, restraint, the golden rule, and relationships–have to do with Civility?

P.M. Forni - Civility Visionary

Dr. P.M. Forni

For More on Dr. P.M. Forni Read More Here

Dec 4, 2018 – In remembrance

Pier Massimo “P.M.” Forni, a longtime professor of Italian in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins University, died Saturday of complications related to Parkinson’s disease, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Dean Beverly Wendland announced today. He was 67.

A native of Italy and a specialist in the early centuries of Italian literature, Forni had taught at Johns Hopkins since his arrival in 1985. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, his courses focused on Dante and 14th-century Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio, and he wrote and edited several books on the work of Boccaccio.

Forni is perhaps best known for his work on civility. In 1997, he co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project (later renamed The Civility Initiative), an aggregation of academic and community outreach activities aimed at “assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society” and which inspired civility-based initiatives on college campuses and in communities around the country.

He was also the co-director of “Reassessing Civility: Forms and Values at the End of the Century,” an international symposium that took place at Johns Hopkins in 1998. His book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (2002) has been translated into German and Italian. In 2008 he published The Civility Solution: What to Do when People Are Rude, and in 2013 he published The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction. His work has been featured on a number of national news programs and in national and foreign publications.

Walter Stephens, professor of Italian studies and Forni’s colleague in the department’s Italian Division since his arrival in 1999, described Forni as an elegant, quiet, and reserved man.

“Pier Massimo had the soul of an Englishman in an Italian package. He had a very English sense of decorum and privacy, and he dressed like an Englishman,” Stephens said. “He was absolutely beloved by students and they all praised his attentiveness, his cordiality, and his respect for them.”

Harry Sieber, professor of Spanish, hired Forni and made a point of requiring his students to take Forni’s seminar to gain the training and background they would need when defending their doctoral dissertations. He said that civility was not just something Forni studied, but a practice by which he lived.

“He simply had no sense of time,” he said. “You’d start talking and he would never say he had an appointment or needed to leave. He would stick it out, often to the bitter end.”

Forni graduated from the University of Pavia, near Milan, and earned his PhD in Italian at UCLA. He was a fellow at Villa I Tatti, The Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence, and an Honorary Charter Member of the International Association of Protocol Consultants.

In 2008, he received an annual NEA award for an article published in Thought and Action. For his work on the significance of civility in contemporary society, he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Towson University in 2013. He had a lifelong appreciation for music and for the soccer team from his Italian hometown.

“Maybe most of us find life precious because the thought that sooner or later it ends is never far from us,” Forni wrote in The Thinking Life. “We are like visitors to a Renaissance chapel looking at remarkable painted canvases on the walls as the lighting timer we activated ticks away. We enjoy the interval of sweet light allotted to us before the darkness envelops us again. Just as darkness makes light precious, frailty and mortality increase the value of our time under the sun. If we agree that life is important, then thinking as we go through it is the basic tribute we owe it. It also happens to be the golden way to the good life—the kind of life in which happiness blooms.”