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P.M. Forni, Ph.D.

Human relationships can be complicated things.

P.M. Forni, Ph.D., a professor of Italian literature who has become one of the nation’s leading civility scientists, keeps it pretty simple. That was the crux of his message Wednesday at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

“Forget everything I said today,” Forni gently said Wednesday afternoon, concluding a roughly 45-minute presentation on civility at Halsey Science Center. “Remember this. Being good is good for you.”

How good?

Being a thoughtful, assertive listener with keen manners and etiquette who puts the needs and feelings of others first — who “does the everyday busy work of true goodnesss” — is a ticket to life of reduced violence, reduced addiction to drugs and alcohol, fewer mental health crises and increased academic achievement.

“…Civility can be a matter of life and death,” Forni said.

His presentation to UW Oshkosh students, staff and faculty Wednesday provided an unofficial start to two days of campus and community conversation about civility, a greater need for it and respectful dialogue in campus classrooms and our broader communities. On Thursday, Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project,  joins a lineup of speakers on civility, diversity and inclusive excellence in higher education as UW Oshkosh and UW System host the “Civility in Everyday Life” workshop on campus.

The two-day workshop from Feb. 24 through Feb. 25 will feature Forni’s work, research and message documented in two successful books and a third on the way. It will also spotlight three different, successful campus-based programs seeking to change patterns of interpersonal communication in higher education institutions around the nation. Leaders from UW system campuses throughout Wisconsin, UW Board of Regents members and students are participating in the workshop.

Months in the making, it and a simultaneously-launching Oshkosh-area civility campaign are nevertheless timely. They take place as civil, albeit heated, budget debate and protest jam the state Capitol and dominate Wisconsin headlines. A wave of political turmoil ripples throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. Wounds are slowly healing after the shooting deaths of six people and attempted assassination of an Arizona Congresswoman last month. And campuses outside and inside Wisconsin continue addressing acts racism and intolerance directed toward students last year.

The macro instances of hate and violence have roots in micro, everyday instances of  incivility, Forni said. Stress, anonymity and a lack of time are the modern ingredients of everyday incivility, from road rage to Internet-based character assassination.

But even good intentions can have unintended consequences, such as the modern-day emphasis on seeding self-esteem in children, Forni said. It can go overboard, getting out of balance.

“When we feed our children oversized portions of self-esteem they become self-absorbed,” he said, reminding the audience that those children, one day, “are us.”


Forni said society is on the brink of locking scientific proof showing “social intelligence,” the grace, empathy and manners that earn human beings friends and allies, is a better indicator of future success than the intelligence we measure by IQ. If that’s the case, one audience member questioned why we aren’t stressing social intelligence in our schools.

All in moderation, Forni replied, agreeing additional civility-focused lessons in early education are a good idea, provided other disciplines aren’t diminished.

“When we teach good manners to children, we give them the training wheels to altruism,” he said.

The campus-based Civility in Everyday Life workshop coincides with a pair of community events in the city of Oshkosh including: