President Obama's Tucson speech issued a call for Americans to step back from the political vitriol that has come to dominate the airwaves and the debate over issues. He urged us to debate "in a way that heals, not [in] a way that wounds." Incivility did not cause the attack, he said, but added that our debates should be "worthy of those we have lost" — not conducted "on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."
If you're looking for a guidebook, consider the work of Johns Hopkins University professor P.M. Forni, the author of "Choosing Civility" and "The Civility Solution." His books have been used on college campuses and as the centerpiece of a program across Howard County. Here are excerpts from a 2006 Q&A with The Baltimore Sun:
Is life in America growing less civil, as it sometimes appears?
I think so. Speed, anonymity and stress are all more prevalent. ... Our goals are more important than the people around us. This makes it difficult to slow down and attend to the needs and desires of others. Several examples come to mind.
We are coarser in dealing with the elderly than we used to be. [They] are seen as hindrances, not the repositories of wisdom they are. The unruliness of students that used to be confined to high school is reaching college. There's a crisis in customer service, which is so frequently offered with a sulky, reluctant attitude.
We used to notice when service was bad; now we notice when it's good.
At the same time, every generation creates new rules of deference and respect to replace those that have become obsolete. More [Americans] today respect animals, or the environment, than in generations past. Those are gains in civility.
Do manners affect health?
Absolutely. It is well-documented that harmonious encounters are good for you and conflictual encounters bad for you. That rude encounter - someone taking a parking spot that you have waited for for 10 minutes - and the altercation that follows provokes a cascade of catecholamines, hormones hurtful to your system, into the bloodstream. These cause, among other things, high blood pressure and higher blood sugar levels. They reduce the efficiency of the immune system.
When you are engaged in harmonious, civil, polite encounters, a cascade of good hormones takes place in your brain and bloodstream; endorphins and serotonins are released. These give a sense of well-being but also strengthen the immune system. Research even shows that observing an act of kindness is beneficial.
So why isn't everyone polite?
Civility, politeness and courtesy have a bad name in certain quarters because they are seen as burdensome things we are expected to do for others. I've been trying to show that they're also things we do for ourselves.
Prejudices have [also] grown since the 1960s - the notion, for instance, that good manners are elitist, that they are hypocritical, antithetical to spontaneity, an instrument of the rich to keep the poor in their place.
In the intervening decades, there has been a sense that all you need to be happy in society [is] to be fed oversized portions of self-esteem. When we feed our children oversized portions of self-esteem, we create children who ... think the world revolves around them. Society needs - we need - equal doses of self-restraint.
What are the economic costs of rudeness?
Recent studies tell us that supervisors spend about 25 percent of their time at work dealing with rudeness, either of employees or of customers. One-fourth of their time.
Stress is often caused by frayed relationships, which are in turn often caused by poor relational competence, bad manners.
The cost of stress in the American workplace - in absenteeism, medical and insurance costs, replacement-of-employees costs, legal costs - is estimated at $300 billion annually. If we, by having better manners, could lower the amount of stress, we could direct some of that money toward fighting diseases, like multiple sclerosis or breast cancer.