In Search of a Kinder and Gentler Community

By Victoria Duncan

The Riddle

How does a bumper sticker promote better personal health and more peaceful communities?

While traveling through Howard County, I spotted a bumper sticker on the car in front of me: “Choose Civility.”  Giving it little thought, I followed another car sporting the same slogan — and then yet another.  Edging closer to get a better look at the green and white bumper sticker, the phrase “in Howard County” printed in a smaller font below “Choose Civility” jumped out and piqued my curiosity.

The Answer

Just a Google away, I learned that the bumper stickers, or more accurately bumper magnets, adorn more than 60,000 vehicles and are only a smidgen of the ongoing, county-wide initiative led by the Howard County Library. Launched in 2007 following a presentation by Johns Hopkins professor and author, P.M. Forni, PhD, at a Howard County Library staff development day, the campaign has grown exponentially.  

The grass-roots effort is based on Forni’s book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. The book’s message, which is to promote the qualities of respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance, resonated with Howard County librarians and the initiative took off from there. Fifteen of Forni’s principles became the bedrock of a program designed to support and encourage civil behavior in the business, community and personal lives of county residents.

More than 100 businesses, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and citizens have partnered to promote the message that civility lies at the center of the health and well-being of a community and its citizens. Much more than a bumper slogan, a range of activities, events and educational initiatives offer county residents an enriching mix of opportunities to learn and experience these core values.  Ranging from book discussion groups to an official Civility Week, the program is multidimensional and ambitious.

Civility Week, beginning this Oct. 5, will be capped by a Civility Symposium on Oct. 8, featuring motivational speakers, interactive workshops and even awards for those institutions  and individuals who have made noteable achievements in at least five of the core principles adopted by the initiative. For more information on these programs, check out the Web site at

The Background

Is the program meeting its own lofty goals? Well, it is certainly garnering attention and appears to have struck a chord.  The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Smithsonian Magazine and The Washington Post are among the publications that have devoted  space about this burgeoning initiative. Internationally, the London Sunday Times cited Howard County as “America’s capital of considerate conduct.”  And in addition, the effort is spreading to communities in other states such as Ohio, Florida, Minnesota and Montgomery County here in Maryland. According to Dr. Forni, the behaviors and attitudes that comprise civility are as ancient as human society and their role as facilitators of social harmony is more important than we realize.  In fact, incivility exacts a high price. For example, research suggests that billions of dollars are forfeited in accidents attributed to road rage and, in the working world, rudeness results in diminished work productivity that translates into reduced profits. The cost to personal health arising from stress and discord is well-documented. Furthermore, many crimes originate with an exchange of rudeness that spirals out of control into violence.

Seemingly common sense practices such as paying attention, speaking kindly and respecting the opinion of others are becoming less common. Instead, thoughtfulness and good manners can give way to abrasive aggressiveness and a coarsening of the fabric of our interpersonal relationships, including casual encounters with a clerk or a delivery person, as well as those more intimate and meaningful contacts with our friends and family.

And this is where it gets very personal.  As Forni notes, life is what our relationships make it. When our relationships are good, our life is good. Conversely, when our relationships are bad, we’re unhappy. Moreover, we’re also unhealthy due to the stress of those unpleasant interactions.  It may sound simplistic but the truth is that in order to be happy, we must live well with others. Civility fosters that ability through our attitudes, our communications  and our behaviors.  Civility makes us good citizens, neighbors and family members when we treat others, our communities  and our planet with respect and consideration.

Our Community

Driving home the other day, I stopped at a traffic light on Forest Drive. When the light turned green, the elderly man in the car in front of me seemed distracted and hesitated a nanosecond longer than necessary before driving forward. An irate driver laid on his horn and made an obscene gesture as he cut into the passing lane and zoomed by.  Just one incident?  Yes, but kindness and rudeness live side by side in our own community and most of us are both contributors and victims at times. Incivility breeds more incivility when we don’t pay attention to what we could be about.

Maybe, Anne Arundel County could take some lessons from our neighbors to the northwest and join the movement. The qualities that fall under the umbrella of civility are those that enhance the lives of all who live in a community. How we treat each other matters greatly—and that should be no riddle to anyone. 


Principles of Civility as Chosen by “Choose Civility” of Howard County

  1. Pay attention
  2. Listen
  3. Speak kindly
  4. Assume the best
  5. Respect others’ opinions
  6. Respect other people’s time and space
  7. Be inclusive
  8. Acknowledge others
  9. Accept and give praise
  10. Apologize earnestly
  11.  Assert yourself
  12.  Take responsibility
  13.  Accept and give constructive criticism
  14.  Refrain from idle complaints
  15.  Be a considerate guest



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