Kindergarten has long been society's launching pad for teaching people how to make nice with others.
Now, academia is getting into the act.Johns Hopkins University will hold a symposium on civility this week. Miss Manners author Judith Martin was scheduled to speak along with professors presenting papers on topics such as "Anthropological Perspectives on Manners and Domination."
While some might criticize the gathering as an effete waste of money, Pier Massimo Forni politely begs to differ.
"One can argue a person who has little sensitivity to the well-being of others . . . may be more prone to abuse, to violence," said Forni, professor of Italian studies at Johns Hopkins and organizer of the three-day conference that begins Thursday.
"We are addressing issues that appear to be of direct, everyday relevance for the lives of Americans. It is really a project that is much less abstract than many academic projects."
Road rage, workplace violence and aggressive sales tactics have created the perception of a less civil society, Forni said, citing a 1996 study that found 91 percent of Americans believe the decline of civility contributes to violent behavior.
There are other consequences of a lack of courtesy.
A study last year by a University of Chicago medical professor found manners can affect a doctor's malpractice premiums. Primary care doctors who rush through patient visits are more likely to be accused of malpractice than doctors who spend more time, use humor and encourage patients to talk.
But are Americans near the end of the 20th century really less civil than in the past? Not necessarily.
During the 1830s, prostitutes often worked the balcony level during theater performances and audience members often talked out loud during the performance and threw things to show their disapproval, said John F. Kasson, a University of North Carolina history professor who will discuss "Rudeness and Civility in America" at the symposium.
Behaving well, even after being given lessons, is not as easy as it may sound - even among national leaders.
Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., organized a three-day timeout last year to teach lawmakers to function with less hostility because he found the level of enmity on Capitol Hill so unbearable.
Weeks later, two veteran lawmakers nearly fought on the House floor. After Rep. David Obey accused Republicans of giving lobbyists too much access, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas pushed the Wisconsin Democrat and used obscene language. Delay's aides later said he was provoked by obscenities from Obey.
Such setbacks only reinforce the need to think about courtesy, said Larry E. Sullivan, a professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York.
"Take table manners, for example," said Sullivan, who will attend the Hopkins symposium.
"We don't think they're very important until we see someone eating with their hands."