This past weekend while at Johns Hopkins for alumni council meetings I heard a lecture by highly esteemed Professor and Author, Dr. P.M. Forni. Dr. Forni studies and assesses the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society. I find Dr. Forni’s work fascinating.
Each fall, with his new crop of students, Dr. Forni holds a lunch where he asks one student to pass him the salt. Inevitably the student does just that: they pass him the salt.
Dr. Forni then corrects the student. But what did the student do wrong?
The correct answer is that you never pass only the salt — you also pass the pepper.
What’s interesting here is the underlying logic of this concept is not about etiquette or conventions (sorry Emily Post!), it’s actually about ethics, compassion and civility. Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, has also written extensively about his use of civility in building his empire. Check out the book, Setting The Table.
Why civility? Anticipating that the requestor will want both the salt and pepper is a subconscious effort to put another persons’ needs ahead of our own.
Dr. Forni’s findings suggest that the people who are most successful in life are those who excel in soft skills and like civility, as opposed to rote memory or IQ. In fact over time at a job, all else being equal, the person with superior social or soft skills will ultimately progress further and faster. It’s another example of where generalists can stand out.
Also interesting was Dr. Forni’s observation that two circumstances contribute more than any other to the disintegration of civility:
I thought this interesting as the Internet is certainly an environment where stress and anonymity run high, and often in tandem. Blog comments and reviews are a great example of online environments where people are free to act like jerks without much consequence.
Want to See Something Cool?
Check out this visual IQ test made by students at Yale University.