MISS MANNERS: A CITIZEN’S GUIDE TO CIVILITY, by Judith Martin, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999, 366 pages, paperback, $18.
Etiquette is not elitist, snobby, old-fashioned or stuffy, as many of us think. After all, Miss Manners (a k a Judith Martin) writes, it embodies many of the same things we advocate: civility, decency, consideration for others, common sense, good sportsmanship, tact, collegiality, congeniality, respect and fairness.
In her latest book, “Miss Manners: A Citizen’s Guide to Civility,” Martin warns against the perils of bad behavior on society and restates her case for etiquette.
“People making up their own rules and deciding which courtesies they want to observe, and which they don’t,” she notes, “is exactly the problem that has been identified as incivility and lack of consideration.”
Here are some common excuses for rudeness that don’t cut it.
“They had desperately unhappy childhoods.”
“Their children are driving them crazy.”
“They live in crowded cities.”
“They live in town where etiquette doesn’t matter because everybody knows everybody else.”
“They’re artists and can’t get people’s attention by being polite.”
“They’re politicians and can’t get people’s attention by being polite.”
In the latest installment of “Miss Manners,” no one is granted an exemption from good manners — not lawyers, criminals, doctors, patients, salespersons, customers, parents, children — no matter how busy, stressful or unhappy their lives may be.
In an attempt to rescue civilization, Martin who wrote “Miss Manners Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say” and numerous other tomes, addresses timely topics and offers up-to-date codes of conduct in the workplace, church, at home and in public.
Miss Manners defines “manners” as “the principles underlying any system of etiquette” and “etiquette” as “the particular rules used to express these principles.”
She says that etiquette can, should and does change over time to fit new ideas, habits and technology, adding that her task is to chronicle and guide the legitimate changes. “Etiquette rules change when Miss Manners says it is all right for them to do so,” she says.
What do you do as a churchgoer when you find “instant intimacy” in the form of hugs and kisses annoying as parishioners acknowledge each other? Do you stop attending church? Do you decline a person’s affectionate overture?
Miss Manners suggests that you not let it stop you from going to service every week and to let your concerns be known to the ministry.
If you’re grieving at a funeral and distracted by the presence of a video camera filming the occasion what can you do to retain the dignity of the service while getting rid of the annoyance?
Miss Manners advises you to remove yourself from the filming and find a secluded area.
If you’re engaged to be married and sending wedding invitations to guests, should you include a suggested gift list?
“Whatever you do need, make yourself a nice list of it all. Then take it out and buy whatever is on the list. This is what shopping lists are for, Miss Manners feels obliged to inform you. They are not sent to other people.”
At work, if your boss is chatty and wanting to be more personal than you care to be, what should you do?
Miss Manners suggests that addressing this issue needn’t offend your boss or jeopardize your job. She suggests saying,”I’d love to chat, but that’s not what you’re paying me for — I’ve got work to do.”
On parenting, Miss Manners says parents must take the responsibility to instill proper etiquette in their kids. The only way for them to be successful in doing this is by being involved in parenting and not relying on the schools or child care professionals to do their work for them.
Good manners can become the basis for other virtues.
“From the earliest weeks of life, when an infant is taught to control hunger to fit into a social pattern in which people do not eat during the night; through babyhood, where etiquette skills include learning conventional greetings such as morning kisses and waving bye-bye; to toddler training in such less amusing concepts as sharing toys with guests, refraining from hitting and expressing gratitude for presents,” Miss Manners relates. “When this is not taught, the results are monstrous.”
As for those who oppose and ridicule etiquette, Miss Manners reminds us of its purpose and necessity.
“It is impossibe to live among other people without using the language of social behavior …,” she reflects. “The opponents of etiquette have been practicing a form of etiquette, if disastrously, because they cannot get along without doing so.”
Siobhan McDonough is a freelance writer who divides her time between Castine and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.