A spate of recently published books on the topic of personal etiquette belies the contemporary presumption that manners are out-of-style. In fact, if I may make a bold prediction: The coming decade will be characterized by a manners renaissance. I’m playing on the idea of the swinging pendulum: Our modern manners – good manners, that is — are now so far from our minds, and play so little a part in our daily lives, that we all instinctively know something is quite wrong.
This pendulum theory is already working in the area of “language manners.” How else can one explain the fact that our bestselling booklists now routinely include treatises on grammar and punctuation – the manners, so to speak, of language? In the preface to the American paperback edition of Eat, Shoots & Leaves, author Lynne Truss admits that no one involved in her “zero tolerance” guide to punctuation expected the words “runaway” and “bestseller” to be associated with it. But her hunches about the state of language were horribly correct: Standards of punctuation in general are approaching the point of illiteracy. Eats, Shoots & Leaves was a #1 New York Times bestseller for more than three months. The fact that the book was written by a virtual nobody (at the time) speaks volumes. The general reading public understands the absurdity, the magnitude of the problem. Eats, Shoots & Leaves was followed by other huge sellers, like Patricia T. O’Connor’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh, and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by online word maven Mignon Fogerty.
Etiquette, especially in the realm of personal manners, is the new publishing frontier of the 21st century. In fact, Lynn Truss herself moved directly from lamenting punctuation to providing a hilarious treatise on modern manners. Her second book Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door rallies against the abysmal state of modern manners. Not surprisingly, her diagnosis is that modern communication is at the root of today’s rude behavior. Mobile phones and iPods have left us existing in our own little “bubble worlds,” she says. “It used to be just CIA agents with earpieces…who regarded all the little people as irrelevant scum. Now it's nearly everybody.”
No, we didn’t need Truss to point out that people who constantly talk on a cell phone in our presence are rude and annoying bores. The collapse of civility in all areas of our dealing with strangers and acquaintances is apparent. But collecting all the data for us under one cover makes us realize that we live in a seriously uncivilized society. Not just because we fail to hold doors for pregnant ladies, forget to say please, or say hello to the mailman. But because we constantly, as a society, fail in our daily interactions with others. The scary part is that most of us are a part of that uncivilized society. Truss provides us with a wise aphorism: The ruder the person, the more easily offended. That is – this is accusatory, yes – if you find yourself easily offended by the perceived rudeness of others, you are likely knee deep in a life of habituated rudeness yourself. Consider how you would respond to a stranger pointing out that you are forcing her to listen to your private cell phone conversation.
Dozens of similar books provide the same kind of diagnosis of the problem, cleverly written accounts explicating modern rudeness, providing readers with dozens of immediately recognizable anecdotes. Those are supplemented by the “how to” manners books, those that provide practical tips in the style of Judith Martin’s classic Miss Manners’ guides. They abound. They sell. Is anyone listening? Is anyone heeding the advice?
Interestingly enough, one of the bestselling books of the Renaissance was Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerilium or On Civility Among Boys, first published in 1530, and reprinted in hundreds of editions in a dozen languages over the next 140 years. Most of Erasmus’s injunctions pertain to controlling bodily functions, like sneezing (“turn away, and graciously accept a Bless You), yawning (“Cover your mouth and then make the Sign of the Cross”), belching (“Some people do it after every third word—this is disgusting”), nose blowing (“Don’t trumpet like an elephant”), and even “breaking wind” (“If you must in company, cover with a discreet and well-timed cough.”
Similarly, Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) gave us one of the first books of table manners, with common sense tips such as: don’t gobble your food so greedily as to give yourself hiccups or “some other unpleasantness”; don’t fill both sides of your mouth so full with food that your cheeks are bloated; don’t clean your teeth with your napkin, and still worse, don’t do it with your finger. These are all matters of personal propriety – important, yes, but not primarily the problem of our contemporary rudeness, which has much more to do with our social interactions than it does with whether we’ve rinsed our mouths out this morning.
Australian Lucinda Holdforth in her book Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World presents a treatise arguing that manners – which many may think inconsequential—are actually the cornerstone of civilization. “Good manners,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, “are made up of petty sacrifices.” In other words, manners require a range of attributes that are unfashionable these days. Holdforth succinctly identifies them as “Patience. Self-Control. Awareness of others. Deferral of self-gratification. A readiness to make those small Emersonian sacrifices.”
If we have truly understood the Golden Rule — treat others as you would have them treat you — we’re provided with a helpful rule-of-thumb, a guiding principal that, when engaged, will generally make us look better than we actually are. Of course, so many people we encounter in today’s society don’t seem as if they want to be treated well – with politeness and consideration; no, they’d rather be left alone in their bubbles, which makes things more difficult than even in the recent past.
No matter. Manners are a civil mode of human interaction. To engage that civil mode, we must at bare minimum operate on virtue rather than vice. Yes, put the welfare of others, personal welfare or the common good, before our own tendency to self-gratification. This is sacrifice, and our little sacrifices will often amount to something big.