Thursday, August 4, 2011

Miss Manners

Image from here

Biscuit has been reading The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness : a Complete Handbook for the use of the Lady in Polite Society, on her Kindle. It was written by a Florence Hartley around 1873, it was free, and it is apparently a laugh riot. Almost every night she regales me with some helpful hint for planning a soirĂ©e, arranging one's calendar for receiving callers, or addressing invitations for ladies of every situation. That is, as long as your situations are limited to rich and single or rich and married. Maybe rich and widowed; she didn't read that part.

I used to read the local newspaper most every day, back when people did that sort of thing. I would scour the front section pretty thoroughly, skim the local, sports, and entertainment sections, generally saving the comics and columns for last. One of my favorite columns -- after Dave Barry, of course -- was Miss Manners.

I never read Miss Manners as a youth, assuming that it was all about which fork to use, and whether white could be worn after Labor Day. I started reading in the 1980's when every twenty-something with a Volvo* believed they were only days from being invited to the Carringtons' for cocktails and sex. So we all had to buy Cuisinarts, wear LaCoste and Docksiders, and learn which was the proper spoon for snorting cocaine.

I was generally well-mannered. My parents had made sure I knew to say please and thank you, and not to spit in mixed company or fart at the table. My father was a big believer in chivalry, and tried to make sure I treated women with respect. They even sent me to cotillion. But my paternal grandfather was a working class house builder and my mother's father was a subsistence farmer and country schoolteacher. Neither of my parents probably ever saw a teaspoon growing up, much less a fish knife or finger bowl. I definitely had a few things to learn before I was ready for dinner at Sardi's.

Image from here

Imagine my surprise when I learned that most of Judith Martin's column was not dedicated to the arcane niceties of upper crust society at all. Sure, there were questions about whether fried chicken could be eaten with the fingers,** but most of the questions were split between examples of people trying to exert more control over others than is proper ("How do I ask people to give me cash for my wedding?"), and people asking impolite questions ("How do I ask a friend if they are pregnant/gay/happy with the present I gave them?). Our Miss Manners always took the offender firmly -- but politely -- to task, whether it was the "Gentle Reader," or the party from whom the writer had taken offense.

It was her response to impolite questions that stuck with me the most. This is partly because I hadn't really thought of innocent questions as potentially impolite before, and because restraint from such inquiries seems to be so commonly honored in the breach. It is striking how much of what we think of as politeness and good manners is specifically engineered to avoid such interrogations.

Many of the people who wrote feeling offended had actually been guilty of asking such questions or trying to find a polite way to do so. Our patient columnist pointed out repeatedly that a question is an aggressive type of speech -- a sort of command in reverse. It says "tell me what I want to know," and can place significant pressure on the recipient, causing immediate friction and often eliciting a defensive response. In many cases, the questioner receives an answer they do not wish to hear. "Does this make me look fat?" is a classic example.

This applies almost universally to any form of the question, "Why?" (or "why not?"). I have tried to think of an occasion when this might be appropriate, and the only possibility I can come up with might be, "Why would you ask me that?"  The "why" question is invariably asked in response to information that the questioner does not wish to accept on its face. The explanation will probably be impossible to politely express, none of the questioner's business, or more likely, both. It's a child's question, and it is difficult not to be patronizing in one's answer.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that there is virtually always a (more) polite way to provide someone with an opportunity to salve our insecurities, satisfy our curiosity, or fulfill whatever other motivation we have for asking questions. Instead of asking, "Do you like my haircut?" a person can simply remark that they have had a haircut, leaving their companion free to either offer a compliment (if they like it) or (otherwise) bring up their own hair appointment the following week. If you can't think of a polite way to provide a hint, the question is probably not appropriate, no matter how close a friend is your companion. The polite way will not always get the result you want, but you are more likely to get what you are due, and less likely to cause offense in either direction.

I focused on this practice for years, but I'm afraid I may have lost some of the habit recently. Curiosity is a necessary trait for a researcher, and questions are our stock in trade. It is easy to blur the line between "Why did you write it this way?" and "What on Earth made you buy those shoes?"

Also, you should not be too nice to your servants. Apparently, it spoils them.

* The term "yuppie" is a good example of the attitude of the time. "Young, upwardly mobile professional" was another way of saying "middle class nobody who thinks they are on the way to becoming a fabulously well to do person of consequence." Today we tend to call such people "in foreclosure."

** I don't exactly recall the answer, but I think it centered on what sort of dinnerware was provided. It still seems to be a matter of some dispute.


  1. I always used to be fascinated by the Miss Manners and advice columns. All through high school and undergrad, when I used to read the BR newspaper everyday (I'm not gonna lie, it was mostly for the crossword puzzles - but I would make myself read the whole paper in order to justify creating the waste just to do two crossword puzzles), the columns were some of my favorite bits. I suspect it had something to do with schadenfreude, reading the letters from terrible parents suffering with their idiot children, or demanding women complaining about their mothers/sisters-in-law - but either way, I loved them.

    I, too, came across several instances where Miss Manners chastised someone for asking "why?" - I paid attention because, as you know, I'm an avid "why?" asker. Even when I know it's rude/inappropriate. Sometimes I just don't care - despite Miss Manners' advice.

    Honestly, you're the only person who has ever - ever - outright told me, "You're not supposed to ask people 'why?'. It's rude."

    Since the first time you said that, and the assertion of inappropriateness wasn't just some abstract columnist telling some anonymous, flaky woman to shut her trap, I have now become much more hesitant to ask people "why?".

    So...good job? Although, clearly, it hasn't stopped me entirely from asking. Ah, well. Nobody's perfect.

  2. I have to admit that I NEVER read Miss Manners for exactly the reasons that you outlined: I thought it was all about silverware and such. Plus, the comics were at the back of the paper and I was in a hurry to get there before my cereal got all soggy.

  3. i loved her column... mostly because she could tell people to piss off, and leave them feeling better about themselves because of it somehow...

  4. No surprise here (to you) that I have read the book Ms B is enjoying as well, and also have several books written by Ms Manners, which are always fun to pick up and read...the way she takes people to task are also the exact reasons I loved reading her books and the column...and yes, there are varying debates about that chicken issue, but MM came down firmly on the belief this is one time you can pick up the blasted meat and enjoy eating it in your hands. Excy told me his grandmother (very proper upper-class eastern family) used to eat potato chips with a fork!! He said she would crush them with the back on the tines. Now that's just stupid. Not that I'd call it to anyone's attention. Tee-hee...