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'Miss Manners' Guide' Updated

Miss Manners' Guide To Excruciatingly Correct Behavior
By Judith Martin

Some Thoughts on the Impulse Rude and the Mannerly Way of Life

When people complain about the rudeness of others (and surely you don't think they are lining up here to turn themselves in), they like to generalize. It is apparently less satisfying to be battered by a rude individual than by a whole class of them. Thus it is that Miss Manners keeps being alerted to two categories of rude people:

1. People Who Should Know Better (as in, "They're professionals, so they should know better").

2. People Like That (as in, "What else can you expect of People Like That?"). Surprisingly, this is less often a reference to the downtrodden than to that perennially popular target "the newly rich," which has come to include such specialties as "corporate pigs," "baby billionaires" and "trophy wives."

Etiquette crimes committed in both categories are pretty much the same. It is reported that these people don't know the basic decencies of how to eat, dress or talk, respond, reciprocate or thank, but have mastered infinite ways of enraging decent folk. Yet the first set's behaving this way is met with shock, while the second's doing so causes not the least surprise.
Miss Manners can't for the life of her figure out the distinction between them. Aside from its apparently being considered decorous to halt at a modest rung of the pay scale, what does this have to do with acquiring manners?

Perhaps you remember a phantom category, no longer polite to mention, which went by such names as People of Property, Well-Bred, Used to Good Things, Our Sort, We Know the Family and, of course, Old Money (which Miss Manners thinks of as New Money: The Sequel). The notion was that people who grew up with money were also amply supplied with manners. That neither truth nor logic accompanies this proposition has never discouraged the rich or their distant admirers from believing it.

Manners are not inheritable goods, and therefore every individual starts with a clean—meaning rude—slate. Furthermore, Old, New and No Money learn their manners from the same people. In the case of No Money, it is their own parents, usually their mothers. In the case of the moneyed, it's the same mothers who, being short on money, take on the challenging job of civilizing the children of the rich.

The rich make the argument that they are exposed to a greater variety of manners, including formal and foreign varieties, and that they have a tradition of noblesse oblige. The non-rich make the argument that they are left more exposed to the human elements and that knowing how it feels to be mistreated makes one manners-conscious. So in theory, the newly rich should have all the benefits of the latter as well as the opportunity to develop the former. In fact, Miss Manners has found politeness and rudeness to be unpredictably scattered among all these groups, the way intelligence is. Similarly, there is far too little to go around.

It would help if they all stopped calling one another names and used the time to learn to behave like Miss Manners. Miss Manners is unfailingly polite. Even when Miss Manners is treated badly, she responds courteously. This is known as Not Stooping, or Shaming Them, or Setting a Good Example.
It is not that she has never felt the Impulse Rude. You wouldn't trust a preacher who never experienced the temptations of sin, would you?

How one longs to strike back. But two wrongs make a blight, and if rudeness begets rudeness, which begets more rudeness, where will it all end? (And why is Miss Manners speaking like a preacher? The verb "to beget" was never in her daily vocabulary before.) There are now many practitioners of the art of getting back, and many books, classes and discussions on techniques for doing so. Miss Manners often receives letters from people who assume that she is such a one and can supply a method for "putting down" this person or that.

Alas. At the risk of sounding unbearably saintly, Miss Manners spurns these methods. Nevertheless—and this is the interesting part—she does not suffer from the indignities that an undignified assertiveness asserts it can correct. No one takes advantage of Miss Manners without her consent. (What happens when she consents is also interesting, but another story.) She does not allow rude people to spoil her life, but she does not seek satisfaction in spoiling theirs.

For one thing, they outnumber her. One can easily encounter a dozen provoking rudenesses on the way to work in the morning, and a matching set on the way home. A lunch hour spent shopping, or, for that matter, buying lunch, can increase the total tenfold. For another thing, counter-rudeness is escalating, sometimes beyond rudeness itself into violence. Even the lexicon of rudeness one hears these days is explicitly violent, although the specific words are usually sexual. (Does anyone know why such a nice practice as sex should have to supply the words for uncontrolled hostility? Maybe it would be better that this not be explained to Miss Manners.)
What, then, does one do with one's justified anger? Miss Manners' meager arsenal consists only of the withering look, the insistent and repeated request, the cold voice, the report up the chain of command and the tilted nose. They generally work. When they fail, she has the ability to dismiss inferior behavior from her mind as coming from inferior people.
You will perhaps point out that she will never know the joy of delivering a well-deserved sock in the chops. True—but she will never inspire one, either.

On Class Consciousness

There are three social classes in America: upper middle class, middle class and lower middle class. Miss Manners has never heard of an American's owning up to being in any other class. However, if there is one thing that all Americans agree upon, no matter what their background, it is that the middle class is despicable. The shame of having been born into it is sufficient excuse for a lifelong grudge against one's parents and the entire society. This is not a happy state of affairs.

The problem, in Miss Manners' opinion, is that the classes have traditionally behaved badly—either oppressively or obsequiously—to those below or above them. Being in the middle, the middle class has the opportunity to do both. Being a democracy, we extend this opportunity to everyone.

One would think, therefore, that an entirely middle-class nation would stop despising people on the basis of middle class–hood, or that everyone who could make or lose enough money would quickly scurry into one of the other classes. Miss Manners' mother always told her to travel either first or third class, but never second, when crossing. (Not crossing class lines, silly; crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in the days when that was done properly, with bouillon at eleven on the promenade deck and tea at five in the salon.) In first class, in those days, you had luxury; in third class, you had fun. This is the proper distribution of the world's blessings. In second class, you had neither. Naturally, then, someone invented the one-class ship, where the advantages of second class could be enjoyed by all, which is probably why we have those overanxious things called airplanes for crossings these days.

You see the problem. Here are Miss Manners' solutions: First, some people must volunteer to be in the upper class, and others must volunteer to be in the lower class. This is a democracy, so admission will be based solely on ability to pay. But, then, people must behave according to the class they have chosen. We will have no confusion with upper-class people wanting to be earthy, or loved for themselves alone, or lower-class people coveting status symbols. Nor will members of any class be allowed to be ashamed of their own class. We have a fine new example of pride in the enthusiasm, during the last few decades, of Americans for their racial and ethnic origins. All Miss Manners is asking is that people who now own up proudly to their grandparents be willing to own up to their parents, as well.

The last rule is the most important of all. Miss Manners will not tolerate the classes' taunting one another in any way. Not even at recess.

On Making Others Comfortable

At a great London banquet, dear Queen Victoria lifted her finger bowl and drank the water. She had to. Her guest of honor, the Shah of Persia, had done it first.

At a Washington embassy dinner party, the king of Morocco plunged his fingers into his teacup and wiped them on his napkin. He had to. His guest of honor, President Kennedy, had done it first.
Then there was the time that Mrs. Grover Cleveland attempted to engage a tongue-tied guest in conversation by seizing on the nearest thing at hand, an antique cup of thinnest china. "We're very pleased to have these; they're quite rare and we're using them for the first time today," she is supposed to have said.

"Really?" asked the distraught guest, picking up his cup and nervously crushing it in his hand.

"Oh, don't worry about it," said the hostess. "They're terribly fragile. See?" She smashed hers.

Mr. Grover Cleveland, on another social occasion, carefully added sugar and cream to his coffee, stirred it and poured some into his saucer. Observing this, all his guests felt obliged to do the same. There they all were, pouring their coffee into their saucers, when the President leaned down and put his saucerful on the floor for his dog.

Miss Manners relates these alarming incidents to illustrate a great danger. It is not the peril of serving watery tea, engaging in diplomacy with foreigners, permitting dogs in dining rooms or other such grand-scale hijinks. It is the terrible burden one assumes when attempting the practice of Making Others Feel Comfortable.

Miss Manners is sensitive to this because she often hears the great and subtle art of etiquette described as being "just a matter of making other people feel comfortable." As if etiquette weren't magnificently capable of being used to make others feel uncomfortable.

All right. Miss Manners will give you an example, although you are spoiling her Queen Victoria mood: If you are rude to your ex-husband's new wife at your daughter's wedding, you will make her feel smug. Comfortable. If you are charming and polite, you will make her feel uncomfortable. Which do you want to do?

On Making Others Uncomfortable

Miss Manners cannot be expected to experience embarrassment firsthand, but it is something for which she has a moderate amount of sympathy. The correct use of embarrassment is as a conscience of manners. As your conscience might trouble you if you do anything immoral, your sense of embarrassment should be activated if you do anything unmannerly. As conscience should come from within, so should embarrassment. Hot tingles and flushes are quite proper when they arise from your own sense of having violated proper standards, inadvertently or advertently.

However, Miss Manners hereby absolves everyone from feeling any embarrassment deliberately imposed by others. The less scrupulous of those who sell wedding or funeral services try to embarrass people with the suggestion that anyone who cares about the bridal couple or the recently deceased will ''spare no expense,'' an emotional non sequitur if ever there was one. The same tactic has been adopted by other professions. The whole posture of being what is termed, in the vernacular, "snooty" is cultivated by those wily headwaiters, real estate salespeople, boutique clerks and others who hope to embarrass honest customers into spending more than they wish to spend.

This should be seen as a commercial ploy, not a challenge of manners. It is perfectly good manners to check over one's bill and ask for an explanation if it seems to be wrong; it is good manners to spend what one wishes to spend and not what one doesn't want to or cannot afford; and it is good manners to ask for what is coming to one if it does not seem to be forthcoming. What is dreadful manners is to attempt to embarrass anyone into spending money. That is a matter that ought to make those who practice it feel horribly embarrassed.

On Improving Others

As if self-improvement weren't bad enough, we now have a world full of new, improved people who are ready to move on to improving others. This had better stop before there are no good people left, to say nothing of no decent social intercourse.

Miss Manners has been accosted by a variety of people who do missionary work under the pretense of friendship, generously spreading their newly acquired insights in the hope of making others as attractive as themselves. There are those who offer to explain to Miss Manners how to deal with her guilt, although guilt is an emotion unknown to Miss Manners, who took the simple precaution of always doing everything right. Others want to teach her to be free of her inhibitions. Miss Manners does have a few inhibitions, as it happens, but she needs them and is, if anything, hoping to develop a few more. People have even offered to help Miss Manners find God, Who Miss Manners hadn't realized was lost.

The zeal of such people is so great that they will spare nothing, not even the feelings of those they want to save, in this quest to make others feel good. If you are skeptical about their solutions working for you, they affect a patronizing smile and say, "That's the way I felt once." If you protest that you have no problems, they offer to help you with the problem of not being able to recognize your problems. If you admit that you are happy, they reply, ''Ah, but perhaps you only think you are happy.'' What the difference is between being happy and thinking yourself happy Miss Manners has never been able to figure out.

On De-proving Others

"Don't go to so much trouble!"
"Why don't you use plastic glasses?"
"Take off your jacket!"
"Why don't you use paper napkins?"
"Don't be so formal!"
"Sit down!"
"Why don't you use paper plates?"
"You don't have to impress us!"

Guests who make such remarks to their hosts must fondly imagine the effect they produce:

"Whew," the host must think. "I don't have to strain myself pretending to be something I'm not. These people love me just as I am, without all this fancy stuff."

Or maybe not. Miss Manners is afraid that the effect might be more like this:

"Try and do something nice for people, and look what you get. They come into my house, call me pretentious to my face, criticize my stuff, complain about the way I do things, bark orders at me and try to foist their own slobby standards on me. How would they like it if I came to their houses and suggested that they try a little harder?"

Yet the Etiquette-Busters are out in full force. If they attack their own friends who are in the very act of showing them hospitality, you can imagine that no one is safe. Not even little children, whom they taunt for politeness and tempt to rudeness:

"Did your mother make you wear that?"
"Don't call me 'Mr.,' that's my father."
"You don't have to thank me."
"You must be bored having to listen to the adults.''
"'Ma'am'? Do I look that old?"
"I bet you'd rather be watching television."

What is the problem here? Could it be, Miss Manners wonders, that they fear that the world is not rude and crude enough as it is? And believe that it is their mission in life to stamp out niceties wherever they find them?
Miss Manners has heard of motives that are more altruistic, if no more attractive.

The face-value one is, indeed, that they are saving their friends trouble and rescuing them from false values. The presumption that nobody really likes doing things "nicely" is paired with the revelation that nobody—or at least not they—even likes to have things done this way for them by others.

In countermanding the courtesies that children exhibit, the idea is to form a sympathetic alliance with children against their parents' strictures. Whether this stems from a belief in preserving the natural soul from civilization or is merely a grab for popularity with the young, the effect is to undermine the parents and confuse the children.

A wider argument is sometimes made on behalf of an element of society other than the parties directly involved. ''It intimidates people,'' the critics will say of those benighted folks who, unlike themselves and the criticized, are too primitive to be exposed to any but the crudest way of doing things. These people are not up to being treated with any luxuries, so it is considered a kindness to hold back on them.

But sometimes one hears an Etiquette-Buster's confession that rings true: "You make me feel guilty." I'm not going to bother, this argument goes, so we need to lower the standard so I don't look bad.

On Correcting Others

Can Miss Manners, whose vocation, whose calling, is correcting etiquette transgressions, condemn the practice? Certainly.

Miss Manners corrects only upon request. Then she does it from a distance, with no names attached, and no personal relationship, however distant, between the corrector and the correctee. She does not search out errors like a policeman leaping out of a speed trap. When Miss Manners observes people behaving rudely, she behaves politely to them, and then goes home and snickers about them afterward. That is what the well-bred person does. The only way to enjoy the fun of catching people behaving disgustingly is to have children. One has to keep having them, however, because it is incorrect to correct grown people, even if you have grown them yourself. This is the mistake that many people make when they give helpful criticism to their children-in-law, who arrive on the scene already grown.

Miss Manners is constantly besieged by people who want to know the tactful manner of pointing out their friends' and relatives' inferiorities. These people, their loved ones report to Miss Manners, chew with their mouth open, mispronounce words, talk too loudly, crack their knuckles, spit, belch and hum tunelessly to themselves. They have bad breath and runs in their stockings. They are too fat, dress badly and do their hair all wrong.
How can those who love these people dearly, for reasons that are not clear, and who wish to help them, for reasons that unfortunately are clear, politely let them have it?

The answer is that they cannot, certainly not politely. There are times, in certain trusting relationships, when one can say, "Cracking your knuckles drives me up the wall and if you do it one more time I'll scream," or "Have a mint—there's something wrong with your breath," or "What's that thing on your left front tooth?" No reasonable person should take offense at these remarks. Because they are so frank, they do not seem to carry a history of repulsion long predating the offense. Also, they deal with matters that are more or less easily correctable (although Miss Manners knows some determined knuckle-crackers she suspects aren't half trying to stop), and which it is plausible to assume the offenders hadn't noticed.

What is unacceptable is to criticize things a person cannot easily remedy or may not want to. People who you think are too fat either disagree about what too fat is, are trying to do something about it, or are not trying to do something about it. In no case is it helpful for them to know that other people consider them too fat.

Even if it be proven that the mistakes of others come from gross ignorance or from maliciousness, it is not the place of anyone except God, their mothers or Miss Manners to bring this to their attention. As dear Erasmus said, "It is part of the highest civility if, while never erring yourself, you ignore the errors of others." Besides, it is a law of nature that he who corrects others will soon do something perfectly awful himself.

On Profiting from Others

"I'll scrub floors before I'll accept charity."
"We may be poor, but we have our pride."
"I've always been independent, and I always will be."
"Thank you, but I wouldn't dream of taking your money. I'm sure I'll manage."
"I may not be legally responsible, but I consider this a debt of honor, and I'll pay off every cent if I die in the attempt."
"I don't accept tips."

When was the last time you heard any of these statements? If ever. The young must think that allowing pride to trump avarice dates back to a long-distant age of romance and stupidity.

Miss Manners does not exactly complain that she misses what were, after all, responses to difficult, perhaps tragic, circumstances. But she sorely misses the quaint attitude they represented. The rapidity with which begging and bankruptcy shed any sense of shame and took on an air of insouciant cleverness astonishes her.

In the social realm, pleading financial need and requesting assistance have become so commonplace that the techniques are cited as "traditional" by the clueless, as well as by the financially irresponsible. Not a day goes by that Miss Manners doesn't receive several questions about how to do something—throw a party, take a trip, buy household items, entertain in a restaurant—that the writer states being unable to afford.

Various schemes are proposed, with the expectation that Miss Manners will explain the proper way to do them. How do you politely tell your guests to give you money so you can buy what you want? What is the correct wording to invite people while letting them know that they are supposed to pay? How do you graciously state your desire that guests contribute payments toward your vacation or house?

Miss Manners' favorite Scheme of the Week is a postal card sent to members of a church congregation asking them to celebrate the marriage of their pastor with ''monetary gifts for the honeymoon. If you like, do it anonymously to eliminate the need for thank you cards.'' She can't wait to hear his sermon about how charity begins at home. Or the one on gratitude.
Nevertheless, Miss Manners saw it all coming. Once the commercial gift registry (originally kept only in case customers inquired about a bride's silver or china pattern) expanded to put generosity under the control of its beneficiary, the rest was inevitable. Now would-be beneficiaries are saving others the trouble of volunteering by listing demands—whether directly or through web sites, gift registries and notations on invitations—without waiting to be asked.

Stripping sentiment from the custom of giving presents naturally prompted the question of why the giver should be entrusted—or encumbered, depending on the degree of hypocrisy exercised—with the purchasing. It is all very smart to sneer at the notion that it is the thought that counts, brazenly declaring that no, it's the take that counts. But the whole symbolic basis of exchanging presents, hospitality and favors refers to our longing to be noticed thoughtfully by others. (True, the possibility of error is always there, which is why etiquette allows thoughtfulness to be assisted by sneaky tactics. If observation fails to suggest what presents might be welcome, it is fair to ask people who are in a better position to observe. If that doesn't work, the unfortunate present may be discreetly exchanged, sold or given away after thanks have been rendered.)

The next step was for the recipient to examine overhead costs involved in entertaining the donors, which would have to be subtracted from the take. Prospective guests often ask Miss Manners whether etiquette requires that the cost of a present be dictated not by their resources or impulses, but by the amount spent on their food and drink. Hosts, especially those who like to entertain at places they frankly announce they cannot afford, are inclined to see these as two different obligations, and ask how to explain that the guests should both pay their own way and give a (directed) present.
But why bother with guests at all? The virtual community is larger and less trouble than the relatives and friends upon whom self-fundraisers had been drawing. The pioneers in using the Internet to ask strangers for money patterned themselves on the causes of reputable charity—such as donating toward education or helping the ill—except for designating themselves the sole beneficiaries. A breakthrough was achieved when it was discovered that asking for money for luxuries also brought results.

These practices are no less vulgar for having become commonplace. There is no polite way to tell people to give you money or objects, and no polite way to entertain people at their expense. Begging is the last resort of the desperate, not a social form requiring others to help people live beyond their means. Miss Manners fails to understand why philanthropists would turn from the needy to the greedy, but she is not in the business of laundering rudeness to make it seem acceptable.

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