Missed Manners

Within minutes, we were at the emergency room, where a cluster of security guards stood glued to the blaring football game on the television. Frantic, I started to sign in. “Speak up, please,” the triage nurse barked testily above the televised din. “I can’t hear you.”

I helped my dry-heaving husband to the bathroom, then sat with trembling hands while the color announcer screamed friendly insults at the play-by-play commentator. Undone by the noise, I took shelter in the “kids room”–only to be joined by a young baseball fan who turned on the television and cranked up the volume so he could hear it above the iPod plugged in his ear.

Thousands of decibels later, the attendant wheeled my husband to the examining room where we spent a painfully anxious–but blessedly TV-free–night. The doctors’ diagnosis, eventually, was “Hmm, that was weird. Call us if it happens again, okay?” So, I took my husband home, poured orange juice into him, and called Patient Relations to suggest that they permanently mute that damned ER television.

“I know, ma’am,” the patient rep responded with bland politeness. “Sometimes even the medical staff complains about it. But when we turn it down, somebody always turns it back up.” I suggested that this was not an unsolvable technical problem. “Well you know, ma’am, some people in the emergency room are under a great deal of stress, and they want that distraction. You should have asked for a Quiet Room.”

I pointed out that no one had mentioned any Quiet Rooms, and that there were no signs offering them. She replied: “Well, ma’am, then they were probably occupied. By families who were dealing with real tragedies.”

All of which I mention to establish that I am clearly in the target audience for Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door by Lynne Truss. By rights, I should have turned each page muttering, “You go, girl”–or, as her plain-spoken British mates would say, “Effing brilliant. Effing bloody brilliant.”

Certainly, Talk To the Hand is bloody good fun. As fans of her previous bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves already know, Ms. Truss (who prefers to be called Lynne by friends and strangers alike) is a smart, engaging, perceptive, high-spirited, and paralyzingly funny writer. In this latest book, she takes on the pandemic bad manners of daily urban life, from incompetent-but-snotty shop clerks and leather-lunged cell phone abusers to intrusive electronics and vulgar T-shirts broadcasting profane insults at innocent bystanders.

In this book, Lynne’s god-given gift for ranting is displayed to great effect. In the chapter, “Why am I the One Doing This?” for example, she goes off on the ever-increasing number of companies that expect their customers to function as unpaid staff, “even using guilt-trip lines such as, ‘Please have your account details ready, as this will help speed up the process, so that we can deal with more inquiries.’ The message here is that, yes, you may be waiting for twenty minutes while we make money from your call, but don’t waste our time when you eventually get through because this would be rude and inconsiderate to others. ‘We are busy taking other calls,’ they say, sometimes. Does this placate you? No, it makes you hop up and down, especially when they suggest you call back later. ‘We are busy taking other calls. Perhaps you would like to call back later at a time more convenient to us? Half-past two in the morning tends to be quiet. It is a very small matter to set your alarm. Another option is to bugger off and give up; we find that a lot of our clients are choosing this option these days.'”

Lynne is wickedly adept at identifying and describing the anti-social attitudes and assumptions that underlie everyday social distress. But the heartfelt tone that sometimes floats past her verbal fireworks make it clear that, beneath her riffs, Lynne is an exquisitely sensitive woman. Which is why I feel I must apologize sincerely for my belief that, with Talk To the Hand, she has grabbed the wrong end of the lollipop.

Part of the difficulty may be geographic. This is an incredibly British book. While Anglophiles may chuckle knowingly at the jokes about political commentator/quiz show host Jeremy Paxman, it’s difficult for an American reader to imagine a high-profile anti-littering public awareness campaign based on a reference to oral sex. (No, I am not making this up.) Even more profoundly, it’s hard for a Yank to comprehend a culture so buttoned-up (or passive-aggressive, take your pick) that a sharp, verbally gifted woman could find herself flummoxed by a so-called friend who continually makes nasty little wisecracks at her expense. When a friend from New York offers straightforward advice–“Tell him to cut it out”–Lynne confesses: “I could honestly have lived to the end of my life and not come up with such a brilliant and original strategy on my own.”

But there’s a larger, more fundamental problem with Talk to the Hand. Along with her witty descriptions of quotidian urban rudeness, Lynne repeatedly states her firm belief that “[t]he era of the manners book has simply passed.” But instead of bemoaning that development, she proclaims good riddance. Etiquette is outmoded, she insists, a vestigial remnant of the class-conscious past. All we really need are kind hearts, good intentions, and simple consideration for others, not a bunch of arbitrary rules with no moral underpinning.

If one felt stroppy, one might point out the paradox of being lectured on the anachronistic nature of arbitrary rules by someone who still drives on the left-hand side of the street. However, Lynne’s anti-etiquette screed underscores the difference between American and British etiquette. In England, she explains, the rules of etiquette historically have been dictated by the aristocracy, who relied on the niceties of finger bowl usage and fish fork twiddling to separate the U (upper class) from the non-U. To Lynne, therefore, etiquette is no more than a tool for social climbers to assume a poshness to which they were not born, the behavioral equivalent of “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Here in the United States, however, a strongly democratic vein has always run through our politely extended pinkies. In Emily Post’s 1922 edition of

Etiquette (to which Lynne makes glancing and derogatory reference), Mrs. Post claims that Americans are socially defined solely by how they behave. Her definition of the “Best Society” makes no mention of riches or birth but focuses on “instinctive consideration for the feelings of others”–combined, Mrs. Post insists, with “knowledge of the social amenities.”

It is those amenities, which Lynne so forcefully spurns, that could provide the answer to the rudeness that so often pervades our daily lives. It is instructive to consider the issue of courtesy titles, which Lynne dismisses as completely outmoded. She fails to understand that these titles–Mr., Ms./Miss, and Mrs.–underscore the proper distance that allows us to engage others without unwelcome invasion of privacy. Courtesy titles are completely democratic in nature. They are ours not by birth, but literally by courtesy, and they provide a line of defense for us commoners who prefer not to allow random dukes, earls, or telephone solicitors to assert droit du seigneur with our first names. They serve as a gentle linguistic admonition to “mind the gap.”

If Lynne–or, as I prefer to call her, Ms. Truss–wishes to understand the true nature of American manners, I would advise her to read Emily Post’s Etiquette, in particular the 1927 edition. In it, Mrs. Post gleefully rolls up her sleeves, sorts through thousands of anxious letters, and tackles the etiquette questions that perplexed her middle-class readers, from what to serve at a neighborhood sewing bee (doughnuts and cider) to how to serve a formal dinner for eight without servants (you can’t, so serve from a buffet instead.) Unlike British etiquette, which Ms. Truss describes as a trickle-down of institutionalized frostiness, the American variety as articulated by Mrs. Post and her successors–in particular, Judith Martin–is warmhearted, sensible, and ultimately grounded in the same respect for liberty, honor, personal freedom, and social responsibility that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence.

In the book’s conclusion, Ms. Truss argues gamely that “enough people demonstrating kindness and good manners may ultimately have an impact on social morality.” In this, she is absolutely and completely correct. I only wish she had been able to connect the dots and realize that we may demonstrate good manners to each other only if we have a shared definition of what good manners are–a definition that is derived only through etiquette.

In her 1922 Etiquette, Mrs. Post states the point succinctly: “Beneath its myriad rules, the fundamental purpose of etiquette is to make the world a pleasanter place to live in, and you a more pleasant person to live with.”