Minding your modern manners on The Current

First aired on The Current (2/1/12)

Move over, Emily Post. Journalist and NPR and Vanity Fair contributing editor Henry Alford has published a thoroughly modern guide to manners, updated for the internet age. In a recent interview on The Current, Alford talked about his book, Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?, explained why having good manners nowadays isn't simply a matter of learning one set of rules, and gave tips on issues like when it's okay to talk in public on your cellphone.

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The interview is prefaced by an audio clip of Post, giving her instructions for dinner-table etiquette. But proper social behaviour is trickier today, according to Alford.

He decided to write a book about contemporary manners after an incident at his local grocery store in New York City. "The girl at the register dropped my apple on the floor and then put it in my bag and said nothing," he told host Anna Maria Tremonti. "So I started what I call 'reverse apologizing.' So I said to her, 'I'm so sorry,' and she said nothing. And I said, 'No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean for you to drop my apple like that.' And again she said nothing. So it set off this sort of campaign where I would give the apology that other people owed me."

Are people's manners worse now than they used to be? Alford says it's a tricky question. "I asked Miss Manners, Judith Martin, that very same question and as she said, you can argue that either way."

One of the factors that Alford feels is important to consider is that contemporary manners have "gotten more and more relative." He described it as "each day, you walk through what are almost like a series of micro-climates."

In general, Alford thinks it's "a really rude gesture" to answer your cellphone when you're with others. But he adds that context is a factor. "If I'm hanging out with my working mommy friends, then suddenly, I have no problem with that," because they may really need to take a call.

Alford also doesn't have a problem with answering a cellphone when you're just out on the street. "I think the larger question here is, are you hurting someone's feelings or are you creating any sort of disturbance? I would never argue for formality for formality's sake."

Though Alford believes that today's manners are quite situation-specific, he does draw the line at certain behaviour.

Tops on his list of pet peeves is the expression "no problem." "I think the use of that expression has almost become hostile. Unless an actual problem has been averted, using that expression is false...," he said. "You're trafficking in implied martyrdom."

He points out that new technologies also require new forms of courtesy. "There's almost an implicit hierarchy now," Alford said. "I think that when you respond to someone's message you need to meet them at the [same] level of the hierarchy or go up a notch. Which is to say, if they give you a telephone call, I think you need to respond with a phone call. You don't respond to a phone call with an email. Either match their level or bump it up one."

Another of his pet peeves has more to do with traditional social convention. "In my world, it's very common to go to someone's house where they have invited 15 or 20 friends and never once be introduced to any of the other guests by the host," he said. Alford speculates that the hosts feel that making formal introductions seems "network-y" or forced. But at a gathering, he said, "I think it's incumbent on the guests to try to talk to people they don't know."

In course of his research, Alford interviewed about 40 people in different professions and quizzed them on the questions they get asked that are unintentionally rude. These include asking doctors how long they've been practicing, and "the taxi driver question," which Alford himself admits to being guilty of. When he got into a cab and noticed on the permit that the driver had an interesting last name, he would ask where they were from.

But that's a no-no. "Foreigners often want to be perceived as Americans first," Alford said. "Being Nigerian or Ethiopian, that might be number 43 on a list of descriptors by which they want to be identified. If anyone has a foreign accent, let them volunteer the information regarding where they're from. If they want to talk about that, they will."

Alford went on to list other forms of rudeness, including the experience of a friend who is black, but whose godchild is white. They were playing together in a park when a woman approached them and asked, "Do they pay you well?" She was assuming that the black woman was a nanny. Even when she was told, "No, this is my god-daughter, I do this out of love," the woman persisted.

Alford acknowledges that he himself has been guilty of a lot of the bad manners in the book, but he believes it's important to admit that. "So many of our bad manners are unintentional," he said. "We always assume that bad manners are something that someone else has, it's never our fault. We rationalize our own bad behaviour...the starting point, if we're going to get manners back on track, we have to cop to our own badness."

As part of his research, Alford went to Japan. "It's a culture that puts such a premium on decorum," he said. "By immersing myself in that culture for three weeks, I was able to then come back to North America and sort of have an objective view of what kind of value do we put on manners."

What can we learn from the Japanese? Alford cited small specific things, such as on escalators, everyone keeps completely to the right if they are just standing, so they don't impede people who want to walk up on the left side. But the larger issue, he said, is that the Japanese have a strong communal identity when it comes to manners. One Japanese person told him, "I wouldn't eat food or chew gum on the subway because that says something bad about the Japanese."

Alford stresses that to have good manners today is not about learning a set list of dos and don'ts. "It's about being able to enter a new milieu and being able to suss out or deduce what's going on there."

When asked why manners matter, Alford quotes 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke: "Manners are more important than laws."

It's a belief that Alford shares because manners, good or bad, have such an impact on our everyday life. "At the end of each day, we are left with a series of tiny grievances, tiny misunderstandings, or conversely, with memories of lovely little gestures that people did for us," he explained. "At the end of the day we're not thinking about crime and various legal issues. I think that...humans tend to be more emotional rather than intellectual. So I think that manners, [while they] may seem picayune and very modest and small, I think, in fact, they're huge."

Nevertheless, Alford counsels caution when it comes to confronting someone about their rudeness. "It's a question of having this radar, and sort of sensing what's going to fly and what isn't," he said.

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Would it Kill You to Stop Doing That?

by Henry Alford

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From the publisher:

"We all know bad manners when we see them," NPR and Vanity Fair contributor Henry Alford observes at the beginning of his new book. But what, he asks, do good manners look like in our day and age? When someone answers their cell phone in the middle of dining with you, or runs you off the sidewalk with their doublewide stroller, or you enter a post-apocalyptic public restroom, the long-revered wisdom of Emily Post can seem downright prehistoric.

Troubled by the absence of good manners in his day-to-day life — by the people who clip their toenails on the subway or give three-letter replies to one's laboriously crafted missives — Alford embarks on a journey to find out how things might look if people were on their best behavior a tad more often. He travels to Japan (the 'Fort Knox Reserve' of good manners) to observe its culture of collective politesse. He interviews etiquette experts both likely (Judith Martin, Tim Gunn) and unlikely (a former prisoner, an army sergeant). He plays a game called Touch the Waiter. And he volunteers himself as a tour guide to foreigners visiting New York City in order to do ground-level reconnaissance on cultural manners divides. Along the way (in typical Alford style) he also finds time to teach Miss Manners how to steal a cab; designates the World's Most Annoying Bride; and tosses his own hat into the ring, volunteering as an online etiquette coach..."

Read more at Grand Central Publishing.