Fran Lebowitz on what's wrong with American manners

First aired on Q (20/06/12)

american-manners-225.jpgThere are outsiders who see only bad behaviour when they're talking about "American manners." In Q's continuing quest to define and redesign modern American manners, they called on Fran Lebowitz, the opinionated New York-based writer and humorist, for her take on the subject. She's had plenty of experience as a commentator, having written two bestselling essay collections, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. She's also the subject of a recent documentary by Martin Scorcese called Public Speaking. This fall, she'll be touring North America for a series of onstage conversations.

Asked how she would characterize the manners of her fellow Americans, Lebowitz told host Jian Ghomeshi, "First of all, manners doesn't mean good manners. Of course Americans have manners. They just don't have good manners." But Lebowitz went on to point out that these failings in etiquette aren't exclusive. "The rest of the world has been amazingly receptive to every bad American idea of the last 60 years, not the one really good American idea, democracy, but all of our terrible ideas."

What upsets her the most? "As a New Yorker, and a pedestrian, the idea that there are no people in the world, other than yourself," Lebowitz said, adding that she's even gone to the extent of deliberately crashing into these people with no regard for others. "People seem generally startled to discover, yes, at 17th and Broadway, other people."

She defines the "unawareness of other people" as "the central aspect of present-day manners in New York City." According to Lebowitz, the situation has gotten worse because a lot of the people clogging up the sidewalk are not actually New Yorkers, but people on vacation. "Please let me take this opportunity to prevent any further people from coming here on vacation. Bad vacation spot. Wherever they live is apparently less restful than New York, so they come to New York on vacation. So they're not in a hurry."

She added that "It seems now that people live in a world of one. If they have some vague awareness that there are other people, they expect you to move."

fran_leb.jpgIn her 1978 essay, Manners, Lebowitz discusses "acceptable behaviour." Asked what constitutes acceptable behaviour nowadays, she responded: "Boundaries. First of all, I would like people to not eat everywhere, which they do. There seems to be no moment when people aren't snacking." She suggests instead that "People should eat only sitting down at a table."

Lebowitz distinguishes between acceptable behaviour and traditional etiquette. "Etiquette used to involve a lot of rituals," she explained. "I don't really care whether people observe those rituals, that would be a matter of taste as opposed to a matter of vital importance, you know, which is people behave in a totally disgusting manner. That's not the same thing as, which fork do you use? I'd settle for using a fork."

When it comes to Americans' reputation abroad, they're often stereotyped as talking too loudly, dressing too casually and being inconsiderate of others. Lebowitz acknowledged that this reputation is deserved, but she also feels those habits have spread to other countries. And she points to the tourists in New York City as proof. "We have tourists here from every country in the world, and until they talk, you cannot tell that they're not from this country. They are just as badly dressed, just as loud. This is what I meant. Nothing spreads faster than a bad idea."

Asked for advice on how Americans can improve their image abroad, Lebowitz suggested that they should simply follow her example. "Speak softly, do not eat in public, be aware that there are other people."

Lebowitz believes that people don't realize that they should behave in public differently than they do in their own homes. "There used to be this boundary. You expected that people might be slobs in their house, but you didn't have to know about it."

She went on to decry flip-flops. "They're okay in your house, where I don't have to see you, or on the beach. That's it. Not to mention, how insane do you have to be to wear flip-flops in New York? I can't believe that you people wear them and don't contract typhus."

Given the diversity of American society, it's perhaps not even possible to have a consensus on good manners. But Lebowitz is firm in her opinions. "I think the best thing that people in other countries could do is stop copying the bad American habits. Yes, we invented McDonald's, but you let it into your country." She singles out the burger giant as an example of an industry that she takes exception to because it encourages constant eating. "That's what fast food is."