Q & A with Miss Manners
Judith Martin better known by the pen name 'Miss Manners', is an American journalist, author, and etiquette authority. Since 1978 she has written an advice column, which is distributed three times a week by United Features Syndicate and carried in more than 200 newspapers worldwide. In the column, she answers etiquette questions contributed by her readers and writes short essays on problems of manners, or clarifies the essential qualities of politeness.
VALERIE: How do you define etiquette?
JUDITH: All of human social behaviour -- which means that almost everything is my business. What you do at home alone with the shades down, I don't pay any attention to. But human social behaviour is etiquette. And I consider myself in charge of deciding what change is valuable and what is not.
VALERIE: What's the difference between etiquette and manners?
JUDITH: I have defined manners as the basic principles and etiquette is the particular rules of a given society or a subdivision of society at a given time. It's a little bit like the difference between natural law and positive law. Etiquette can be very different to convey the same principles. A classic example is you show respect for a house of worship when a man takes off his hat in a church, puts on a hat in a synagogue. It's opposite, but the manners principle is the same.
"When I started I thought I'd just hear from a few old cranks like myself and it turned out to be the teenagers and the early 20's people who were writing me because they had been told "Just do whatever makes you feel comfortable." Well, they didn't know."
VALERIE: Why do you describe the situation we're in now as a rudeness crisis?
JUDITH: We're in a very peculiar period. In the history of manners -- there is a kind of ricocheting between very elaborate manners that people can't quite get a hold of and "Why don't we just behave naturally?" And then everybody behaves naturally and it's disgusting and they say, "Why don't we have some manners?" And we're sort of coming out of that period. But we're also in a peculiar way in a time when people are advancing manners toward groups and types of people, but are even ruder towards individuals.
VALERIE: Is it fair to judge people by how they behave?
JUDITH: Etiquette has built into it, a sympathy for the stranger, or the person who is too young to know. You do what you can to make the person who doesn't know feel welcome, if you're quite sure of the good intentions. But very often you're not sure because if people violate all the rules, they don't look as if they had good intentions. And part of good intentions is making an effort to learn what the rules are in the situation you find yourself in.
VALERIE: But why has it become so difficult to complete those transactions now? You hold the door someone doesn't say anything. They double park and they never acknowledge. I mean, how does that happen?
JUDITH: Well, a couple of things. It was partly a belief that child rearing was bad for children. And so people did not teach their children manners. The idea was that you should look out for yourself. Which is certainly sensible advice, but part of looking out for yourself is your place in the community, and seeing that you live in a pleasant community. And if it's only you then you're going to be offending people and they're going to be very unpleasant to you, and it's going to be an unpleasant life. There's always again the tension between the individual and the community, if the individual is everything.
On the other hand, if you have a rigid society that does not allow people to develop, that's also unpleasant. So, again you try to strike something in between and etiquette are the guidelines to say, "Hey if you do this you'll probably... everybody understands you're supposed to do this. So if you don't do it, it's going to be annoying to people."
When I started I thought I'd just hear from a few old cranks like myself and it turned out to be the teenagers and the early 20's people who were writing me because they had been told "Just do whatever makes you feel comfortable." Well, they didn't know.
VALERIE: So, you have to learn etiquette. There are rules and you have to learn it. And who teaches you?
JUDITH: The parents should do it. It's like learning language. You learn it because your parents are talking to you and they're getting responses and so on. You don't have to think about it. You can learn etiquette in the same way. You grow up just thinking this is the way things are done. If you have to learn it later, it's harder, like learning a foreign language is harder. The older you are the harder it gets.
The idea of having the schools do it is appalling. The schools are trying to teach reading and writing. In order to do that, they have to have a certain etiquette in place. The child who goes around hitting people and who's never been taught to sit still for a minute and listen to instructions, and show a little respect for authority, can't learn anything else.
"What really annoys me most is that people who interpret rudeness in themselves as creativity, spontaneity... all these wonderful virtues. There's nothing creative about being rude."
So, the schools are overburdened dealing with people who are not prepared for schools, and then told to teach these rules to them, along with all the academic subjects. And teachers, who are mostly in there because they're dedicated people, and bless their hearts, they try. But as any teacher will tell you, it's an uphill battle trying to do all this. Specially, when the parents are playing the good guy who sabotages it. But the rules are the rules and it's up to the parents to teach them.
VALERIE: The parents are busy, the parents are stressed...
JUDITH: Well then don't have children, if you don't have the time to bring up children. Everybody's busy. You make time for what you need to do. I'm totally in sympathy with the hecticness of modern life, of any life, but if you're going to have children, you can't say, "I don't have any time for child rearing." I mean it's like, if you had a pet, would you say, "I don't have any time to feed the pet?"
VALERIE: You talk about etiquette changing and I think a lot of people have foundered on the male/female rocks that way.
JUDITH: 'Ladies first' was just a rule that you don't necessarily need. Now, we have some affection for the old traditions, and the big difference that I kept trying to hammer away in the respect, was the difference between professional life and social life. In professional life, gender should not be a factor. You are there as a lawyer, or a bus driver or whatever you are, and your gender is irrelevant. In social life, it can be very relevant and therefore, some of the charming old things that people keep in social life are fine, but they don't belong in business life.
VALERIE: But people keep saying, "They changed the rules on me. I don't know how to treat these ladies."
JUDITH: Well, then learn the new rules, folks.
VALERIE: So, professionally, it's gender neutral. You're not worrying about kissing people on their cheeks. You'd be shaking a hand. You wouldn't be carrying things, holding doors...
JUDITH: Well, you might, but not on the basis of gender. You might hold the door for the president of your company. Or you might hold the door for your secretary who comes in with a lot of packages. See, that's the catch. There are rules.
VALERIE: Tell me the rules about electronic toys.
JUDITH: Well, the rules were in place long before these things were invented. You know, can you sit there and have a cell phone conversation in the middle of a concert? Well, no! You're not supposed to be making noise. Right? That's an old rule. Whether you make it with a trumpet or you make it with a cell phone, it's still wrong. I don't like the people who say, "Well, cell phones are terrible. They're rude." We all have them. They're very useful. It's how you use them.
What people don't understand is that they do not abolish all the rules. They do not exist in an etiquette-free zone. And that the more technological tools you have available, the richer life is, and you should use them each for their own purpose. And not, "Okay, now I'm gonna, text message or email my... condolence letter to you." Ah! People do that. No. That's the wrong use of it.
"The other nasty thing is that people are analysing these gestures much too much. So, the woman who says, "My arm isn't broken. I can open the door for myself." Or the man on the bus says, "Oh, you think I'm old?" Of course she does. When people reject forms of respect, women, men, elderly people, they're just making the world poorer."
VALERIE: What do you suggest in terms of deference?
JUDITH: I think age and rank and in social life, gender is still a factor and a gentleman, can pull out a chair for a lady. Yes, she doesn't need it. But it's a nice little sign of deference. Should not do it in business. A young girl should stand up for an elderly gentleman on the bus, that kind of thing.
But the other nasty thing is that people are analysing these gestures much too much. So, the woman who says, "My arm isn't broken. I can open the door for myself." Or the man on the bus says, "Oh, you think I'm old?" Of course she does. When people reject forms of respect, women, men, elderly people, they're just making the world poorer.
VALERIE: What drives Miss Manners crazy?
JUDITH: Well, what really annoys me most is that people who interpret rudeness in themselves as creativity, spontaneity... all these wonderful virtues. There's nothing creative about being rude. It's just rude. People who are proud of being rude, that really annoys me.
VALERIE: If people are rude, do you correct them? Is that polite?
JUDITH: No. Because that's rude.
And that's another bane of my life, is people who think they're helping, and they say so and so did something rude. Well, you've just violently increased the amount of rudeness in the world, not to mention when you bring in actual violence. You haven't helped. Not to mention the fact that also that it doesn't cure people of rudeness, more rudeness. It's not an inoculation against it.
VALERIE: You've studied etiquette through the ages. Where would you place where we are now? How would you describe it?
JUDITH: Well, we're coming out of that cycle -- where everybody wants to behave naturally, quote/unquote. And when I started writing my column, which was at the end of the '70s, the very word etiquette was not around. People, would say, "Etiquette? You know, that's ridiculous. Manners? You know, we don't have any manners nowadays." I said, "Ooh, you got that right." But we're coming out of that cycle to the point where people realize that they want civility in their lives. And I've been waiting for a long time for the next step where they say, "Okay then I have to contribute my part to it."
VALERIE: And learn the rules?
JUDITH: Learn the rules and observe them and give other people the same civility that you expect from them.