By Judith Newman
“Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks etc. in the Sight of Others. … If it be upon the Clothes of your Companions, Put it off privately.” Sound advice, that, and probably preferable to my own response to seeing an insect crawling on someone, which is to scream like a baby and run. At any rate, this was Rule 13 in George Washington’s “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company & Conversation,” which our first president reportedly nicked from a French book of manners, copied into one of his school exercise books when he was a teenager and proudly followed for the rest of his life. While the particulars of social decorum have changed somewhat since Washington was a boy — we don’t have as much need for flicking lice off our loved ones — the need for etiquette lessons has not.
Whether it’s our collective self-involvement or the lack of face-to-face interaction that social media facilitates, one thing is clear: We are a nation of boors. According to a study called “Civility in America
” — conducted right after the 2016 elections — 75 percent of Americans believe our lack of manners “has risen to crisis levels.”
Fortunately, just in time for the holidays, there is a new crop of books that address etiquette for every imaginable awkward circumstance, though admittedly it may not be the best manners to give one of these books as a gift. What’s the message? “Happy Holidays, you animal!” It’s like sending your chunky friend a scale. Nevertheless, here are some choices for the favorite beastie on your list.
“Rudeness is rampant”; “Etiquette today is not about how you hold a teacup”; “These are not the best of times for our friend grammar”: These are just a few of the delightfully Jean Brodie-ish proclamations by Nancy R. Mitchell in ETIQUETTE RULES! A Field Guide to Modern Manners (Wellfleet, paper, $14.99). Mitchell, who runs an etiquette school for corporations and other institutions, covers a lot of ground here, including how to dress and behave in a theater and a church, and every venue in between. She also addresses some of the dicier modern conundrums, like how to address someone who is transitioning, or speak properly to a person with a disability. (Hint: Use normal idiom and don’t be too self-conscious. If you’re talking to a blind person, she says, there’s no need to die inwardly if you use the expression “See what I mean?”)
With “Etiquette Rules,” I discovered that when it comes to common-sense decency I’m an upstanding citizen, but when it comes to new rules involving technology, I might as well have been raised by wolves. Wait, I’m not allowed to talk on my cellphone in line at the deli, even if I pause to answer the deli guy’s questions? I can’t place my phone next to me in a restaurant, even if I don’t answer it? And if I do answer, Mitchell warns, you better be either a first responder or the “designated driver for a pregnant woman.”
There are so many somewhat arbitrary rules here that sometimes I found myself stubbornly resisting Mitchell’s advice. For example, when making introductions at a party, identify the “highest-ranking individual in the group” and introduce the others to this person. But what if you are introducing Mark Zuckerberg and the Dalai Lama? Or a former national security adviser to his cell block warden? When making such introductions, Mitchell warns, it is also rude to “use unnecessary hand or arm gestures.” Define “unnecessary.” What if you’re introducing mimes? See, etiquette doesn’t solve every social conundrum, does it, Missy?
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Nevertheless, “Etiquette Rules” is an excellent general primer for a young woman entering the workplace. She won’t miss a trick, even if she might not remember every one of them.
MODERN AMERICAN MANNERS: Dining Etiquette for Hosts and Guests (Skyhorse, $26.99), by Fred Mayo and Michael Gold, focuses on just that: all matters of etiquette pertaining to dining. How to set a proper table; how to be an excellent host or a guest; networking efficiently but not aggressively; and minutiae like the proper way to hold a drink and a canapé in one hand so that you can shake with the other — all are covered, with accompanying photographs reminiscent of Glamour magazine’s old Dos and Don’ts pages, without the black bars. I don’t think the pictures are meant to be funny. But try not to laugh at the photo captioned “Simply ignore guests who fall asleep at the table.” Much of the advice seems sound, if occasionally puzzling. For example, apparently you’re supposed to seat the obnoxious over-sharers and conversation monopolizers at the far reaches of a dinner table, in order to protect your guests. This can’t be true. After all, I’m almost always the person seated at the foot of the table at my friends’ dinner parties.
Kelvin Davis, the guru of “Notoriously Dapper,” a men’s fashion blog, throws his fedora in the ring with NOTORIOUSLY DAPPER: How to Be a Modern Gentleman With Manners, Style, and Body Confidence (Mango, paper, $19.95). He started the blog to show men that “a balding, 5-foot-9, 240-pound black guy can look just as fly or even better” in the clothing made for slimmer models. But eventually it also became an outlet for his thoughts about what it is to be a man of manners. “Acting in a gentlemanly way,” he writes, “has become so rare that a lot of people mistake it for flirting or being creepy. What’s so creepy about buying someone’s coffee with no intention of wanting anything in return?” What indeed? This is basically a book for millennials about what it takes to be a gentleman. Kindness is at the core of it. But then, for Davis, so is style. He argues that “clothing has sizes, but style does not,” and that “dressing well is a form of good manners.” “Notoriously Dapper” rambles in ways that more Type A books don’t — subjects like first-time fatherhood and infidelity are shoehorned in here, just because — but Davis certainly has something to say to young men about what we lose when we give up the concept of being a gentleman, and what we have to gain when we cherish it. My one quibble? Davis insists that not dancing at a wedding is rude. Oh, sure. Not if you can’t dance, it isn’t.
It’s a little misleading to call TREATING PEOPLE WELL: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life (Scribner, $27) a self-help book. It’s really a charming memoir about being a social secretary in the White House, by Lea Berman, who worked for the George W. Bush administration, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for the Obamas. The book is divided into 12 lessons that describe the different facets of gracious behavior: self-confidence, humor and charm (with an emphasis on humor), consistency and so forth. Following their precepts will make you socially adept, which in turn will make you successful. But the meat of the book is in the funny and moving stories about what it takes to be the general of the White House’s social army; after all, those Easter eggs are not going to roll themselves. The grace-under-pressure lessons here are legion, whether it’s getting reluctant guests to leave without ordering them out (it’s a crowd-control maneuver known as the chicken walk) or refereeing two international interpreters vying for the place of honor next to their leaders while trying to shove each other off their chairs. Whatever your political persuasion, you will understand the meaning of “charm offensive.”
The point of the book is that graciousness is not just good for its own sake; it is useful in getting things accomplished, in politics as in life. And if you don’t think that charm, etiquette, manners, civility and grace have a place in today’s White House? I have an idea: You’re fired!