Miss Unmannerly

Reading between the lines.
June 25 1996 3:30 AM

Miss Unmannerly

With her lastest book, America's etiquette expert does something she'd never condone: She overstays her welcome.

Miss Manners Rescues Civilization From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other Lapses in Civility

By Judith Martin

(Crown Publishers; 497 pages; $30)

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In the guise of a lorgnette-waving, muff-carrying, white-gloved creature named Miss Manners, Judith Martin, a reporter for the Washington Post, launched an etiquette column in 1978. Twice a week in the Style section she archly instructed up-and-coming baby boomers on appropriate personal, social, and professional decorum. Martin's idea was to reinstitute the raised eyebrow as an instrument of social commentary and guidance--an idea that itself was supposed to raise eyebrows, and did.

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At Washington dinner parties in the late 1970s, the implausible new arbiter was a prime topic of conversation among yuppies, who then sent their hosts thank-you notes in blue or black ink, as she prescribed. It was a hoot, and it was polite, too. Miss Manners was wittily practical with the "Gentle Readers" who wrote in for advice on cleaning up their acts. Ministering to their sense of irony and their sense of insecurity at the same time, she was the perfect campy connoisseur of propriety for a tie-dyed generation now into ties. Her basic principle--the importance of "shifting our attention from our own feelings to other people's thoughts"--sounded amusingly outlandish in the wake of the let-it-all-hang-out era. Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior was a bestselling success in 1982.

The risk, of course, lay in taking Miss Manners too seriously. (Review her book with a two-volume treatise on the history of manners by a famous Swiss sociologist? I did it myself.) Leave it to George Will, who was born wearing a bow tie, to give her cause a pedigree. Anointing Miss Manners a deep-thinking critic of 1960s liberation and license, he made her sound like a fellow Tory pundit, only in taffeta: Her quill quivered on behalf of the same neat, elite Western standards that he with his fountain pen defended on the editorial page. In his best core-curriculum name-dropping style, Will compared Miss Manners on the civilizing power of social convention to Plato, Burke, Lincoln, Metternich, the Founding Fathers, and Pope Pius IX. "She insists, wrongly, that she deals with manners rather than with morals," Will informed his readers. As the conservative, acquisitive 1980s took off, Miss Manners was conscripted for the conservative values crusade.

Miss Manners, who doubtless blushed at such treatment, has been trying to live up to the philosophical flattery and live down the ideological company ever since. Miss Manners Rescues Civilization From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other Lapses in Civility, as its title indicates, represents her most sweeping effort so far. The etiquette expert doesn't want to be mistaken for a Tory stick-in-the-mud--she's all-American, she's egalitarian, she's up-to-date--but she's become a self-important, name-dropping crusader in the civility wars herself. This 500-page book, in which Miss Manners does a lot of recycling, isn't likely to raise an eyebrow, a hackle, or much of a smile.

Miss Manners underrates the popularity of etiquette in the 1990s, and overrates its power. According to her, only she, along with "theologians and philosophers, in both Western and Far Eastern civilizations, [takes] etiquette seriously, ... in the correct belief that manners are a virtue akin to morality." Everyone else, resorting to "counter-rudeness, violence, and ... lawsuits" in the face of incivility, spurns "the gentler, freer, extralegal system of etiquette." Yet her current book, to say nothing of life itself during the decade and a half since her first book, offers ample proof of a mania for manners. (Three more Miss Manners' Guides, it's worth noting, sold well in the interval.)

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Listen to Clinton and Dole. Invoking decorous values like self-restraint, decency, respect, personal and parental responsibility, and compassion has become an American pastime. The "E word" may not crop up much, but that doesn't mean people shudder at the concept, as Miss Manners claims. Dress codes, curfews, sexual-consent codes (fine in spirit, she feels, "unnecessarily tiring" in practice) are in; so are forks. The service economy has brought professional etiquette back into fashion--even the U.S. Postal Service trains employees in cheerful civility. "Teach Your Toddler Manners" is a staple of every parenting magazine.

And listen to Miss Manners herself, who has to admit there has been progress: "When the nostalgic moan about the decline of etiquette, Miss Manners turns contrary and points out that it is only recently that frank expressions of prejudice have become socially unacceptable." She gushes that "netiquette," the rules being codified for computer behavior, proves the younger generation understands the "legitimacy of etiquette as an essential factor in community life." Miss Manners, when it comes right down to it, acknowledges that most citizens aren't at sea about standards of politeness at all, heterogeneous though our nation's standards may be. Even "allowing for the unawareness of newcomers and for regional difference," she observes, "we can all distinguish good American manners from bad."

In short, Miss Manners is in danger of being out of a job. What's more, it becomes clear that the job, as she stakes out her middle-of-the-road liberal conception of it, can only accomplish so much. "Here's what strikes Miss Manners as a fair division of labor," she writes on her favorite subject, child rearing: "She will nag adults to teach manners to children, and everyone else will find them the time in which to do this." Now there's an undertaking: "Just restructure society so that a reasonable person can manage both a job and a private life." (Presumably the same goes for her cure for sexual harassment: She insists that a firm distinction between working and socializing will clear everything right up.) And where greater zealots might enlist "etiquette's weapon of disapproval" to try to restructure society and family life--sanctioning, say, births "out of what was sternly called wedlock"--Miss Manners demurs: "Miss Manners does not oppose the use of social pressure to encourage stable family life. She only insists that it take a less cruel form."

Rather than suggest some gentler form, Miss Manners proclaims National Civility Week beginning June 24. It sounds suspiciously like National Secretaries Week: penance that allows everyone to be thoughtlessly rude the other 358 days of the year. But then Miss Manners' "peculiar profession" depends on "sensitive but indignant souls ... complaining to her about their disgusting fellow citizens." Boorishness is good for business.