Patrick Skene Catling
Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour Judith Martin (Hamish Hamilton £9.95)
Nowhere else in the world are fashions more volatile, more rigorously pro- mulgated and more earnestly observed than
in the United States. All men are created equal there, by law. God has to obey the Constitution, even though the Constitution unfairly excludes Him from all affairs of State, so that the exquisite niceties of super- ficial personal differentiation are studied as indicators of personal progress, much more avidly than in an old-fashioned democracy like Britain, where everybody knows from childhood that he is, in some way, innately better than everybody else. Most Britons (though they are becoming more and more American) devote less time, effort and money than Americans do to prove that in- equality can be an acquired trait.
There are changing fashions in social behaviour, of course, as well as in the sleekness or frizziness of hair-styles and the shapes of sunglasses and buttocks. Mrs Trollope's rudeness inspired the American etiquette industry, which attained its apotheosis in Emily Post. Her Book of Eti- quette for many years was required reading, by everyone who could read, from Coast to Coast.
During the 1960s and 1970s, in one of the manifestations of the intellectual revolu- tion, suddenly it was de rigueur to be sloppy and boorish. Now, it seems, the pendulum has swung back and it is O.K. to be polite again, or at least to perform the codified rituals of politeness. In fact, according to recent reports from New York, until now known as the rudeness capital of the United States, politesse is a must. At etiquette schools, little boys and girls are being taught not to drink water out of the finger bowls.
America's new social arbiter is Miss Man- ners (a registered trademark of United Features Syndicate, Inc.). Her real name is Judith Martin. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and a drama and film critic on The Washington Post. She is a real lady — that is to say, she is charming, ar-
ticulate, practical and tough. She knows the score. She gives advice on etiquette in a widely syndicated newspaper column. Here is a big, fat book, an American best-seller, of excerpts from it — more than 700 pages of her readers' questions and her answers to them.
The title is an apt expression of her feel- ings about the entertaining service she pro- vides. She is excruciatingly witty; her cor- rectitude is beyond reproach. This massive volume tells you everything you need to know — perhaps a bit more — about how to behave in the United States without any danger that people will think you're a jerk. You could just get through the book in the plane on the way across the Atlantic, though not in Concorde, and Miss Man- ners' sensible, humane recommendations could prove to be useful. Whether you go or not, her advice is amusing, especially if read in small instalments, late in the even- ing, when you may not feel like reading anything demanding.
In her comprehensive, detailed, yet brisk survey of proper behaviour, Miss Manners gives instructions on how to tell of an im- pending birth CA lady should take time to comb her hair before she announces her pregnancy'), how to treat children and how not to treat them ('Rudeness to children counts as rudeness'), family dining (`Enter- tainment is live, not electronic'), the inter- pretation of conversational terms (`I'll call you. This has opposite meanings, and you have to judge by the delivery. One is Let's start something and the other is Don't call me), and modern romance (`Imagine how astonished Miss Manners was to be asked about singles bars. Why, Miss Manners has never even set foot in a sandwich bar, let alone a singles bar, and wouldn't know what to order.').
She explains the elaborate protocol of formal weddings (on the day after the wed- ding, 'the couple sometimes shows up to continue the festivities. This must be discouraged, no matter how long they have lived together and how short a time they have off from work. Enough is enough'), what different sorts of writing paper can be used for (`Writing is such a useful social skill that Miss Manners is surprised that more people don't bother to learn it'), how to make a divorce announcement (`Anything along the lines of hiring an airplane to write it in the sky is considered to be in poor taste'), and even the arrange- ment of a deathbed scene (`The deathbed family gathering is a social event of such drama and excitement that Miss Manners cannot understand why it is so seldom stag- ed in modern times. . . Keep your bequests vague. "I want to give you my most ancient and treasured possession" is better than "I'm leaving you my baseball card collec- tion." ').
Mrs Martin is really a cheerful, com- monsensical idealist who believes in courtesy as a means of minimising pain. She pretends to be a hard-boiled cynic, disguis- ing her kindness in wisecracks. She assumes a manner of mock gentility, perhaps because she wouldn't want United Features to accuse her of being gentle. Syndicated columnists are not allowed to seem soft. She says, 'Miss Manners is .a cucumber sandwich eater in a doughnut world,' and seems to try to suggest the opposite.
She urges her readers to use politeness to put down uncouth assailants. But sometimes, when her interrogators are ex- cessively silly, her impatience wears a bit thin and she can be terse.
Question, from a man: 'I am embarrass- ed when a woman I am lunching with grabs the check. . . What is the woman's real ob- jective here — to prove she's my equal?'
Q.: 'June used to be the traditional time for weddings, but customs are so different now. Is there any preferred date for wed- dings in modern life?'
A.: 'It is preferable to hold them after the divorce and before the birth of the baby.'
Q.: 'What is the proper way to walk in high-heeled shoes?'
A.: 'Left, right, left, right, left, right.'
But best of all, I thought, was a response that seemed daring because it could put her and all other etiquette counsellors out of business: Q.: `If you had to give a single piece of advice to a couple who want to break into society, what would it be?'
A.: 'Don't bother.'