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A review of the history of social behavior
on December 19, 2005
Do you ever wonder whether Miss Manners gets tired of saying the same things over and over and over again?
Just how many times do you suppose she can tell people that it's tacky to demand money from guests, or that you really do need to write an actual letter of appreciation to people (called "hosts") who save you the expense of meals and hotel accomodations when visiting, or that there is no polite way to do something which everyone agrees is rude and which the Gentle Reader specifically intends as an insult?
This book is what Miss Manners wrote when she was tired of making the same announcements over and over and over again. It's NOT a collection of her newspaper columns. It's a history of manners in America.
I have read the entire thing and am thrilled with it. It's funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny. The part of the Gentle Readers is played by the occasional historical characters, who aren't so much writing letters to Miss Manners as writing letters to each other, or getting themselves written up in newspaper accounts, and then leaving these reports carelessly lying around for posterity (us) to read decades and centuries later.
What I liked best about this book was that it made me think about why our approach to teaching "multiculturalism" in public schools hasn't lived up to its promise of better inter-cultural understanding. We teach the trappings -- the secular and religious holidays like Cinco de Mayo or Eid al-Fitr, and occasionally a bit of geography, history, and costuming -- but we ignore the importance of everyday behaviors: Is it rude to look a person in the eye? Is it rude not to? Is it okay to wear short shorts to a funeral? And is that granny with the AARP discount card going to throw a temper tantrum if she thinks that you think that she's over the age of 40?
Miss Manners argues convincingly here that America needs a basic, all-purpose, utilitarian set of behaviors so that people can go to the grocery store or otherwise live their private-public lives in America without offending the other people around them.
I also appreciated the time she spends convincing her readers that there's no such thing as an "etiquette-free" life among humans. Your (and your neighbor's) dress, speech, and actions will always be interpreted as meaning something. She makes a compelling argument that we should collectively give up this notion that body language should be ignored, as well as that misguided notion that carefully chosen clothing styles "to express who I am!" should never be counted against us.
(Apparently Miss Manners has had many letters cross her desk in which people complain that wearing "I'm a thief" clothing [or "I only care about sex" clothing, or "I sell drugs on the side" clothing, or "I'm dirty" clothing, or whatever] makes it harder for them to get hired into positions of trust, among other things.)
Quite a number of reviewers seem to have expected this book to be more like her "Perfect Weddings" or "Excruciatingly Correct Behavior," and it's quite different. This is not an advice book; it's a history and why-we-are-this-way book. It's therefore perfect for the social historian on your gift list, but otherwise you might want to Search Inside this book (tip: you can search on page numbers in most books) before you buy.