Polite Company

A chat with Judith Martin about etiquette.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

PT: What is etiquette, and why should we care about it?

Judith Martin: Etiquette is about all of human social behavior. Behavior is regulated by law when etiquette breaks down or when the stakes are high--violations of life, limb, property, and so on. Barring that, etiquette is a little social contract we make that we well restrain some of our more provocative impulses in return for living more or less harmoniously in a community.

Of course, when you throw etiquette aside, as has been roundly done over the last few decades, you end up with the "road rage" phenomenon. People say very proudly, "I don't care about etiquette," because they don't understand what it is. They have the mistaken idea that etiquette is some kind of little ritual for snobs. But when you throw it away. the violence, the frivolous lawsuits, and the not-so-frivolous lawsuits, follow very quickly.

PT: In 1979, you said that we had a rudeness crisis. What would you say, then, we have today?

JM: Today we are wrestling w the the knowledge that we need etiquette back, and with the reluctance of people to bind themselves by it. The whole country wants civility. Why don't we have it?

It doesn't cost anything. No federal funding, no legislation is involved.

One answer is the unwillingness to restrain oneself. Everybody wants other people to be polite to them, but they want the freedom of not having to be polite to others.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. This notion is a carryover from that very sweet but mistaken era in which [we believed] that we're all good and kind all the time, so that if you teach a child etiquette, you're spoiling something good and turning it into something hypocritical and artificial. With any luck, you are. If babies are that good, why do they wake us up in the middle of the night? Why don't they get up and go to the bathroom by themselves? The fact is that civilization requires some training in restraint so that we can get along.

The other part of it is [the belief that] if we just totally opened our souls to one another, we would love one another and get along. This trivializes the fact that people have deep and legitimately-held differences. People think, mistakenly, that etiquette means you have to suppress your differences. On the contrary, etiquette is what enables you to deal with them; it gives you a set of rules. On the floor of the Congress, you don't say, "You're a jerk and a crook"; you say, "I'm afraid the distinguished gentleman is mistaken about so and so." Those are the things that enable you to settle your differences, to bring them out in the open. Everything else just starts battles.

PT: Why does everyone think everyone but themselves lacks manners?

JM: The hardest lesson--and this is what child-rearing and perhaps all of manners is about--is that there are other people in the world and you do have to take their feelings into consideration. It doesn't mean you always have to yield to them, but it does mean that you have to know how to deal with them. A lot of people know that they want to be treated politely, but they don't make that little leap and say, Well, the other person must feel that way, too.

Etiquette is taught in the beginning of life, or should be, by the parents saying, "Darling, now don't pull the dog's tail. How would you feel if the dog pulled your tail?" The kid says, "I don't have a tail, so what do I care?" But you keep making that point of how would you feel if. It's a difficult thing to learn.

PT: I have my very own Miss Manners question. This is a real event that happened recently. I wished at the time that there was a Miss Manners hotline because I truly did not know what to do. My husband and I were entertaining a couple with a three-year-old daughter. We had finished dinner and were lounging around the dining-room table talking. The father of the little girl got up and came back to the table with a glass of water and his daughter's toothbrush and said, "Now Lily, it's time to brush your teeth." I was aghast, repulsed. I couldn't think of anything to say that wasn't horribly snide. I just froze, and walked out of the room.

JM: Health is a new religion. People think it overrides everything; they're self-righteous about it and incredibly rude. But this is a new one even for me, although I am told often about people who will brush their teeth or clip their nails on commuter trains or buses.

As you well know, you have an overriding responsibility not to insult guests in your house. And there's an etiquette rule against telling parents that they don't know how to bring up their children,and about embarrassing the parent in front of the child. So I understand why you were frozen. There was the shock of the behavior and all these conflicting obligations. The polite solution is to take the little child by the hand and say, come here, darling, and bring that with you and I'll show you where you can do this. And you're being charming and helpful and hospitable, and you are ensuring that she doesn't spit on your dinner table.

PT: In your writing, I see not only teacup formalities, but wonderful psychological truths.

JM: May I just break in and say, teacup formality is a part of etiquette, but an infinitesimal part. How about fast-food informality? That is as much a part of etiquette as the teacup. It is all of our behavior and not simply the formal occasion behavior. And, in fact, the more informal the circumstances, usually the more you need etiquette.

PT: Let's go back to something you said regarding my predicament: never correct a child in words in the presence of its parents. The subject is manners, but the rule is psychologically astute: humiliation is not character-building.

JM: Using humiliation to correct something else is like shouting at a child to be quiet. By committing the same transgression, you are not doing a good job of what is half of child-rearing. There's nagging and there's example. You need both. But if you do the nagging or enforcing part in a rude way, you undercut what you're doing.

PT: And this is part of the link between morals and manners. Murder is immoral. And humiliation is unmannerly But the fastest way to create a murderer is to continually humiliate a human being. Because you breed revenge.

JM: Exactly. Now there is no law against humiliating people, nor should there be. I am not for escalating every little infraction of manners into a legal matter, which is what people are doing. One of the consequences of saying we don't care about etiquette is to turn everything into law. So if you say something I don't like, I start screaming that you're affecting my mental health or whatever, to blow it up into a legal matter. When you do away with the rules of etiquette, crime and other objectionable outcomes are very quick to follow.

PT: Do you really believe that the decrease in manners has something to do with the increase in crime we have experienced until the last few years?

JM: Absolutely. We have new crimes. What is road rage? There are laws governing driving, and then there are etiquette rules that are not a matter of law. Often when you yield and let somebody into a lane you're not required to do so. But the traffic won't move unless people cooperate like that. There are people who operate just within the law but drive rudely and start honking at you or cut you off. It fills people with great rage because they expect to be treated courteously by other drivers. You keep getting back to the social contract.

PT: When I mentioned that I was on my way to talk to Miss Manners, people would say, "My God, how will you know what fork to use?"

JM: I will make a deal with you. I will not hold you responsible for the misconceptions people have about psychology, and I'm not responsible for the misconceptions they have about etiquette.

PT: That's fair. But why do so many grown people quiver at the thought that they might have to use the right fork? What is this fork anxiety about?

JM: That is a very interesting phenomenon because you don't really have any choice of forks any more. All those forks they're talking about were melted down for World War I. It's a totally imaginary problem. You want to talk about eating with difficulty? The most difficult meal to eat is fast food, where you get a plastic fork and nothing to wipe up with.

PT: If nothing else, the seems to have rescued manners.

JM: Absolutely. The bane of my life has always been people saying, "Well, I don't care about etiquette," supposedly meaning "I'm a true, sincere person." What they mean by etiquette is not what etiquette is. But the word always touched off this response--until the this new form of community, arrived. You are meeting people on-line. You don't know their age, their gender, maybe even their real names. You have nothing by which to judge them and you are interacting. At first everybody thought: freedom. That lasted for about two seconds, until they realized that totally uninhibited behavior can ruin the activity. You need rules. Eventually somebody came up with this wonderful term, "netiquette."

There are etiquette rules being spread all over the They often use new terms for old rudenesses. Flaming is insulting people. Spamming is trying to do business while other people are having a social time. Having spent a lifetime with people who tell me I must be old-fashioned to care about etiquette, I could, if I were not so polite, turn around and say, "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah you're the one who is old-fashioned if you think that etiquette is old-fashioned-you obviously don't spend time on the Internet."

PT: What does the existence of netiquette tell us?

JM: If you want to go off by yourself and be a hermit, you can do whatever you want. But if you want interaction with other people, then by definition you have to buy into the social contract and restrain some of your behavior some of the time.

PT: You obviously notice when other people are uncivilized. How do you go about your observing, given that it's not too mannerly to directly watch people?

JM: I am a lifelong reporter and I have my eyes open wherever I go. I know a great deal about how people are behaving because they write and tell me how their neighbors and children and parents are behaving. I get 300 letters a week. And e-mail. I have this wonderful front-seat view of human behavior.

PT: You were originally a reporter. Why did you decide to write a column on etiquette?

JM: That's a question I sometimes ask myself. My parents were history buffs and amateur archeologists and we lived around the world. My father was with the In your own country you think people are behaving naturally. When you see people doing things differently in other countries, you realize, No, it's a convention. I remember living in Greece. People think the Greeks are such well-controlled people because they have this slogan at Delphi, "Everything in moderation." My mother said, "If they were [so well-controlled] they wouldn't have to write it on the walls to remind themselves." Out of that grew a lifetime of reading about etiquette.

PT: To use a sports metaphor, etiquette in a sense levels the playing field. Everybody plays by the same rules so it is democratic. So why do we think etiquette is so aristocratic?

JM: As I said, I'm not responsible for everybody else's misunderstanding. There is a mistaken notion that etiquette favors the rich or the powerful. No, life favors the rich and powerful; you can have a lot of control you could not otherwise have.

If you are required by society to be polite--of course it's a voluntary system policed only by public opinion- you run into having to have equal respect for people who are not as rich and powerful as you. More than that, because of the concept of noblesse oblige, you are required to treat them even better. So etiquette is the greatest friend of the powerless; without it, might makes right.

PT: But many people feel uncomfortable at the idea that someone might be deliberately restraining themselves on their behalf. Women, particularly.

JM: When women started coming en masse into the workplace, they were being treated with manners that undercut them. When all of the men jump to their feet when a female executive walks into the boardroom, they're saying, a lady is present." Even though this is polite under other circumstances, [in this case it suggests] she's there in a social capacity, so it's rude. Etiquette is very context-dependent.

PT: That's an important point.

JM: Unfortunately, the idea that manners are context-dependent has been lost in this not-very-subtle time of ours. If I wore my ball gown to the picnic I would look like an idiot. You're supposed to wear your blue jeans. But that doesn't mean that you can wear them to your daughter's wedding.

PT: Why have so many people forgotten the notion of context?

JM: We now have generations who were never taught. The instruction was, Be yourself. Which is very peculiar: who else are you going to be?

We have an era of non-parenting going on. It's not just the 13-year-old mother on crack. It's also the intact, well-to-do, child-oriented family. They're not neglecting the child. They think their job is to be the child's lawyer and help the kid get what he wants. They question all other forms of authority. So you'll have the parent who is deeply involved with the child, but makes a scene at school to get the child out of being disciplined for doing something wrong. They believe they're on the child's side. That's not the right way to be on the child's side.

PT: One problem may well be the of parents in children's lives, acting as referees instead of letting kids learn to settle their differences.

JM: It's all of a piece. If you don't teach the child manners, settle all his difficulties for him, get him out of punishment, he never has to deal with consequences.

PT: Etiquette also has tremendous repercussions for people's intimate lives.

JM: People say when you're in love you don't need etiquette. Well, you need it then more than anything. Or they say, "At home I can just be myself." What they mean is they can be their worst selves. It means they can be rude. But is it not yourself to want to please that person you love? Is it not yourself to want a nice harmonious house? They always mean they will save all their anxiety about how to behave for somebody like the head waiter of a restaurant, someone they'll never see again.

PT: We live in an era of technological revolution where change happens weekly When you encounter things like beepers and cell phones, what standards do you apply?

JM: This is one of my greatest amusements, making rules for these.

PT: You get to be Moses.

JM: Actually Moses didn't make them himself, he just brought them down. I'm making them. But I am appealing, in a sense, to a higher authority.

The things we're doing are not really changing, and so what you do is look back to the basic concept. Particularly with the cell phone there is an illusion that there are etiquette-tree zones. First of all, we have rules about telephones that have been with us for a while. If you can't take a telephone with a very long cord to the symphony, maybe you can't take the cell phone either. Before the invention of the telephone, there was a rule against interrupting people. The telephone was allowed to be "rude" for a long time. What is outrageous is the idea that you would drop anything at any time because the telephone rang.

These are tools, and you can use them rudely or politely. The standard I use is, What are we after here? Something that can interrupt you any time? Maybe sometimes, which is why you might carry a beeper or cell phone. How much is that allowed to disturb others? Can you simply say, "I'm a doctor, and therefore I can have my phone ring"? Well, no. If you're on call, don't come to the symphony. Or get a vibrating beeper that doesn't disturb people.

PT: In making all these rules, there's an enormous opportunity for self-righteousness, and yet your columns avoid this. Is that why you use humor and the third person, becoming in the process Miss Manners?

JM: I use the authoritarian tone because, one, it amuses me and it seems to amuse other people, and, two, it is something where some authority is required. When I began, etiquette books had succumbed to anti-authoritarianism. They would say, "Do whatever makes you feel comfortable." If you did that, you wouldn't need to look it up in an etiquette book. That seems to me extremely useless advice. A judge doesn't say to you, "If you feel right about it, you can do it."

Even if everybody were benignly disposed towards everybody else all the time, you would still need etiquette because you would need a language of behavior. Why do the English drive on one side of the road and we drive on the other? It doesn't really matter if it's the right or the left, but you can't say, "Drive on whatever side of the road you feel like driving on." That's why there has to be an authority on this. Somebody had to do it.

PT: If one of the rules of manners is not to make other people feel uncomfortable, how does one protest against social injustice? Maybe comfortable is the wrong word.

JM: It is the wrong word--you aren't always obligated to make people feel comfortable. But there are in fact elaborate forms of manners for doing this. The picket line has manners. The peaceful protest has manners.

PT: In the 1960s, the anti-war protests made a lot of people uncomfortable, privately and publicly. Yet it had an impact on history.

JM: The very first protesters were women, mothers of draft-age men. They were extremely effective. The police hated to arrest them; they looked like their own mothers. The hostility you're talking about was against people who were using anti-war protest as an excuse to thumb their noses at all aspects of society. If you are running around naked burning the flag and screaming at people, you're arousing hostility. What helped that cause was the original impetus from the women and its growth into a broad-based movement. I was in those marches as a reporter. People were told they were a bunch of hippies. What was effective was seeing families and obviously upstanding citizens.

PT: In the almost two decades you've been writing the column, have manners improved?

JM: I hope so. When I started, the very word etiquette was a joke. Two years ago we had a national election where people were talking about civility. Is that progress? Absolutely. Now, does that mean that people are behaving better in everyday life? To some extent. There's no period in history when everybody behaved well. And there never is going to be.

PT: It's comforting to know that Miss Manners exists. I want to believe that we need manners for our modern era. But when I see her image, it seems Victorian or Edwardian, and suggests that manners really are old-fashioned.

JM: You're getting the right message, which is that it's tradition-based and it moves on. The law is tradition-based. Government is tradition-based. You don't reinvent it every week. You refer to tradition, but it grows and changes.

The answer is much like what happened when I wrote my first column. The managing editor said, "I have people on the phone asking, `lIs this thing serious or funny?"' And I said, "Yes." So is it old-fashioned or modern? Yes.