Speaking of etiquette . . . it's Miss Manners

April 10, 1991|By Diane Winston

Politely but firmly, Miss Manners looked straight at seventy-odd students, teachers and aficionados of philosophy and took the whole lot to task.

"I came here to complain," the arbiter of etiquette told a roomful of academics at Johns Hopkins University. "Philosophers are not paying enough attention to manners."

Judith Martin, whose alter ego "Miss Manners" is beloved by million of readers nationwide, was the guest speaker yesterday at a philosophy department seminar in the Milton Eisenhower Library. But instead of delivering a rarefied treatise or a scholastic tome, the straight-backed, silver-bunned, saucy-eyed author spoke common sense -- with a dollop of academese.

Her subject, the philosophical basis of etiquette, has been a growing interest since she assumed the Miss Manners' sobriquet in 1978. But even before that, during her teen-age years, Mrs. Martin gobbled up etiquette books the way some girls read romances. Then, as now, she was intrigued by social psychology and human behavior -- for example, the fact that what people are told not to do is a pretty good indicator of what they are actually doing.

"When I was 14, my parents took me to the Cairo Museum and we looked at an ancient tablet with a translation of a man's letter to his son," Mrs. Martin said in an interview. "It had a lot of 'Do this' and 'Don't do that,' and we started to laugh because the old man had a pretty good idea of what the kid was up to."

Mrs. Martin also laughed when she recalled her decision to write about what people were up to. Her colleagues at the Washington Post, where she worked as a critic, were skeptical. But her columns caught on because the princess of politesse hit a raw nerve in the socially fractured, overly permissive post-1960s American psyche.

In fact, she believes she hit on basic truths about human nature.

"This is a dimension of human behavior which corresponds to some very basic human needs such as ceremony, harmony, community and respecting the dignity of the person," she explained. "These things are manifested through questions of etiquette and they are not unrelated to morality."

During her address to the Hopkins audience, Mrs. Martin stressed the link between morality and etiquette -- challenging them to study the latter to understand human behavior.

"What I am asking philosophers to do is to take up Socrates' challenge -- how should one live?

There is a spectrum with morality on one end and etiquette on the other. Twentieth century philosophers have dealt with morality but not etiquette and there are so many questions which need to be answered about what behavior should be."

These questions are hardly the frivolous natterings of fussbudgets worried about which spoon to use and whether to sit deaf old grandpa with the community chatterbox. Rather they are questions which, though not quite as serious as morality debates, provide glue for social cohesion.

Moreover, the law now rushes in where etiquette fears to tread -- a development Mrs. Martin finds unsettling. For example:

*When male smokers voluntarily separated themselves from female non-smokers, etiquette governed smoking. But now, with both sexes smoking and a growing number of militant anti-smokers, members ofthe two camps agitate for legal protection.

*People once minded their own business -- an important principle of etiquette -- but nowadays they feel free to speak their minds. Recently a West Coast waiter and waitress refused to serve a pregnant woman a drink. They were fired, and both sides are wondering about the legal ramifications.

Harmony and compassion underlie ethics, said Mrs. Martin. Both are immutable principles which transcend the short shrift prissiness which cynics like to say is etiquette's realm.

"God didn't say, 'For heaven's sake, use the fish fork,'" Mrs. Martin told listeners. "But the rituals of eating are very deeply ingrained. All peoples have rituals of eating and if you violate them you feel like you're doing an offense.

"That's the light of pure reason which governs etiquette -- it's not a question of fish forks."

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