Honor those around you: the purpose of manners

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

A cornucopia of books on polite behavior elaborates the role and usefulness of civility.

February 17, 2002|By Criag Nova | Criag Nova,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The purpose of manners, or so I have always believed, is to make sure that no one is ever embarrassed. The best example I know of this is the apocryphal story of Queen Victoria who, when seeing one of her guests (a miner's wife, as I recall) drinking from a finger bowl, immediately did the same. And, of course, the use of manners cuts both ways. Not only does it protect those to whom we extend them, but it keeps us from making fools of ourselves, too, by saying or doing the wrong thing. All in all, an ideal situation.

And to continue with the theoretical aspect of manners, I'd like to split hairs a little and say that as far as I can tell there is a difference between being polite and having manners. Just using manners alone isn't enough, since they can be employed in such a way as to corrupt them.

For instance, some people insist on points of protocol that others are ignorant of. This way of behaving will instantly be recognized as the work of a snob. Politeness, I think, is a more general concern with honoring the presence of people who are around us, and, if I had to define politeness, I would say that it is the considerate impulse to use manners.

Finally, to finish off the psychological muck that a substantial number of books has stirred up in this reviewer, I'd like to invoke the misery and anxiety of those dreams we all have, such as the one in which the dreamer shows up at school with no clothes on.

The particular panic of these dreams is a pretty good rendition of actually being someplace and not knowing precisely how to behave. I, for one, find it oddly reassuring to know details of behavior I will never have a chance to use. For instance, I have about as much chance of meeting the Queen of England as I have of playing shortstop for the New York Yankees (or, the Baltimore Orioles, to be polite), but yet I am still worried about it, and the first thing I did when confronting this pile of books was to look into Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners, by John Morgan (St. Martin's Press, 384 pages, $27.95).

What I wanted was the section that deals with royalty. For those who are similarly afflicted by this unlikely anxiety, I offer this short course in dealing with the Queen of England. "On being presented and taking leave of a member of the Royal Family, it is usual for men to bow and women to curtsey." It is, as John Morgan points out, "churlish not to do so." Also, when first addressing the Queen of England, she should be first addressed as "Your Majesty," thereafter as "Ma'am." Frankly, this is the kind of thing that will make me sleep better.

Now the next item that gives me a little pause, in the etiquette department, is sex. Or, modern sex. I am not referring to the act, which I suppose, in its essence, hasn't changed that much over the last generation or two, but to the social, ah, foreplay is the word that comes to mind.

In the modern age, there is a lot more negotiation than there used to be and this is so because everything has gotten more complicated, and sex, I have heard, is no different from anything else in this regard. The rules of modern romance and sex are at once more black and white and more gray than ever before, and, let us admit it, this combination is the stuff of anxiety.

So, let us say, that at my company I have met the new personnel director, who is also in charge of the sexual harassment apparatus. But, I think she is pretty cool, and I want to ask her out for a date. When we are together she has a little glint in her eye when she glances at me and I think, but am not positive, that she might want to eat caviar and sour cream and blini and to drink champagne with me at a Russian restaurant I know. How to proceed?

It is not surprising that the consensus in these books is not complete. For instance, The Etiquette Grrls in Things You Need to Be Told (Berkley Books, 224 pages, $9.95) seem to think that it is better for the boy to do the asking, but that it is all right for the girl to send the message that she wants to be asked. She does this by saying that there is something she has heard about, a new restaurant or movie, that is supposed to be pretty good but she hasn't been to yet. The boy, if he is not a blockhead and is interested, should then ask her to go.

The other books seem to think that it is perfectly acceptable for either to ask, but they are all ironclad about one thing: if you do the asking, you are going to pay. And, all seem to suggest that you should have a definite plan in mind before you ask. What you want to avoid, as The Etiquette Grrls so accurately point out is a question like, "You wanna hang out sometime?"

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