There’s no way for me to quantify manners today vs. manners 10 years ago. But I DO think we can say that manners have gotten more relative with time. Because we are a more mobile society, and because we’re exposed to more varying cultures than we used to be, we’re less confined to a sole organizing principle of behavior. Look at something like the question “Can I answer my cell phone here?” It’s almost as if each day we walk through a series of manners “micro-climates.” In your office, say, you absolutely cannot answer your cell phone; but with your working mommy friends, you can; and with your drinking buddies, you can, but only under certain situations. Each situation is different.
Fifty or sixty years ago, for most Americans, there was more consensus about behavior; but manners today are all about reading the room, looking for clues, gauging the temperature of the water.
HM: Who is the audience for your book, and what can readers learn from it?
HA: The book is really for the common reader. It’s for anyone who thinks that life today offers up tricky situations. Can I tell my friend it hurts my feelings when he answers his cell phone when I’m talking to him? Do I invite BOTH members of a gay couple to my bachelor party? Should I tell a new friend that I Googled her before we got together for drinks? What readers can learn from [my book] is that most of these very modern situations need to be parsed individually and that, because of their eccentric nature, there may not be one answer that works every single time.
HM: What did you learn by writing it?
HA: I learned that I have some work to do, too! I definitely need to stop asking people with foreign accents where they come from, and I need to learn to RSVP to events promptly, and I need to give up the idea that screaming “Would you please stop talking!” to people in movie theaters is helping the situation. I’m at fault, too, which helps keep my approach (I hope) from being hectoring.
HM: What advice do you have for Howard County’s Choose Civility movement?
HA: I think it’s important that we all — even those few of us who have written books about manners — fess up to our own bad manners. Everyone always thinks that bad manners are something the OTHER guy has. But I bet that, if you think about it, there’s something you’ve done in the last month that, upon reflection, you’d handle differently. The war starts at home.