THE GOOD FIGHT ‌ The Book of Manners 

In a polite society, rudeness can make a powerful point

Charleston knows a few things about good manners. It's not for nothing that etiquette guru Marjabelle Young Stewart names the Holy City the most mannerly place in America year after year.

So a new book critiquing the sorry state of modern manners will probably find a warm reception here. The book in question is Lynne Truss' Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay at Home and Bolt the Door.

You remember Truss, author of the 2004 international bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. To a punctuation snob such as your humble correspondent, it was delightful to find a like-minded soul who resents the sloppiness and indifference with which people use the language. It was refreshing to read someone who believes that it does matter how commas and colons and quotation marks are used.

I am tired of the slovenly ad copy, the careless signage, the slipshod menus offering "Todays Special's." So was Truss, and she blasted the kind of aesthetic relativism that has pervaded our grammar and punctuation for more than a generation. She understood that to use the language correctly is not to show off your own knowledge, but to assume the best of your reader, to show respect for her knowledge of the language. (One of the things which tipped off many of us that GWB did not have the brains or the character to be President was his indifference to the language, and his indifference to the people who had to listen to him mangle it.)

Now Truss is back with her critique of modern manners, and she blasts some of my favorite targets -- smokers, cellphones, dangerous drivers, graffiti artists, and people who chatter away in theaters, among others.

Of course, in writing about manners and the unmannerly, there is the danger of coming across as a scold, even when writing with such wicked humor.

"It does, however, have to be admitted that the outrage reflex ('Oh, that's so RUDE!') presents itself in most people at just about the same time as their elbow skin starts to give out," Truss writes. "Check your own elbow skin. If it snaps back into position after bending, you probably should not be reading this book."

The impulse to outrage is often blamed on the 1960s, that decade of mischief that turned the political and cultural apple cart upside down. Rightly or wrongly, there was the perception among many young people -- myself included -- that manners were a charade created by the culturally dominant to mask the inherent cruelty and unfairness of life. Manners were the tools of repression, designed to crush honesty and spontaneity. By wearing an American flag stitched to the seat of your ragged-ass jeans or chanting, "One, two, three, four! We don't want your fucking war!" you were showing the world you were not part of the button-down, middle-class culture that supported Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, and the Vietnam War.

Bad manners had a political edge, which may or may not excuse them. They were still bad manners. But at least we knew we were offending people. We meant to offend. It was intended to shock a smug and sanctimonious society into thinking about the world around them and how offensive that might be to others.

Perhaps the skin on my elbow is getting a little slack. I look around and I see lots of bad manners, but they have no political or other redeeming value that I can see. Indeed, most of the behavior seems to come from sheer indifference and self-absorption. The people talking on their cellphones and filling public places with their cigarette smoke do not seem to be aware that anyone else is around. They are in their cocoons, as if sitting at home in their own living rooms.

Truss decries the fact that so much of what used to be considered private behavior is now conducted very publicly, including talking on phones, arguing and cursing, and displaying one's underwear.

Having said all that, the old anarchist in me still understands that manners can be as much an impediment to comity as an aid. Southerners have long been famous for our manners. We've also been famous for our duels and lynchings and segregation. Generations of black people were required to defer to whites in all things, to give up their bus seats, to address all whites -- even children -- as Mister and Miss, to smile broadly when they greeted whites and look down when they conversed with them. It was just the "polite" thing to do.

If I had to choose between bad manners and inequality, I would choose the former every time. But there is still a strong impulse to punch the guy blowing smoke in my face at the bar.


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