Advice to the Socially Nervous

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Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin, New York: Athenaeum, 1982, 768 pp., $19.95.

There is a common superstition that books of etiquette are products of a frozen social structure and rigid customs. A moment's thought should dispel this notion. If you happened to be a peasant with no prospect of becoming a duke, why would you bother to inform yourself on how a duke should properly behave?

No, guides to correct social behavior flourish under two conditions. The first is great social mobility, as in England during the Industrial Revolution, when people feel a need to master the customs of the social class to which they aspire. The second is the breakdown of established social conventions. For the vacuum thus created is likely to be filled, not by complete laissez-faire in manners, but by a patchwork quilt of social groups, each of which maintains its own standards, whether traditional or strictly bohemian.

The present age in America clearly exhibits both features. We should therefore expect people to be confused both by traditional problems, such as the correct way to answer formal invitations, and by the dilemmas thrown up by modern life, such as how to introduce a couple who are unmarried but, well, together.

Self-confident people will take these things in their stride. Noel Coward once arrived at a literary dinner party in evening dress, surveyed the acres of tweed, and said reassuringly: "Now I don't want anyone to feel the tiniest bit embarrassed at being underdressed." But most people are more timid. They like to know what is expected of them. Hence the great success of Miss Manners's syndicated column on etiquette, or advice to the socially nervous, here collected in book form.

And an excellent book it is. To begin with, Miss Manners is a fount of sensible practical advice. She tells the readers how to get married, cope with uninvited guests, treat a neighbor's rude children, behave when newly divorced, comport oneself at a Bar Mitzvah, eat lobster, and die, all with the least possible fuss and embarrassment. Her suggested letter of condolence, for instance, is a model of tact and sympathy.

But she also wields a sharp wit. Asked by a Ph.D. what use his doctorate is if he follows strict etiquette in not introducing himself generally as "Doctor," Miss Manners replies: "You are in the position of a woman who has invested in silk underwear. She must derive her satisfaction from knowing she has it on, and perhaps the knowledge of an intimate or two." And when a lady wonders if etiquette permits her to extend a dinner invitation to her physician, Miss Manners advises crisply: "Only if you do so with your clothes on."

Is there any philosophical theme running through her advice? Perhaps without knowing it, Miss Manners is something of a libertarian: "Your taste in sex…is not, and never has been, the business of decent society," she declares. But what this points to is the conservative virtue of discretion. When one nervous correspondent worries about how to introduce a couple living together to her other guests, Miss Manners wonders tartly: "What type of entertainment do you give that everyone's sexual affiliation must be declared at the door?" And this rule applies in both directions. When a gay correspondent complains that he is rarely seated next to his friend at dinner parties and suspects prejudice, she is equally stern: "What is it that you want? To be introduced as lovers with some explanation provided to the company at large about your feelings for each other?"

In short, if we want a society in which people of widely differing tastes and values can coexist harmoniously, we must show a decent respect for the feelings of others. Odd though it may at first sound, etiquette is an individualist technique for achieving this. It represents a set of rules that have grown up spontaneously and are enforced by mutual convenience and public opinion rather than by government coercion. It is also a mechanism, comparable to F.A. Hayek's concept of the market, for diffusing useful information on which we can base reliable predictions. To take a simple example, if we all use knives and forks in roughly the same way, this greatly simplifies the task of setting the table. To borrow a line from the late Colm Brogan, etiquette "may not be one of the cardinal virtues, but it certainly oils the hinges."

John O'Sullivan is the editor of Policy Review.

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