The Joy of Reading Miss Manners in 2017

At times of great stress, some seek escape. They find it in fantasy novels, reality-TV binges, psychotropic drugs. Over the last year, as America’s public discourse sunk to new lows — and public figures proved to be predatory lowlifes — I have found myself returning, repeatedly and compulsively, to a form of entertainment that I had not previously categorized as escapism. But troubled times call for creative remedies, and this alternate reality is too good to keep to myself. The more the front page of the newspaper upsets me, the more I look forward to the one column of newsprint that is always devoted to civility and kindness. A place where people are so polite, they worry about offending robots. A place where the quick-witted hostess is so charming, she can pull off speaking in the third-person. My greatest comfort, in 2017, is reading Miss Manners.

Miss Manners is a syndicated advice column that appears six days a week in hundreds of newspapers. Its primary author, Judith Martin, is a 79-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., who has been writing about etiquette since 1978. (In recent years, she has shared bylines with her children, Jacobina and Nicholas Ivor Martin.) She started her career as a “copy girl” at the Washington Post in 1958. She shuttled between the newspaper’s Style and Weekend sections before proposing a weekly column on etiquette, which eventually grew into the daily column — and more than a dozen books, including Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Miss Manners on Painfully Proper Weddings, and Miss Manners Rescues Civilization.

If those titles sound hyperbolic, this is by design. Miss Manners knows that some believe her raison d’être is frivolous or old-fashioned. And it’s true: Many of the topics Miss Manners broaches are frivolous. (“Ladylike applause does not consist of smacking the hands together vertically, the way gentlemen clap. Rather ladies should hold the left hand palm up in a horizontal position and hit the right hand against it.”) Many are old-fashioned. (In the clapping column, she acknowledges being “probably the last person on Earth” to care.) Even when she addresses thoroughly modern problems — like email etiquette and changes in telephone manners — Martin draws on an encyclopedic knowledge of social practices through history. But these arcane details add up to a universe as engrossing as the perfection-obsessed utopias of speculative fiction. In the world Miss Manners proposes, life is frictionless. Everyone respects personal boundaries, chooses thoughtful gifts, and expresses gratitude. Nobody disparages his neighbors. Nobody picks her teeth on the subway. Boors who brag about grabbing women by their private parts, or joke about hate crimes, or antagonize grieving families, or challenge co-workers to IQ tests, would not be tolerated.

Like all good utopias, Miss Manners relies on a set of real-world ideals. Martin explained her philosophy to me last week, in a phone interview from her home in D.C. (Yes, her phone manners are impeccable. Yes, her diction is flawless. Yes, she refrained from using my first name; she prefers honorifics and surnames for acquaintances.) For all the superficial drama of seating arrangements, serving utensils, and RSVPs, manners are ultimately an expression of values. “Manners are the principles and they are eternal,” Martin explained. “Respect for others, for example. While etiquette is the surface behavior, which can be peculiar to a specific society or group within a society. Etiquette changes, but the principles remain the same.” She drew a metaphor: “In order to have coherent traffic, everybody has to agree which side of the street they drive on. Whether it’s the right as in America — or the left as in England — doesn’t matter, as long as everybody knows the rule. The principle is they have to be going in the same direction. The arbitrary surface thing is whether they drive to the right or the left.” To be polite is to promote social harmony.

And at a time when the nation’s greatest minds are forced to analyze the geopolitical implications of a commander-in-chief who delights in breaking norms and discarding niceties, Miss Manners provides a useful service: reminding us why those niceties existed in the first place. “It’s the study of human behavior,” Martin explains, citing manner-focused texts from sources that include Thomas Jefferson, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and the Bible.

Consider the table knife. Miss Manners reports that a properly set table knife should rest on the right side of the plate, with its sharp edge facing inward. The rule on blade orientation dates to the 17th century, when knife fights plagued the dining halls of England. “In 1669, Louis XIV of France decreed that knives must be rounded at top, not threateningly pointed,” Miss Manners once explained in a Thanksgiving column. The rounded tip also “stop[ped] people from using their knives to pick their teeth.” So table-knife etiquette enforces two principles of manners: safety and hygiene.

But table manners are only an occasional topic in the Miss Manners columns. Many more questions deal with discourse — over cocktails at a party, in an elevator between strangers, and on the phone with robocalls. And, of course, between public figures and politicians. A reader asked Miss Manners in February: “In the light of rude comments made by political candidates under the guise of not being politically correct, could you please explain how to be polite without being politically correct?” Her answer: “As modern usage of the term ‘politically correct’ has meant refraining from delivering wholesale insults to groups of people, that would be difficult.” Political correctness, Martin argues, is a component of politeness:

The usual defense by those who express nastiness is that they are being frank and honest about what they think. As indeed they are. But that does not make their spoken opinions any less nasty. When much of the public stopped tolerating hate talk, Miss Manners was thrilled. It became her favorite counter-example to those who believe that etiquette has steadily deteriorated since the days of King Arthur — or at least their own vaguely remembered childhoods.

Having finally mastered the the art of not stabbing each other at the dinner table, mankind may face its next challenge: not calling people names.

In our interview, Martin elaborated: “I was getting very optimistic about a decade ago, when people started not tolerating openly expressed bigotry, and a lot of politicians lost their elections because they insulted people in ways that they used to be able to get away with. I was feeling very optimistic— and then came in the expression, ‘political correctness.’”

Rebranding politeness as a form of political censorship allowed rudeness to prevail: “‘Political correctness’ became a pejorative term applied to any restraint on expressing views, no matter how vicious or bigoted the views were. And so in that case, what is the opposite of ‘political correctness’? Rudeness and worse. If you say, ‘Well, you’re being politically correct if you say you shouldn’t insult women,’ for instance? Then the opposite becomes, ‘It’s all right to do it.’ So that expression alone, and the way it’s evolved, has done an enormous amount of damage to public discourse. It enables people to put down any form of restraint. And so, by logical extension, to approve the lack of restraint.”

That tension between restraint and freedom is the core of all etiquette debates — and the project of civilization, in general. But no matter how many restraints are abolished, new rules and norms are always rising in their place. Is it possible, I asked Miss Manners, that boorish politicians are simply responding to an in-group etiquette foreign to her? Could it be that there is an appropriate place for a president to deploy the phrase “son of a bitch,” and that that place is on the stage of a rally?

Reader, this is the question that drove Miss Manners to swear.

“I would not consider that acceptable,” she replied with force. “There are perfectly respectable ways to express dissent! And when you call someone a ‘son of a bitch,’ you are saying that person is not worthy of respect, you’re not listening to him.” It’s no coincidence, Martin argued, that the most etiquette-driven spaces in our relentlessly casual nation are those reserved for debate and adjudication — like courtrooms, the legislature, and the rose ceremony on The Bachelor. (She didn’t actually mention the last one, but I think it fits.) The Miss Manners oeuvre has an entire book dedicated to etiquette’s role in democracy: Star-Spangled Manners: In Which Miss Manners Defends American Etiquette. In that book, Martin traces several centuries of cultural and institutional forces that converged to create contemporary American manners — which she believes to be the best in the history of the world. (That newfangled idea that one should be polite to people of every race, class, and gender tends to tip the scale.) Even the Founding Fathers often clashed over which formalities were necessary for a government to function, and which were toxic vestiges of monarchy.

Martin has worked in journalism since the Eisenhower administration. She has been embodying the voice of manners since the Carter administration. But, as much as politics may influence and reflect the etiquette of its time, Martin is reluctant to attribute shifts in American etiquette to one president or another. “I live in Washington. I was born here. I’ve watched presidents come and go,” she reflects. “And we don’t see a huge influence on people’s manners coming from the White House.”