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Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners: Master the Slippery Rules of Modern Ethics and Etiquetteby Robin Abrahams
WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD OF ETIQUETTE
Admit it: you're not sure what the rules are anymore.
Oh, not the rules about not doing unto others as that which would be hateful unto you, or loving thy neighbor as thyself. You know the big rules. And all the little ones about which fork to use when and the proper order of a wedding processional? Maybe you even know those, or at least you have a dusty book in which you can look them up as necessary.
No, nowadays, the problems that flummox people are the dilemmas that live in the gray area between ethics (the big rules) and protocol (the small ones), and reflect the modern explosion of social complexity. Problems like:
o Is it polite to say "Bless you" to a sneezing atheist?
o Is there a good way to request "No Barbies or Disney princesses, please" for a four-year-old's birthday party?
o What, if anything, should be said to an otherwise health-conscious friend who is tanning himself into jerky?
o Can a group of women properly be addressed as "you guys"?
And my personal favorite—
o What's a nice vegetarian girl to do if Gypsies give her bread smeared with lard?
The first thing you should understand: it's not just you who is confused. (You can calm down about that.) The second thing: there are no rules yet devised for these slippery questions—but there are principles of conduct that will gracefully guide your way through the world. Seductively simple as rules are, they're no longer adequate for the modern world.
In the three generations since Emily Post debuted her bible of propriety, unprecedented diversity has marked our lives— not just diversity of race, ethnicity, and religion, but of priorities, values, and experiences. Every culture has its ideologies, its traditions, its folklore— about what we can and cannot eat; how to share and display our material resources; how to make sense of the world around us and create rituals for the transitions of our lives; how men and women should interact; and how to treat children, the sick and disabled, and domestic animals. Food, money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets— these are the topics people ask "Miss Conduct" about, and so these are the chapters of my book. Figuring out the answers to those questions is a large part of what culture is for.
In twenty-first-century America, finding these answers is exceedingly complicated. People who choose not to have children maintain that their decision is as positive— and their time as valuable— as that of parents. Vegetarians and people who follow religious or health-related dietary rules are less willing to "eat a little just to be polite." And let's not even get into the whole business of who wants to be cheered with a "Merry Christmas" and who does not (at least not until chapter 3, anyway). Throughout history, new technology—from the printing press to the BlackBerry—and new ideas— from Manifest Destiny to multiculturalism— have driven changes in social behavior. But people don't all react to change in a coordinated fashion, like a school of fish suddenly veering away from a shark. Everyone processes change at different rates. This means that for any situation there are probably quite a few versions of "correct" behavior to choose from— and quite a few people willing to say that you didn't choose the "right" one.
Food, money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets— there's a reason these are the things people wonder about; this stuff has been important to us humans for a very, very long time. Without all those things, and our ability to think about them, we wouldn't even be human. So in each chapter, I start by explaining a bit about the evolutionary roots of each issue and then try to describe, as best I can, the different cultural values bumping together in the twenty-first century. I offer advice on how to live with your own values and how to live with those who have chosen different ones.
It's worth mentioning that, for all the talk of "culture war" and "red" and "blue" states, I almost never get questions that are directly political in nature.* Instead, the real-world power struggles of social engagement play out in office kitchenettes, where Indian immigrants micro wave homemade fish curries to the discomfort of their American-born colleagues; at coffee-shop counters, where women just returning from maternity leave casually reveal their salaries and breast-pumping routines to their horrified friends; in subway cars, where young women wonder if they can offer elderly men their seats without making them feel less manly; and in college dorm rooms, where offhand references to vacation homes and cleaning ladies make sons of blue-collar families feel left out. Perhaps every generation since time began has felt that they are living in an era of unprecedented change and upheaval—and, hey, perhaps they were right. But for us, here and now, there needs to be some guidance in how to negotiate our changing times— from women's progress and immigrant arrivals (and the backlashes to them, and the backlashes to the backlashes) to the disappearance of the "company man" and the creation of an insecure "free-agent nation."
As social change continues to accelerate, following the rules of manners is no longer enough— we need mind. We need to think. Rules may have worked in the days when everyone agreed on the same set of priorities: that decent people never talk about money or sex, that children should be seen and not heard, and that vegetarians or observant Jews should simply shut up about their weird practices and eat the hamburger-macaroni-and-cheese casserole in front of them gratefully, because there were children starving (quietly!) in China. Perhaps life was never quite as neat and predictable as all that, but it was a good deal more like that once upon a time than it is now. I'm not by any means saying that the traditional rules of etiquette should be tossed by the wayside. I'll stand up for a thank-you note every time. Rather, I'm saying that it's more important to look at the underlying purpose for the old rules and find useful principles for living life graciously today.
The Rudeness Epidemic
Most Americans think we're experiencing an epidemic of rudeness. In a 2005 poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, 69 percent of respondents said that people—other people, of course, and mostly younger people— had gotten ruder over the past twenty to thirty years. Is the perception true? Who knows? The question of whether people really are ruder today than in some mythical "yesterday" is hardly the kind of question that can be measured scientifically. Interestingly, the poll was released just a few days before the death of the great civil rights leader Rosa Parks. I could not help but wonder how Parks, who grew up in an era when it was perfectly polite to address a black man as "boy" and expect him to ride in the back of the bus, would have felt about today's standards of politeness compared to yesterday's.
Another survey, ominously titled "Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America" and taken in 2002, found an even higher proportion of Americans— 79 percent—agreeing that "lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem in our society." Despite the overwhelming agreement on this issue, the sample was evenly split as to whether the perceived decline in civility was caused by many people or an uncouth yet memorable few. Forty-one percent of respondents, in a surprising show of honesty, admitted to violating their own codes of civility. The reality of the situation can never be measured objectively, but if almost everyone believes that civilization is in decline, then clearly there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Belief is as important as reality.
So did we all just wake up one day in the 1970s and turn into schmucks? I don't think so. Based on societal trends, I believe that the perception of a rudeness epidemic comes from two main, interrelated sources: 1) forces that make it difficult to prioritize politeness, and 2) the increased complication of being polite, even when you want to be.
Why does politeness fall off the radar screen so easily? In the "Aggravating Circumstances" study, nearly half the people surveyed believed that a major cause of rudeness is the fact that "life is so hectic and people are so busy and pressed for time that they forget to be polite." Even more— 61 percent— said that they themselves had been too busy to be polite. Writing thank-you notes, paying hospital visits, organizing dinner parties, buying birthday presents— these things take time. Even smaller everyday courtesies require emotional and intellectual energy. There's a reason we call it "thoughtfulness": being actively kind to people requires thought. And when you're stressed out and busy, you might not have the bandwidth to be thoughtful of others.
Research on whether people are really working more than they did twenty-five years ago is varied. Some scholars find that we are, others that we're not. But what no one can dispute is that people certainly believe that they're working more. E-mail, cell phones, and BlackBerrys have made it possible to be on call 24/7; even when you're not working, your time doesn't feel entirely private. The boundaries between work and home have blurred.
Home itself is no refuge at that. House wives of the 1950s played bridge while their kids biked around the suburbs. The ideology of parenthood a generation ago was to let kids be kids, with parents providing discipline and security and a fair amount of benign neglect. Remember the phrase "He's growing like a weed"? Today's kids don't grow like weeds, they grow like hothouse orchids. Parents are expected to be deeply involved in their children's lives, playing with them, coaching them, helping them with schoolwork, driving them to soccer practice. Being a mother used to be a relationship; now it's a job.
Wherever you look you see the bar rising in a similar fashion. Retirement planning used to mean finding a secure job with a pension; now it requires monitoring your investments and meeting with a financial planner every quarter. "Taking care of yourself" used to mean an annual checkup and some moisturizer at night; now it means triweekly gym visits, tooth whitening, calorie counting, sunblocking, cholesterol managing, and meditating. Entertaining friends used to require little more than a deck of cards and a six-pack; Martha Stewart put an end to that. Everywhere, there is pressure to do more, do better, and look fantastic and youthful while you're doing it. When our time, energy, and bud gets are sapped by such demands, we quickly become too tired and cranky and stressed to be polite.
It's no wonder we don't have the energy to write thank-you notes. And our rapidly complexifying society doesn't make it any easier.
Diversity and Its Discontents
We all know we ought to celebrate diversity or at least tolerate it— the implication being that if we don't, we're a bunch of nasty, narrow-minded nativists. If only coping well with diversity could be achieved by looking into one's heart and finding love for one's neighbor! Still not easy, perhaps, but simple. But tolerance for diversity is more than a character trait. It's real, hard work, and it goes against our nature.
We evolved as tribal creatures, attached to our own, suspicious of the other. From an evolutionary point of view, fear of difference isn't a bug, it's a feature— we evolved to be suspicious of those we don't know, those who look or act different, because such people may have bad intent toward us or be carrying diseases to which we are not immune. Because of our evolutionary heritage, people tend to react to diversity in predictable ways. Increased demographic diversity and social change (which nearly always go hand in hand) frequently lead to a loss in the sense of community, an increased desire to hunker down with our own kind, and the decay of common cultural touchstones— all of which decrease our motivation to be polite.
Almost all advanced countries, including the United States, have seen tremendous growth in ethnic diversity in the past twenty years. According to a disturbing study by the sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, increased ethnic and racial diversity has a negative effect on people's sociability. People don't become prejudiced against "the other" as you might expect; instead they withdraw from everyone, even people in their own demographic group. In ethnically or racially diverse neighborhoods, people have less confidence in local leadership and media; have less belief that they can influence their communities; are less likely to register to vote; are less trusting of their neighbors' ability to cooperate to solve community problems; are less likely to work on or give to a community project or a charity; have fewer close friends; report less happiness and satisfaction with their lives; and spend more time watching television. Increasing diversity alienates us from our neighborhoods.
At the same time, American culture is fragmenting into smaller and smaller niches of distinct values, priorities, and experiences. This trend is documented in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, a remarkable book by Bill Bishop. Since the 1970s— and accelerating through the 1990s— people have been moving to neighborhoods that reflect their lifestyle preferences and values. If I told you my zip code, you could probably guess pretty accurately for whom I voted in the last presidential election. You would probably also be able to guess whether I prefer the New Yorker or Glamour, hot dogs or tofu, Car Talk or Dr. Laura, classical music or heavy metal. A person from Manhattan or San Francisco might feel greater cultural shock on a trip to Branson, Missouri, than they would in London.
This hunkering down with our own kind has an insulating, anesthetizing effect. As Bishop writes:
Today we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhoods, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment. [And] like-minded, homogenous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what's right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, and the neighborhoods we live in.
He cites a study that shows only 23 percent of Americans regularly talk politics among people with whom they disagree.
Social skills operate on the same principle as any other skills—you use 'em or you lose 'em. If you don't hang out regularly with people who are different from you, your ability to cope with these differences suffers. If living in homogenous neighborhoods isn't enough, technology makes it even easier to customize your existence. As Putnam writes in Bowling Alone, "Internet technology allows and encourages infrared astronomers, oenophiles, Trekkies, and white supremacists to narrow their circle to like-minded intimates. . . . Serendipitous connections become less likely as increased communication narrows our tastes and interests— knowing and caring more and more about less and less." Thousands of blogs and hundreds of television channels cater to every possible interest. Rather than listening to the radio, people shuffle their iPods or tune in to Internet radio sites like Pandora.com, which selects music geared to their tastes. Not only are we losing practice in relating to people who are different from us, but we as a nation have fewer cultural touchstones than we once did. The fragmentation of everything from politics to pop culture erodes our ability to deal with difference and keeps us from developing the shared stories and symbols that would make us feel that we're all in this together.
How to Be Polite
All the factors above have contributed to the increase in rudeness. Our time, energy, and bud gets are sapped by increasing demands— from the workplace, from the ideology of intensive parenting, and from media-driven standards of appearance, fitness, and housekeeping— that leave us tired and cranky and too stressed to be polite. Increasing demographic diversity alienates us from our neighborhoods. The increasing lifestyle diversity (in everything from politics to pop culture) erodes our ability to deal with difference. And both kinds of diversity keep us from feeling that we're all in this together. It's a wonder we're not a whole lot ruder than we are, isn't it?
Plus, just as our motivation to be polite is on the down-swing, the requirements for politeness have become ever more confusing. What does it even mean to be polite in the twenty-first century?
Certain kinds of rudeness— yakking loudly on cell phones in public places, undertipping, failing to RSVP— are obvious. But is standing when a woman enters the room respectful or sexist? Is forwarding a humorous e-mail a friendly way to keep in touch or the equivalent of spamming? Is telling someone you'll pray for them a kind way of indicating support or shoving your beliefs down their throat? Are locutions like "person of color" political correctness or plain courtesy? Is asking a coworker about her pregnancy a friendly show of concern or an invasion of privacy? You can find advocates for each point of view, all equally convinced that they alone are the true defenders of civility.*
Our society is in the midst of huge changes. The most notable is the movement of women, people of color, gays, and the disabled to full social equality. But there are other changes afoot, as well. Privacy norms, for example, are changing rapidly; talking about money or health was once a huge taboo, but people feel increasingly comfortable discussing their salaries, mortgages, colonoscopies, and cold sores. The explosion of information technology requires changes in manners: for hundreds of years, if you wanted to communicate with someone you couldn't speak to directly, you wrote to them. We got pretty good at letters and figured out what the form and manners of letter writing should be. Now there are cell phones and text messages and blogs and instant messages and Skype and Twitter and Facebook, and there's an alarming chance that by the time we've figured out the form and manners for them, they'll be replaced by new technologies.
People handle cultural change in predictable ways, according to family historian Arlene Skolnick. When change begins, people initially see it as an individual affair. Maybe if they just worked harder things would be better. Maybe if they put their fingers in their ears and go "la la la," they won't be able to hear the sound of the gears shifting. When this kind of denial is no longer possible— when you come to realize that it's not just you, that cultural tectonic shift is afoot—social struggles begin. Some people are in favor of the change, others are not. This is where society is, for instance, with gay marriage right now. Finally, the culture restabilizes. What was once strange becomes normal. New rituals and manners get developed. And the kids? They'll grow up with it. And wonder and fight and adjust to what ever changes time has in store for their generation.
In the meantime, Miss Conduct can offer you guidance for living with "mind over manners" in the real world.
Just Who Do I Think I Am?
"[A]s a person of energy and resource, naturally fitted to dominate any situation in which she found herself, she vaguely imagined that such gifts would be of value to seekers after social guidance, but there was unfortunately no specific head under which the art of saying and doing the right thing could be offered in the market."
—Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
When I was about three or four, some family friends gave me a magnetic letterboard— an item I already possessed. I opened my mouth and, as my mother cringed in fear for what I might say, piped up with perfect honesty and politeness: "Why, thank you! I just love these!"
You might think such a precocious moment of poise and consideration would have set me well on the way to a career as an etiquette columnist, but unfortunately the letterboard riposte was to be the apex of my social skills for many years to come. Unlike Judith Martin, Peggy Post, and Letitia Baldridge— you know, bona fide etiquette columnists— I did not grow up in elite social circles, imbibing D.C. protocol at the dinner table. I grew up in a series of Midwestern suburbs, where the dominant form of entertaining was the potluck dinner. And I grew up shy, the result of having about the longest "awkward stage" in the history of human development. (I have a PhD in human development, so I ought to know.)
The only good thing about being shy is that it gives you a lot of time alone to think about what life would be like if, indeed, you weren't. You rehearse all the things you'd do and say. I was lucky to break out of that prison of shyness, and by the time I did, I had some ideas of what I wanted to do with my freedom—one of which was to help keep others out of that prison, as much as I could, by helping them understand the skills and attitudes that eventually helped me escape.
The old saying "those who can't do, teach" is intended as a slur against all-theory-no-action academia, but there's a good bit of truth in it nonetheless. When you're very good at something, it is often so automatic, or so natural, that it can be hard to explain to others. Sometimes it can be easier to teach that which is difficult to do. I discovered this accidentally in graduate school when, even more accidentally, I was assigned to teach undergraduate statistics. As a mathphobe only barely in recovery, I was dismayed— but, as it turned out, I was a terrific stats teacher. Why? Because I found the topic so difficult myself that I had to break it down and understand it at the most basic level. By the time I'd wrestled statistics down to the point that I could understand them, I could explain them to anyone.*
I can certainly "do" social skills these days— making small talk, negotiating awkward conversations, buying wedding presents: it's all in a day's work for me. But I remember when such things were agonizing trials. And I hope I can keep them from being so for you.
I don't think of myself as an authority— not if "authority" means someone who keeps people from having to think for themselves. I prefer to offer options and interpretations. I hope that my answers spark thought and discussion, not the smug sense of "Well, I know the rules now. Aren't I a good boy or girl?" But I'm definitely an authority in the sense of being an author—not just of a book but of my own life. I am the author of my choices, my priorities.
The goal of the next seven chapters is to help you take that sort of thoughtful responsibility for your own choices— to become the authority of your own life, as it were— in a social world that is in constant flux.
And to have a little fun along the way.
Excerpted from Miss Conduct's MIND OVER MANNERS by ROBIN ABRAHAMS
Copyright © 2009 by Robin Abrahams
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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