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The end of civility?

- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 3, 2005

"Imagine the world is your living room," intones a Samsung television ad currently in rotation. It's a suggestion many people have taken to heart. Commuters discuss the most intimate details of their lives on cell phones while strangers are forced to listen. Others listen to their iPods so loudly that the people sitting next to them could sing along to every word. And then there's the litter and profanity tossed insouciantly in the public square.

Perhaps no one is more eloquently fed up with the trials of modern life than Lynne Truss. The British journalist's "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" was a surprise bestseller last year, reaching number one on the New York Times list. The book was a touching ode to grammar -- and a rant against the increasing number of even educated people who can't seem to use it properly.

Ms. Truss has decided not to mess with a good thing. Her follow up title, "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door," is a stirring polemic on the sorry state of modern manners, with the same disappointed approach. The title comes from the phrase, particularly popular among the young, "Talk to the hand, 'cause the face ain't listening." "Nearly sixty years ago, George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that the future was a boot stamping on a human face for ever," writes Ms. Truss. "I see it as a forest of belligerent and dismissive palms held up to the human face instead."

The book is more thoughtful than the flip title suggests. The collapse of civility is a real problem. And increasingly, it's not just those over the age of 60 who care. "Check your own elbow skin," Ms. Truss advises. "If it snaps back into position after bending, you probably should not be reading this book." But she later notices that even "nice, youngish liberal people are beginning secretly to admire the chewing-gum penalties of Singapore."

It's no wonder. It may be true, as Ms. Truss finds, that people have been complaining about their compatriots' manners for centuries. But there seems little doubt that standards have declined during our own lifetimes. The young and old alike feel frustrated that no one says "thank you" when you hold open the door, that pregnant women and the elderly must fight for bus seats along with everyone else, and that the word "respect" is almost as antiquated as "customer service."

As Ms. Truss writes, "'There is no such thing as society,' Mrs. Thatcher said. Well, there certainly isn't now." Our every interaction is now completed with those who couldn't care less about our feelings. As Ms. Truss writes, "In common with many people today, I seem to spend my whole life wrestling resentfully with automated switchboards, waiting resentfully at home all day for deliveries that don't arrive, resentfully joining immense queues at the post office . . . ."

"Talk to the Hand" is filled with page after page like that -- anecdotes and grievances to which many of us want to shout "Yes!" in solidarity. But Ms. Truss doesn't just list reasons why, as Sartre said, "Hell is other people." She offers theories as to why they have become so. Much of the material here is familiar. Ms. Truss references many recent and not-so-recent books -- histories, etiquette books from centuries previous, sociological studies, book-length complaints. But she synthesizes all of this previous work succinctly, in a very non-academic way.

Manners developed, of course, as part of humanity's process of civilization. But along with etiquette, its not quite synonymous cousin, manners also became a good way to weed out outsiders. How you acted -- whether you thought it more polite to say "napkin" or "serviette," for example -- marked you as part of a group.

But society became more and more egalitarian and those old rules became known by everybody. Perhaps they were no longer needed. Many of them, after all, involved deference to those of a higher rank -- royalty, the aristocracy, and other social superiors -- or a protected class, like women. If the class system has been all but demolished, then why would anyone merit any special politeness? We are all equals now.

Ms. Truss has plenty of non-class-based reasons: "they are older," "they know more than you do," "you are in their house," "they are your boss," "they work for you." But such reasons are beside the point. The rudeniks have subscribed to a false dichotomy: Either some people deserve consideration or no one does. It hasn't occurred to them that everyone does. "Manners are about imagination, ultimately," Ms. Truss wisely concludes. "They are about imagining being the other person."

But that's difficult for many people to do in our technological age. "We can customise any service. We can publish a blog on the internet. We are always reachable by phone, text or email. Our iPods store 4,000 of our own personal favourite tracks," Ms. Truss writes. "The effect of all this limitless self-absorption is to make us isolated, solipsistic, grandiose, exhausted, inconsiderate, and anti-social."

"Talk to the Hand" is likely to be a success. As the 3,000,000 copies sold of her "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" showed, there is a market for the witty, educated curmudgeon. But that previous book didn't need to offer solutions. It was enjoyable enough as history, refresher course and gripe session. Manners, though, are different from grammar. It seems unsatisfying merely to complain about them. We may cringe when we see a misplaced comma, but being told at the slightest provocation to "Eff Off," as Ms. Truss puts it, becomes soul numbing day after day.

The author hopes that if enough people take a stand -- saying thank you when someone holds open a door, for example -- the tide will turn. But when parents don't bother to teach their children the necessity of the words "please" and "thank you," let alone that the world wasn't devised strictly for their amusement, it's hard to imagine a return to civility. "I blame the parents, television, the internet, the mobile phone, the absence of war, the under-valuing of teachers, and I also blame the culture of blame," Ms. Truss drolly writes. But on whom can we rely to bring us out of this mess? At least Ms. Truss keeps us amused while we wait.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink, arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a book columnist for The American Enterprise Online.