- - Saturday, March 28, 2020

Judith Martin has become the high priestess of politeness for which we should all be grateful.

In a 200-page book which ranges from Christmas lists to the importance of saying please, Ms. Martin offers sensible advice to the most nonsensical of her correspondents and the sharp side of her tongue to those who transgress the boundaries of etiquette. 

She acknowledges in a foreword that when she “assumed the quixotic task of civilizing society etiquette was not a problem.” However, given that this concept had collapsed in the past decade, she felt now called upon to put forward “a radically different system by which we would all restrain ourselves just enough to keep life from being unpleasant.”

She admits it was to her surprise that people began listening to the point that civility “became part of the national conversation.” She adds tartly, “Politicians won elections by calling for it although not by practicing it because that was considered a sign of weakness.”

The book is a delectable collection of letters to Miss Manners who responds to her “gentle reader” with a caustic blend of good humor and exasperation. To someone who recommends sending itemized lists of preferred Christmas gifts to friends who have “disposable income,” Miss Manners especially deplores using children as the messengers for such a mission. To anyone receiving such a list, she responds, “If you were as appalled as Miss Manners is at helping a child beg, the best rebate would be to ignore the suggestion.”

And she has no patience at all with those who consider ending using the word “please” as part of a  request, especially a parent who discourages the use of please as “begging” by a child. 

“How eager are you to drop the few remaining daily courtesies that remain?” demands Miss Manners. “Without the addition of please, a request becomes an order.”

She is similarly dismissive of writers who complain that they don’t like a man opening a door for a woman, suggesting that the writer is saying more about herself than the man who offends by being what he apparently feels is polite gesture and not a comment on the effort involved. And she hits her stride when dealing with a letter about people who admit such a transgression as asking someone whether their husbands are going to get them pregnant while conceding “I’m rude” for such an inquiry.

Miss Manners recommends that the response should be “Evidently” followed by silence.

And she also digs in her heels on the topic of political correctness and the current capacity of “venting” to demonstrate opinions. She admits it is the American way to  speak up against a wrong “even if we can’t agree about what it is.” But she announces she is lodging a protest against public name calling in the streets or electronically as a form of protest.” She notes that she expects to be called naive and a lot worse for objecting to venting.

“But then who isn’t, these days?” she asks.

Asked by a correspondent how to be polite  without being politically correct, she notes that those who defend their political politeness contend that they are being frank and honest about their views. She emphasizes her dislike of “hate talk” and questions the use of some political correctness  allegedly as part of the right to free speech. Miss Manners reminds that obnoxious language and name calling are exercised without legal reprisals.

“Etiquette relies on voluntary compliance,”she declares.

In one of the letters that “ruined Miss Manners’ day,” a writer described her experience with a friend who explained her failure to send a Christmas card because she had only bought 25 and no more would be sent to other friends. Acknowledging the collapse of her day, Miss Manners suggested that egotism was the root of the kind of problem that inspired people to tell others they were not enough in favor to receive invitations, cards or gifts.

She found it “particularly appalling” that this seemed to represent “some sort of social obligation to announce ‘nyah nyah’ to the excluded ones.”

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

• • •


By Judith Martin

Andrews McMeel Publishing, $19.99, 240 pages

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