Three Cheers for Civility: Advice From Miss Manners

In “Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium,” Judith Martin, also known as “Miss Manners,” creates a fictional family headed by Daffodil and Teddy Right to introduce the complications of etiquette as practiced in the 21st century.

Martin ends her brief examination of modern social behavior with these words:

“‘Sometimes, I feel as if I don’t understand anything anymore,’ Daffodil often says to Teddy of an evening. ‘Everybody means well, but it’s all so bewildering. What would Mother have done if she had had the prospect of living into the 21st century?’

“It is to answer that question that this book is written.”

Two books by Miss Manners sit on the shelves of my home library, and I have dipped into others. I read and admire them less for her advice on manners and more for the pleasures of Martin’s vigorous prose style, her wit, and her obvious love for the English language. 

Recently, while flipping through the Millennium guide, I became aware that the book offers a philosophy for living that all of us—rich and poor, young and old—might wish to practice. Below are some of the generalities I culled from this 742-page tome. In an age of frequent rudeness and acrimony, Miss Manners offers us some reasons for “minding our manners.”

Respect and Decency

To treat others with respect and to conform our behavior to a given situation is decency incarnate. This idea lies at the heart of Miss Manner’s advocacy for etiquette. She recognizes that changing times bring revisions in manners, but the basics of civility always remain the same. After criticizing certain modern burial practices, for example, she writes that “showing respect for the dead, and for the feelings of their survivors, is a basic tenet of civilization, not an old social fad to be left behind in these supposedly more sophisticated times.”

When we show respect to others, whether the head of a corporation or a homeless man on the sidewalk, we are practicing etiquette. 

During Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, both men treated each other with respect and with a real and almost delicate sense of decency. When Lee asked Grant whether his men might be allowed to keep their horses for transportation and for spring plowing, Grant immediately concurred with this request. He also ordered that rations be distributed among the starving Confederates.  

It was the decent thing to do.

Forgiveness and Mercy

Forgiveness and mercy? What do these virtues have to do with etiquette?

Throughout Martin’s books, we read letters from her readers who have suffered broken relationships from some argument or misunderstanding. They spoke a wrong word, neglected to invite a friend to a special function, or interfered in the lives of their grown children, and so faced censure, separation, and heartbreak.

In such circumstances, Miss Manners advises, seek reconciliation whenever possible.

A woman I know failed to ask the counsel of her best friend in a personal matter, and the friend dumped her. They haven’t spoken in four years. I am also familiar with families in which fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and siblings have quarreled and then refuse to speak to one another, in some instances for decades. 

Even worse than these splits based on personal issues are those related to our embittered political divides. A young mother told me that one of her cousins and another acquaintance had unfriended her on Facebook for an article she’d posted celebrating President Donald Trump’s economic accomplishments. These “friends” made no attempt at explanation or debate; they simply banished her from their company.

Mercy and forgiveness, Miss Manners reminds us, are core elements of etiquette, of “correct behavior.” 

You’re Not Special, You’re Not Exempt

Remember the “I Am Special” movement that once swept through our schools? Even the church where I was then teaching Sunday school handed out stickers to the younger crew, a big yellow star proclaiming “I AM SPECIAL!”

That motto does contain a grain of truth: Every human being is unique, which makes all of us special.

But special doesn’t exempt us from fulfilling our social obligations. Again and again, Miss Manners finds herself decrying the excuses of readers who have failed to write thank you notes, who want to fly in the face of conventional behavior in the office, or who decide to wear a T-shirt and jeans to a formal wedding. She explains that “one is always hearing violators of the simplest social conventions—vocabulary, fit subject matter for conversation, clothing, the distinction between public and private behavior—arguing that what they are doing is appropriate somewhere and therefore could not be inappropriate anywhere.” 

Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” might serve as the anthem for these folks. Yet, it’s only a short step from there to “My way or the highway,” and all too often the practitioner of this philosophy is the one sent packing by his friends and family.

The Little Things Count

Miss Manners touts the little things, the common courtesies of everyday life: giving up a seat on the subway or bus to a pregnant woman or an elderly man; holding a door open for that woman with a cane; standing and greeting guests when they enter a room; writing a note of appreciation to the neighbor who pulled your car out of a ditch.

The following short exchange demonstrates the importance of small conventions:

Dear Miss Manners,

What is the correct response when your pregnant friends insist on showing you the photographs from their sonograms? This has happened to me three times, and I somehow feel that saying “Oh, how cute” is inappropriate. Any suggestions?

Gentle reader:

None better than “Oh, how cute.” Miss Manners presents her compliments to you.

Such small gestures of courtesy send large messages to their recipients, who are made to feel welcome, loved, or appreciated. 

Revival

Though her book appeared only 30 years ago, part of Miss Manners’ advice may strike some readers as positively Victorian, as out of date as baleen corsets and leather spats. She advocates gentlemen opening car doors for ladies—and yes, she uses those old-fashioned words for the sexes—she finds it charming that ladies precede gentlemen through doorways, but follow them down stairwells “so that she can, if necessary, land comfortably on him when she falls,” and she supports what my mother taught me long ago: “When they are walking outdoors, American ladies take the side away from the curb.”

We may quibble about such details, but the purpose behind the practice of manners remains unchanged. In the movie “Blast From the Past,” one of the characters discovers this idea after talking to a new friend: “He said good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that. I thought it was just a way of acting all superior … But it turns out the short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is someone who always tries to make sure that the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.”

When we respect those we encounter during the day, when we offer them the mantle of dignity, we not only make them feel more fully human, we perform the same service for ourselves.

And what could be better than that?

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.