Amy Alkon, Los Angeles-based syndicated advice columnist (“Advice Goddess”) and author of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (St. Martin’s Griffin), is a friend of mine, so this is a plug, not a review. But even if this were a review because I didn’t know Amy, it would read like a plug anyway. Her previous manners book, I See Rude People (2009), got rave blurbs from Elmore Leonard and Harold Bloom. I’m not in the same league as either of those, but I can say without reservation that Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck is hilarious, consistently entertaining, and, above all, wise. It’s Emily Post as a beach read.
Unlike Post, though, Amy doesn’t pretend to know, much less dispense advice about, the finer points of formal etiquette. In her opening chapter, titled “I Don’t Care Where You Put the Fork (as long as you don’t stab anybody in the eye with it),” she confesses: “I do have a grasp on certain table manner basics, like that you shouldn’t lick your plate clean unless there’s a power outage or you’re dining with the blind, but I’m basically as domestic as a golden retriever.” But as she points out: “What really matters isn’t how you set the table or serve the turkey but whether you’re nice to people while you’re doing it.” Her book, she writes, is “for people like me, who are well-meaning but imperfect…who sometimes swear (and maybe even enjoy it) but take care not to do it around anybody’s great-aunt or four-year-old.”
Some of Amy’s directives are aimed at one’s own well-meaning but imperfect self: How not to shoot your mouth off (or use it as a repository for your foot), how to deal politely with prying questions from others, how to resist the temptation to criticize—because “criticizing people doesn’t make people want to change; it makes them want to clobber you.” Other parts of the book target the human vermin that infest today’s life: litterers, “cellphone rudewads,” violators of the “one car, one parking space” rule (“if a scratch is that big a deal, you aren’t rich enough to drive it”), seat-kickers on airplanes, sidewalk hogs, dog-walkers who regard your front lawn as a canine lavatory, and parents who refuse to hush or discipline their screaming children in public places for fear of traumatizing the little darlings. Amy tells you not to be one of the above—and also how to deal with these pests effectively without either being a pushover or getting arrested for assault and battery.
There is a much-needed chapter on Internet etiquette (don’t hit up your friends to crowdfund your vanity projects, don’t put people into your Facebook group without their consent, don’t ask your friends to read and comment on your attached poem/short story/draft of your newspaper op-ed piece unless you’re paying them for the chore. When e-mailing people for business purposes, stick to 9-5 business hours (this is a rule that I myself constantly violate, I’ve got to say.)
A chapter on dating and relationships—and how to end one of those relationships politely but firmly (don’t explain—just say it’s not working for you) is not only sage but refreshingly politically incorrect. Amy draws on evolutionary psychology to argue that dating is a mating ritual that is ultimately linked to procreation and the raising of children. This means that “male sexuality is about the visuals,” as Amy writes, because women’s youth and good looks signal their fertility, whereas “women evolved to feel compelled to seek men who are ‘providers’” for them and their offspring.
Awareness of this crucial difference between the sexes should govern everything from who asks whom for the first date (the man, says Amy, because men value women who exercise their evolutionarily programmed choosiness); who pays for the first few dates (the man, because he symbolically demonstrates that he’s a provider—but only symbolically—first dates should be short and cheap); and, contra to reams of feminist propaganda, who gets to indulge in casual sex without feeling “like stepped-on crap afterwards” (the man again). Amy writes: “There are hookups that lead to happily ever after, but because men tend to devalue women they don’t have to chase, there’s a good chance a hookup will be the fast track to ‘He’s just not that into you…(but he’ll use you for sex while he’s looking for a woman he is into).’”
Evolutionary psychology is the grid on which Amy lays out her general theories about why we should treat each other well and why we need to. She argues that the level of widespread day-to-day rudeness we experience today is a fairly recent development, concomitant with our living in large urban societies instead of the hunter-gatherer bands and small villages of the Stone Age in which human beings evolved. Back then, it was risky for people to be piggish and selfish; they could be expelled from the group and starve to death. Today’s mass society gives the protection of anonymity to even the most outrageous behavior, Amy argues—so we get more of it.
I myself am not so sure that people 20,000 years ago were any more altruistic than they are now. It must be my pessimistic view of human nature, because I’ll bet that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers found plenty of ways to get away with making their neighbors miserable. But that’s beside the point. Amy argues that in order to make up for our being forced to rub up against strangers during most of our waking hours, we should cultivate empathy for their plights and respect for their dignity—and treat them as well as we can. That is the essence of good manners for both civilized and barbarous times.