The Magazine

Etiquette Today

Good manners are hard to find.

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Then there's ordering. Always be simple and unobtrusive; if you want paupiettes de saumon avec petits turbans de concombres au jus de l'oseille sauvage, save time and say, "I'd like the salmon, please." And smoking. Morgan reminds us that "restaurants are public places and thus require public toleration." When you're sitting in the smoking section, and especially if the smoker shows the thoughtfulness to refrain from lighting up till after the main course is finished, be a good sport and smile when he finally does. You, after all, with your name-dropping, nightmarish get-up, conspicuously righteous social concerns, and ape-like grammar may not be the best of company yourself. But you too are tolerated. In other words, if we all can bear the mental scars of second-hand boorishness, a few whiffs of tobacco smoke will do us little harm.

It all comes down to other people. Morgan tells us to do things as adults that we might have been smacked for not doing as children. But whenever we talk about bad manners in modern America (or modern Britain, for that matter), there's always more to say. To the next edition of this guide, Morgan should consider adding a chapter on "Road Etiquette," as most of us feel the sharpest brunt of contemporary selfishness and barbarity while driving. A driver gunning your car out of a lane on the interstate by riding its bumper is not only dangerous, it advertises the speeder's conviction that his time is more valuable than yours; your crawling at 45 mph in the left lane may signal another sort of egotism. Yet how many of us have had our morning moods changed for the better by another driver's slowing down to allow us to ease in front of him before an exit? We don't need to have been formally introduced to someone to show him kindness.

NOR do we really need to hail from the gentle classes in order to feel the more expansive, if more subtle, satisfactions afforded by committing simple acts of decency. Whether worn by the nouveau riche or--in Washington, say--by the nouveau puissant, good manners have always been hard to uphold, and that's particularly so now when they're denigrated for acting as brakes on our "authenticity" and inhibiting what we gratuitously like to call "self-expression." They do. Yet it is by these liberating rules that we avoid giving offense, always a prime object of proper behavior. With them we create pockets of comfort for people around us. They make for ease. They lift us, however momentarily, above our cloddish and grisly natures. So from time to time we ought to remember that we're not alone on this planet, flick off the cell phones, and give others a little more elbow room, if only out of the desperate hope that they might give us a little when the time comes. The effort is rarely wasted.

Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin" is being published this spring by ISI Books.