OBSESSION: MODERN MANNERS
I’m sure the folks who insist on lumping the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together under the vague-sounding “Presidents’ Day” mean well. It’s tidier than having two separate holidays so close together and gives hope to retailers who won’t have another excuse to slash prices until Memorial Day. But it has the unfortunate effect of diminishing both great men, and I’m delighted that the official name for the federal holiday we observed yesterday, the third Monday in February, remains Washington’s Birthday, as specified under Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code.
I spent the latter part of it prone on the sofa, absorbed in the newest etiquette book in my collection, What Would George Do? Advice from Our Founding Father—a modern context for the first president’s Rules of Civility, precepts of refinement compiled by French Jesuits in 1590, translated into English around 1640, and transcribed by many young colonials, including George Washington, in the 18th century.
WWGD, which should be required reading for every member of Congress, is the genius idea of the mother-and-daughter team Nan Marshall and Helen Broder. Nan is my stepsister-in-law—more accurately, my ex-stepsister-in-law, since my father and stepmother divorced after ten years or so of matrimony. They’d been colleagues at the Savannah paper before they married and remained great pals after they parted company. I was dubious about that development, but “Why let a marriage get in the way of a beautiful friendship?” Nan said philosophically. She has great dignity, elegance, and wit, and if she hadn’t had such a successful career in business, she could have taken the diplomatic service by storm.
Nan and Helen’s first chapter, “Making Time,” sets things up nicely. “We all need to slow down. Busyness is a poor substitute for genuine living, and it doesn’t fool anyone.” They point out that many people have become addicted to stress, and go on to categorize the various types (self-important, guilty, frightened, crisis-driven, etc.) who use busyness as a prerequisite for feeling good about themselves.
Washington, on the other hand, never appeared to be in a hurry. “Despite the hustle and bustle of war, politics, and farming, he always maintained an elegant air of comfortable ease …. The truth of the matter is time-management challenges have been around forever. Fortunately, so has the cure—social contact …. Detained in Philadelphia and desperately trying to raise the money to pay his army, Washington missed the fellowship of his officers away on the southern campaign. He wrote General Greene, ‘To participate and divide our feelings, hopes, fears, and expectations with a friend is almost the only source of pleasure and consolation left us ….’ ”
I made myself another cup of tea and turned to Chapter Seven, “At The Table,” and Rule 105: “Be not Angry at Table whatever happens & if you have reason to be so, Shew it not but (put) on a Chearfull Countenance especially if there be Strangers for Good Humour makes one Dish of Meat a feast.”
WWGD isn’t interested in finger bowls (“outdated”) or escargot forks (“irrelevant”), but points out that simple common sense underlies table manners. “The rules of communal dining may seem arbitrary, but they are not merely ceremonial …. Seventeen of the Rules of Civility that [Washington] painstakingly memorized dictate ways to keep the experience of eating focused on the pleasure of the food and the company, not on the distractions and distresses introduced by thoughtless diners … They are all based on four indispensable and practical principles: “cooperation, cleanliness, composure, and conversation.” That works for me.
My fascination with etiquette books stems from a very young age, when my parents gave me the Munro Leaf books. There was The Story of Ferdinand, of course, about the world’s most contented bull, which was just as instructive in its way as Manners Can Be Fun (first published in 1936 and just as fresh and spot-on as ever) and How To Behave and Why (1946; ditto). I read them over and over. “Having good manners is really just living with other people pleasantly,” is how Manners Can Be Fun begins. “If you lived all by yourself out on a desert island, others would not care whether you had good manners or not. It wouldn’t bother them …. Most of us don’t live on desert islands so this is what we do—”
I found it reassuring to read about a world in which there was so little uncertainty. In due time, I progressed to Emily Post’s Etiquette (first published in 1922), with its entertaining cast of characters—including Mr. Bachelor, Mr. Newgold, Mrs. Oldname, Mrs. Neighbor, Mrs. Stranger, Mrs. Kindhart, Mr. and Mrs. Nono Better, the Worldlys, and the Gildings. In our home library, Emily had her place on the shelf next to the dictionary stand (with its solid little step stool, for children), alongside Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (1948; available at abebooks and other online sources), by Millicent Fenwick, the impeccably mannered yet outspoken Republican congresswoman from New Jersey, who was an associate editor at Vogue at the time. Her topics included “A Girl on her own,” “Entertaining without a maid,” “Debutantes,” and “Being invited to the White House,” but I think I enjoyed the chapter on misused words and phrases the most. “Costly,” for instance, may describe a battle but never a fur coat, and “high-toned” has no “permissible simile.”
Recent editions of Emily Post are as authoritative as ever, but lack the personality found in the earlier ones. These days, the most diverting etiquette encyclopedias are those by Miss Manners, a.k.a. Judith Martin. Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility, for instance, is a boon to anyone who has to deal with complex or blended family ties, and it is far less expensive than therapy.
But her definitive work is Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (first published in 1979). Miss Manners isn’t as sedate as Mrs. Post; her forthrightness is more along the lines of Millicent Fenwick, and she’s very good at disentangling etiquette problems from moral or psychological ones. She’s famously funny, to boot. “Fruit occupies the place in the food world that the ingenue does in society,” she explained. “That is, it is usually fresh (but occasionally stewed), and although welcome anywhere for its charm and simplicity, it requires more complicated treatment when going about socially than it does when it is just hanging about the house.”
Like President Washington, Miss Manners is arbitrary, pragmatic, fearless, and views etiquette as something simultaneously fundamental and noble. I could go on and on, but I really must write a couple of thank-you notes, and then call a dear friend and invite her to supper. Somehow, there’ll be plenty of time.