I think I read the sports section of the Los Angeles Times every day from the age of nine or so, following baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. And a few other stories of boxers or cyclists or Pele or Jimmy Connors or maybe even jockey Willie Shoemaker, who after retiring got drunk and crashed his car off the freeway near my dad's house in 1993. I was really one of those kids who studied the box scores or the Top 10 Leaders in Passing, or Scoring. Why? I'm still not sure...
Age 12-40: Utterly Brazen 'Tude Towards Etiquette-Talk
Then, around age 12 I started reading the rest of the paper. I remember Dear Abby, and as a long-haired pagan kid I thought this was the most ridiculous part of the paper: people writing in and asking for advice from some old bag they didn't even know, because somehow "Abby" had become an authority on manners or some crap like that. Only the daily horoscope was stupider than this twaddle.
I pretty much kept up this attitude through my 30s. Although I did make a quiet, very informal and ongoing study of manners - one finds one must, really! - Abby and her sister "Ann Landers" and others like Tish Baldridge, Miss Manners and Amy Vanderbilt were the subject of humor rank and vile around my often rock-musician friends.
"Should we have another beer?
"I dunno. What would Dear Abby say?"
"She and her **** sister can **** my ****, but I'm pretty sure they'd say it's entirely appropriate to have another beer AND some more of that sweet ganja."
Than someone would fart. And we'd laugh. Or act "offended."
OG Hits Big Four-O
Around age 40, I became much more interested in manners. I'd read some of Edmund Burke, the great (true) conservative thinker (O! How I wish today's Republicans were more like Edmund Burke!), Irishman, philosopher, and essayist. He said he thought manners were more important than laws, which blew my mind. It really made me think. Of course laws are important. Bad laws really bother me, and there are plenty of those. But in those personal worlds that we so often inhabit, don't insults, or inadvertent slights, or little indignities or gracious acts by a friend or stranger affect us more than laws? I think so.
The really tricky thing about manners: they seemed related to the species we know of as "morals" and "ethics" but manners seemed more mysterious. Indeed, look at how much great comedy is produced with the anxiety about "what's the correct thing to do here?" as the backdrop. We all know those situations, and hilarity will ensue when the main characters make a far worse go of it than we would have...and most of us find ourselves unsure often enough. Look at Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm: they're all about manners, those unwritten "rules" that we all must somehow know, and when you violate them - whether you knew it or not, whether you agreed with the "rule" or not - there will be consequences.
You know the Fellini-like music that runs through Curb Your Enthusiasm? Larry David said, "You can really act like an imbecile and this music is going to make it okay." Yep. You need that music to take the edge off the utter cringeworthiness of those situations...
Introducing Henry Alford
So I'm reading a very funny book called Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?, by Henry Alford. He reminds me of Robert Benchley (one of my writing heroes since around age 23) writing an etiquette book, although it's a meta-etiquette book; he's more fascinated in etiquette than I am, he's writing about thinking about etiquette. He has adventures, he makes mistakes, he does research on etiquette, he lives in Manhattan and compares it with his (hilarious) trip to Tokyo, etc. Alford cites Mark Caldwell's book A Short History of Rudeness (which I haven't read, but whatta title, eh?) in which, from an anthropological view, manners have "almost always served as 'tokens of solidarity in a distinct human group, which - if status is high enough - can decree anything polite by fiat.'" (Alford quoting Caldwell) "Caldwell writes of a sixteenth-century aristocratic German tradition whereby Christmas revelers festively pelted one another with dog turds at the dinner table." (pp.37-38, Alford) I just happened to see it on the shelf in my local library - Alford's book, not dog turds - and couldn't put it down. Gawd, this guy is a blast!
About 3/4 of the way through I arrived at a chapter about advice columnists, and was astonished to see Alford explain that he'd pick his favorite manners-writers and read the letter to the expert, then, without reading how the columnist responded to "Confused in Concord" "Mad in Moline" or "Sad in Saratoga" or (I'm making these up) "Vile in Virginia Falls," he'd write his response in a notebook as if he were the columnist. And that's what I had done twenty or thirty times over the years, as an exercise! Alford's a better writer than I am, but I felt a kinship when I read about his exercises.
"When devising your response to etiquette columns, it's naturally much more fun to disagree with the manners maven; you learn more this way, since you're forced to solidify or retinker your opinion," Alford writes on p.170. Indeed, I have three basic approaches to my answers:
- I allow myself to be outrageously flippant, even unspeakably rude, a throwback to those rock band days I mentioned above. It's a way to let the Id out. Other times I act like the Stephen Colbert character, George Carlin, or "Ed Anger" from the The Weekly World News.
- Having read the columnist a handful of times, I try to predict what they'd write to "Dirty in Des Moines." It's a way to see how my etiquette chops are coming along, and a test of whether I "get" the advice columnist's approach to manners. (Alford does this too.)
- I use my response as a way to exercise "style," whatever the hell that is. In my ordinary world, I hardly ever talk about manners. I think Alford nails this: "On the one hand, you want to be omniscient, gentle, loving, sensitive, practical, subtle, clear, objective, and kind; on the other, you don't want to be the most boring person on the planet." Alford doesn't mention that he does what I do: I try to "channel" Gore Vidal, Aldous Huxley, or sometimes Erica Jong.
Me and Wilhelm Reich
One Big Thing I've learned about myself: I know the Western world's adult population at large tends to be more reverential and...oh fuck it, I'll say it: stuffy about sex. Much moreso than I. So I had to spend a lot of time weighing whether I should dial it back on my tendencies to just let it rip about sex. As a minor scholar of Wilhelm Reich, with my idiosyncratic interpretation of him and a few (but not most!) of his followers, I have decided to err or the side of possible embarrassment. We need to get over our sex hang-ups. That doesn't mean I'll discuss my own genitalia or friends'; there must be a point to it all. I will try not to cause embarrassment for others just for the sake of it. That would be cruel, and I definitely want to avoid that. But because we are so hung up, so fucked up, hypocritical and pretentious about sex in our culture, I will push the envelope a bit, and a few times I've gotten in hot water, especially with the online world. I've learned from these instances. I know now that I'll be joking with people I'd probably never want to socialize with in "real life." The online world is tricky: too much Missing Information. (Alford has a wonderful chapter on this: chapter 5, "Being a brisk snowshoe across the winterscape that is the Internet," pp.87-112) Alford, a gay man who writes for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and NPR, doesn't seem to agree with me...which may be part of why he is where he is and I am...here. <cough>
Am I tilting at windmills here? Probably. I'll probably always be a bit of a "punk" when it comes to this stuff. Aye, I still find myself behaving like a Visigoth or Dartmouth frat-boy every now and again. (I did NOT go to Dartmouth; the line was meant as a put-down. O! The irony!)
Etiquette and Phenomenological Sociology and Cognitive Science
Alford mentions he'd found out about the "theory of mind" while researching the book. Basic to cognitive science, it's about knowing that others do or don't know that you know, to put it most simply. A basic study: children watch a film of a child putting candy into a box, then see the child going outside. They then see an adult take the candy out of the box and put it in a drawer. Then the children who watched the film are asked: when the child comes back for the candy, where will they look? At 2 1/2 years old, only about 20% of the children said the box. By four years old, almost all the kids say the box. By four you have a theory of mind.
Alford wonders if, rather than manners being based on something like "empathy," which he had guessed at before learning about the theory of mind, that "Maybe good manners are your ability to take on another person's point of view regardless of your own." I think this is one reason why manners fascinate me so much: the hidden dimension of everyday "reality." I've long been fascinated by phenomenological sociology and Ethnomethodology (Alfred Schutz, Harold Garfinkel, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, the sociologists who do Conversation Analysis like Harvey Sacks, etc.): the "seen- but-not-noted-world." A current trope: paying attention to manners is a way of "hacking" much of the unseen/unspoken social welt.
sociology called Ethnomethodology, which sought to
tease out the hidden "rules" of everyday life. To me,
Ethnomethodology was intensely intellectual and sort
of whacky; it was super-microsociology and also a
meta-critique of the Social Sciences. Garfinkel was one
of Carlos Castaneda's PhD advisors.
There's a finesse to manners. This isn't about social register or "class" or "good breeding," although all of those seem related. When one frames "manners" as being something that could operate among hoboes along the train-tracks, I think we've found a more true and just look at what manners are. (Maybe?) After having crashed Jonathan Haidt a month or so ago, I think he's groping towards something along these lines vis a vis those who differ from our political POV: trying to embody someone else's point of view despite your own cherished models of "reality."
Exercise Tip For Your Writing Chops; OR: Just Fer Kicks
Alford says his favorite are Mary Killen from the Spectator (which I like too for its exotic British tones); Miss Laura's TransTerrific Advice Column (for the transgendered); Miss Manners; Philip Galanes's "Social Qs" in the NYT; and Dan Savage. My favorite is Savage, but I also read Miss Manners, AKA Judith Martin. I like Dear Prudence from Slate. Because I once wondered why it seemed that heterosexual males writing etiquette was fodder for jokes, I found The Answer Man just to see if a straight guy could pull it off. He's not bad, in my opinion. But the others have better style. You can just Google "advice column" and find someone, anyone, read the first letter, then think how you'd like to respond, then write. If you're like me, you might make yourself laugh at yourself! Anyway...
I also read Carolyn Hax, and before I sat down to write this blogspew, I read her May 9th, "Friend's Estrangement Calls For Compassion, Not Shunning," which gave away her game right there in the title.
for Slate; she's fearless and has awesome poise.
Because the title "primed" my brain to pretty much agree with her about "Dan," I still found myself wondering if the advice-seeker's girlfriend might have had a "thing" for Dan, and has not been forthright with any of us. Clearly Rachel's unsavory and has problems, and Dan maybe oughtta grow a pair and look elsewhere. Then - this is why I like Hax's column - a respondent to Carolyn's advice says what I had been thinking: "Why is she so obsessed with Dan?" Then I thought maybe I'm projecting. Truly, instead of shaming Dan, girlfriend and others who care about him should exude compassion, and hope he makes the right decision. I think someone (I'm looking at you, Dan!) needs to tell Rachel to take a hike (but how's her body? what's she like in bed?), and maybe Dan should think of some client-centered Rogerian psychotherapy. But it's complicated, right? Hax nails it again at the end. There's something intimidatingly adroit about the really good manners mavens...
Thinking about complex social situations involving the unwritten laws of etiquette and delicately nuanced human emotions involves the theory of mind and its exercise, often using intuition, memory of past experience, and moreover, our wits. Manly men who think etiquette is sissy-stuff? You're missing out on a rich field of social discourse! You ignore this stuff at your own peril!
Finally: if you decide to study this stuff in a more-than-cursory way, bring your personality and sense of humor "to the table." Just as those Robert Anton Wilson fans who know what makes the Law of 23 go, you'll no doubt "see" manners everywhere after awhile. And that can make experience richer. There's a lot of deep humor in this sphere. Enjoy!