Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

This immensely amusing and eminently sensible, but sadly out of print, booklet is based on a John M. Olin Distinguished Lecture that Judith Martin (aka, Miss Manners) gave at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  Her purpose was to "call attention to the need for a philosophically acceptable and aesthetically pleasing standard of American etiquette."  Thomas Jefferson crops up in the title of the book because in 1803, he did in fact propose a system of manners to his Presidential cabinet.  As Miss Manners notes, this project offers some unique problems in an egalitarian democracy :

    The problem with which Mr. Jefferson wrestled, and which promptly defeated him, was how to
    adapt European systems of etiquette and protocol, based on court life and hereditary social classes,
    in order to make them appropriate for a democracy.  It was a noble endeavor.  From its birth,
    America has badly needed a way to express equality, individual freedom, social mobility, and the
    dignity of labor in the language of human social behavior (which is what etiquette is).

But as a quick glance at Jefferson's Memorandum suffices to demonstrate, old Tom failed miserably :

    Memorandum on Rules of Etiquette :

    I. In order to bring the members of society together in the first instance, the custom of the country
    has established that residents shall pay the first visit to strangers, and, among strangers, first comers
    to later comers, foreign and domestic; the character of stranger ceasing after the first visits.  To this
    rule there is a single exception. Foreign ministers, from the necessity of making themselves known,
    pay the first visit to the ministers of the nation, which is returned.

    II. When brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or
    untitled, in or out of office.

    All other observances are but exemplifications of these two principles.

    I. 1st. The families of foreign ministers, arriving at the seat of government, receive the first visit
    from those of the national ministers, as from all other residents.

    2d. Members of the legislature and of the judiciary, independent of their offices, have a right as
    strangers to receive the first visit.

    II. 1st. No title being admitted here, those of foreigners give no precedence.

    2d. Differences of grade among the diplomatic members, give no precedence.

    3d. At public ceremonies, to which the government invites the presence of foreign ministers and
    their families, a convenient seat or station will be provided for them, with any other strangers
    invited and the families of the national ministers, each taking place as they arrive, and without any

    4th. To maintain the principle of equality, or of pele mela, and prevent the growth of precedence
    out of courtesy, the members of the Executive will practice at their own houses, and recommend an
    adherence to the ancient usage of the country, of gentlemen in mass giving precedence to the ladies
    in mass, in passing from one apartment where they are assembled into another.

This minimalist form of manners, known as Pell Mell Etiquette, gives precedence only to hosts and, somewhat, to women--of course, in our own times even the gender differences have been eliminated.
I know some will be nonplused by this, finding it perfectly consistent with our national ethos of equality, but is a society which countenances an able-bodied young man maintaining his seat on a crowded bus while an elderly woman stands really that much better than one where Rosa Parks was forced to sit in the back ?  Are we willing to sacrifice simple civility and decency on the altar of complete egalitarianism?  Note that there is a significant price that we all pay for this attempt to have an etiquette free America :

    The lack of agreement about manners results in an anger- ridden, chaotic society, where each trivial
    act is interpreted as a revelation of the moral philosophy of the individual actor, who is left standing
    there naked in his mores. We must standardize American manners, not only to complete Mr.
    Jefferson's unfortunately sidetracked project of developing a democratic etiquette, but to make order
    of the current chaos and to relieve people of the burden of developing and defending individual
    choices in the most common, everyday matters.

In the absence of such standards, the man who yields his seat is just as likely to be branded a sexist pig as to be thanked.

The other uniquely American dilemma that Miss Manners identifies is the disappearance of private life.  With nearly the entire population now in the work force, with the decline of community and organized leisure activities, and with the near national obsession on making money, business is becoming the center of our lives.  In this situation, however much we may proclaim our allegiance to the idea of equality, one's identity is inevitably derived from one's status in the inherently unequal business world.  The unfortunate result of this is that, absent a private sphere in which to be measured, it becomes necessary for everyone to assert an equality which manifestly does not exist in the workplace; hence the boss who wants to be your buddy,  the professor who insists you call him by his first name, the waitress who wants to participate in your conversations, dress down days, and so forth.  Eventually, thanks to this manic attempt to avoid acknowledging differences in status, we arrive at :

    A complete lack of recognizable distinctions among types of people, so as not to say classes, on any
    basis whatsoever, and a thorough leveling of all hierarchies . . . doesn't work. What you have when
    everyone wears the same playclothes for all occasions, is addressed by nick-name, expected to
    participate in Show and Tell, and bullied out of any desire for privacy, is not democracy; it is

And at the end of the day, no matter how many times your boss tells you to call him "Bill," he can still hire and fire you--we've bought in to an illusion of equality in the only remaining social sphere where we measure ourselves.

Miss Manners proposal to address both of these problems is to more clearly differentiate between the workplace and private life, to recognize that all jobs have intrinsic dignity and to judge people, not by the position they hold in the business world, but by the personal qualities that they manifest in private life.  This would allow us to honor the busboy for the work that he does (without feeling compelled to invite him to share our dinner), while also allowing him to take pride in his current occupation (and continue to aspire towards owning the restaurant), but more importantly, to derive his ultimate sense of societal worth from the type of person he is in private, where we do all truly stand as equals.  In private then, it will be those individuals who are courteous, well mannered, and decent, whom we will recognize as superior, be they taxi drivers or billionaires.

This is a terrific short book on a topic that receives too little consideration.  American society has taken on a pronounced coarseness, which manifests itself in everything from rap music to road rage.  Though we all recognize how unpleasant our interactions with others have become, we give little thought to how to remedy the situation.  In her various columns, Miss Manners routinely offers sage advice on how to repair the social fabric and here she presents a sustained vision for how to create a healthier and happier society through better etiquette.  Oh yeah, and she's very funny.  If you can find the book, read it.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Judith Martin Links:
-REVIEW: of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Julia Reed, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ARCHIVES : Miss Manners Columns (Washington Post)
    -ARCHIVES : Miss Manners (Underwire MSN)
    -ARCHIVES : Miss Manners (eCompany Now)
    -ESSAY :  The World's Oldest Virtue  (Judith Martin, First Things)
    -ESSAY : Miss Manners®: Establishing New Forms on the Internet  (Judith Martin, Harvard Net News)
    -ESSAY : Miss Manners: Help! My  Colleague Dresses Like Mariah Carey (Judith Martin, eCompany Now, September 2000)
    -DISCUSSION : Election Etiquette: Contradiction In Terms? A Brookings Forum (Stephen Hess, Judith Martin, EJ Dionne, Al Hunt, Chris Mathews, Paul Light)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : Judith Martin (Miss Manners) (11/10/99, People Online)
    -REVIEW : of  SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP By Robyn Sisman (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SYMPOSIUM By Muriel Spark (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HANOVER PLACE By Michael M. Thomas (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of : JACK GANCE By Ward Just (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HUMBUGGERY AND MANIPULATION The Art of Leadership. By F. G. Bailey (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WASHINGTON GOES TO WAR By David Brinkley (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of LEGACY By James A. Michener (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WALLIS AND EDWARD Letters 1931-1937. The Intimate Correspondence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Edited by Michael Bloch (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A WOMAN OF THE TIMES Journalism, Feminism, and the Career of Charlotte Curtis. By Marilyn S. Greenwald (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RAGE FOR FAME The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce. By Sylvia Jukes Morris (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of LIFE OF THE PARTY The Biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. By Christopher Ogden (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BRUSHES WITH THE LITERARY Letters of a Washington Artist 1943-1959. By Marcella Comes Winslow (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of FROM THE BALLROOM TO HELL Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance. By Elizabeth Aldrich (Judith Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Miss Manners Goes to Work on Politesse : The etiquette expert offers some advice on how to be an adult in an uncivilized, adolescent world. (ABIGAIL GOLDMAN, LA Times)
    -ESSAY : Once Again, Etiquette is a Hot Topic (Ron Alexander, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : On Language : O LITTLE TOWN OF PLUGSVILLE (William Safire, NY Times Sunday Magazine)
    -ESSAY : LIFE STYLE: Sunday Menu; Tempest in an Asparagus Pot: Are Fingers Fair?  (MARIAN BURROS, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Who are you Calling Ms? (Margot Mifflin, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Post Modern Manners (Amy Wilson - Freedom News Service)
    -REVIEW : of COMMON COURTESY In Which Miss Manners Solves the Problem That Baffled Mr. Jefferson. By Judith Martin (Alison Lurie, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miss Manners' Basic Training : Eating (Andrew Essex, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Miss Manners' Guide to the Turn-of-the-Millennium (Scott Marley, Whole Earth)
    -REVIEW : of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Internet Behavior by Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) schools gentle 'net surfers on how to act properly on-line (VIRGINIA SHEA, IDG net)
    -REVIEW : of MISS MANNERS' BASIC TRAINING: COMMUNICATION By Judith Martin (Susan Chandler, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of MISS MANNERS RESCUES CIVILIZATION By Judith Martin (Susan Chandler, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of MISS MANNERS RESCUES CIVILIZATION : From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other  Lapses in Civility  By Judith Martin (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Miss Manners Rescues Civilization, by Judith Martin ( Loren E. Lomasky, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of  STYLE AND SUBSTANCE : A Comedy of Manners. By Judith Martin  (Lisa Zeidner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Gilbert : A Comedy of Manners. By Judith Martin (Tracy Young, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children by Judith Martin  (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children by Judith Martin (Erica Abeel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of MISS MANNERS' GUIDE TO EXCRUCI- ATINGLY CORRECT BEHAVIOR. By Judith Martin  (Delia Ephron, NY Times Book Review)

    -ETEXT : Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (Emily Post, 1922)
    -ETEXT : Youth's Educator for Home and Society - 1896
    -ETEXT : A Manual of Etiquette, With Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding by "Daisy Eyebright"
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of   A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS : Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America By Mark Caldwell
    -ARCHIVE : Etiquette for Today by Peggy Post (Good Housekeeping)
    -Emily Post Institute
    -Etiquette Hell : ...a special cyber place created for the truly etiquette challenged, the purposely greedy, the ungrateful, and the uncivil members of society.
    -Etiquette International
    -Gestures Around the World
    -Netiquette Home Page (Arlene H. Rinaldi, Florida Atlantic University (FAU)
    -Web of Culture
    -ESSAY : THE AMERICAN UNCIVIL WARS : How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture (US News and World Report)
    -ESSAY : Are We a Nation of Boors? (Dale Keiger, Johns Hopkins Magazine)
    -ESSAY : MIND YOUR MANNERS: It makes civilization possible. (Abigail Mccarthy, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY : Civility Valley It Ain't : One of technology's side-effects is erosion of common courtesy (Brian D. Rossman, Campbell Reporter)
    -ESSAY : The death of decency (MATT SCHUDEL, Orlando Sun-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW : of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. By Jane Jacobs (Mary Ann Glendon, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America. By Mark Caldwell (Naomi Bliven, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS Manners, Morals and Misbehavior in Modern America By Mark Caldwell (Richard Eder, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE RITUALS OF DINNER The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. By Margaret Visser (Molly O'Neill, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE HATLESS MAN An Anthology of Odd & Forgotten Manners. By Sarah Kortum (Frank J. Prial, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of CIVILITY Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. By Stephen L. Carter (Michael Lind, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DEBRETT'S ETIQUETTE AND MODERN MANNERS. Edited by Elsie Burch Donald (Justin Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE PILGRIM'S RULES OF ETIQUETTE By Taghi Modarressi (Penelope Fitzgerald, NY Times Book Review)
    -LINKS : Yahoo! Etiquette Guide