Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2002 / 29 Kislev, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

Miss Manners and the language of tradition | Judith Martin has spent almost 25 years writing an etiquette column under the pen name "Miss Manners." By now everyone knows that Miss Manners can teach you which spoon to use first, which way a letter should be placed inside an envelope (I didn't even know there was a rule for this!), and how to write a thank-you letter for a present you didn't like. But fewer people have noticed Miss Manners' commonsense, eloquent defense of tradition against the modern passion for originality and "self-expression."

"Miss Manners' Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say " abounds with statements like this: "In the heady era of believing that we are all born bursting with creativity, the conventional phrases society uttered for marking the conventional events of life were cast aside as insufficient and insincere. It no longer seemed enough to say 'Congratulations' to the happy, 'I'm terribly sorry' to the sad, and 'Get well soon' to the sick. Something more inspired seemed necessary.

"But what? The suggestion--not a noticeably original idea, by the way--was that people should consult their feelings and then improvise remarks based on their emotions. Uninhibited by the unimaginative dictates of etiquette, they would produce fresh heart-to-heart communication--a veritable flow of uniquely personal empathy that would make the world a better place.

"Only they didn't and it isn't. Searching their hearts, most people came up with the idea of talking about themselves or of critiquing others."

She proceeds to quote some appalling examples of modern manners: "You look terrific--did you have a face-lift?"

"You're really moving ahead. Your firm must have a real commitment to diversity."

"Were you intending to have a baby, or did this just happen?"

(To a newly engaged friend:) "I hope you've got a good lawyer."

(To a mourner:) "You must be relieved it's over."

Some of these hurtful comments are genuinely well-intentioned. Some are knowingly spiteful. And some inhabit that gray area, where we convince ourselves that we mean well, where we pretend that our selfishness is concern for others and our envy is realism. These comments are certainly expressive! But the self they express is not fit for public life.

Miss Manners points out, gently and wittily, that the old familiar courtesies were meant to protect privacy and promote sympathy. Manners are designed to focus our attention outward, away from our own conflicts or pettiness and toward the needs of friends and strangers. Miss Manners uses phrases like, "It is, of course, a duty of mercy to..." and means it. Manners, to her, are a way of being merciful--sparing others from dealing with our worst selves. Manners push us to consider "how the other person feels"; they train us in compassion, responsibility, humility, and joy.

Compassion, because they teach us to care for others even when we want to throw a tantrum (which is one form of "self-expression") or lazily ignore others. Responsibility, because manners prod us to apologize and make amends when we're wrong--and also help us by giving us conventional forms that will be sure to let others know that we are sorry.

(Too often, people fear that a standard, uncreative apology will be seen as insincere, so they try to "personalize" their apology with a joke or a unique turn of phrase. The very lightheartedness, irony, or unusual word choice is often then taken as a sign that the apology was not meant seriously. And so no one is happy.)

Manners teach humility by reminding us that no matter how much we might want to know whether that baby's birthmark can be removed, or whether that couple really knows what they're getting into, or how much money that lawyer makes, it's none of our business. We're just not so important that our every wish for knowledge must be gratified no matter how much pain or embarrassment it causes others. And manners teach joy: They force us to congratulate the joyful, to share in their joy, even when we would rather sulk and snipe.

Manners do all these things in large part because they are traditional. They provide guidelines and formulas that just about everyone can recognize, so it's easier to communicate clearly. They form good habits, so that when we're startled--as we so often are among other unpredictable humans--we can respond with patience and good humor. The emphasis on tradition rather than on self-expression forces us to focus on others, rather than on the enticing spectacle of our own emotional needs.

Tradition is a language; you speak it in order to be properly understood by others. Tradition guides self-expression, rather than squelching it. It helps you avoid unintentionally hurting people, and it helps curb the temptation to intentionally hurt people. Tradition is a discipline that focuses the mind.

Every time we congratulate an expecting couple or pen a good thank-you letter to grandma, we say familiar phrases, but the charity in our hearts infuses the words and makes them truly personal, truly one-of-a-kind.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet