Talking to the Hand: Bemoaning Modern 'Manners'
I was about halfway through Lynne Truss's book "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door" when I came across a very good point.
Actually, there are a lot of very good points in Truss's book. She's probably better known as the author of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," her earlier book about the woeful state of grammar and punctuation. I haven't read that one, I'm afraid, having been put off by a blistering review in the New Yorker. I'm one of those pathetic people who believes everything he reads in the New Yorker. I realize now that's no way to live one's life and so after finishing "Talk to the Hand" I'll head over to the library to correct this gap in my Truss-eau.
But about that good point: On Page 51, in a section on how hard it's become for people to utter such simple locutions as "Please," "Thank you" and "Sorry," Truss puts manners in a historical perspective. She writes about the etiquette of spitting and how it's evolved (the etiquette, not the spitting). In the Middle Ages, manners mavens weren't too concerned with whether you spit, just that you not spit in the bowl when you're washing your hands. By the 16th century it was considered good manners to turn away from people when spitting, lest you fleck them with your saliva. By 1714 a French author was telling readers not to spit such a great distance away that they couldn't then stamp on the loogy with their foot. It's not till the middle of the 19th century that etiquette experts start suggesting that people maybe shouldn't spit at all.
In other words: The good old days weren't necessarily all that good. Writes Truss:
If one takes the view that modern-day manners are superior to the cheerful spit-and-stamp of olden times, a paradox begins to emerge: while standards have been set ever higher, people have become all the more concerned that standards are actually dropping. Basically, people have been complaining about the state of manners since at least the fifteenth century.
And here I am complaining about movie texters, cell phone yackers, escalator hoggers.... Many people who comment on my blog lament that incivility is on the increase. Why can't we go back to a golden age? Truss is telling us there probably never was a golden age.
And yet she does recognize that things are different now. Like P.M. Forni she thinks technology must shoulder some of the blame. We move now in a digital bubble.
I haven't finished her book yet but I recommend it. Truss is a hilarious essayist, trying valiantly to tap her British reserve and keep her indignation in check yet regularly exploding in entertaining outrage. She writes about how as one grows older one is bothered by more and more things, notices more and more rude behavior:
I now can't abide many, many things, and am actually always on the look-out for more things to find completely unacceptable. Whenever I hear of someone being "gluten intolerant" or "lactose intolerant," for example, I feel I've been missing out. I want to be gluten intolerant too. I mean, how much longer do we have to put up with this gluten crap?
Me, I'm lactose intolerant intolerant.
July 29, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Radical Civility
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