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Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?

A Modern Guide to Manners

By Henry Alford

Henry Alford's breezy guide to manners begins promisingly with a fact-finding trip to Japan, 'the Fort Knox of the World Manners Reserve.' He hires a Japanese etiquette coach and learns that it's rude to point with your fingers or sneeze in public. Alford wisely wastes no time trying to see the logic of Japanese dos and don'ts, which often make no more sense than our own. We don't have to know why it's rude not to slurp your noodles in Tokyo. Why is beside the point. Wherever we're strangers, even if it's in Morocco in Cell Block 6, all we need are the rules - the etiquette manual. "Manners," Alford explains, "are principles, and etiquette is the specific acts of these principles."

"Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?" at first seems bent on discovering whether any underlying principles are universal. If so, it's not obvious. Example: Oscar Wilde's famous claim that a gentleman is "one who never hurts another's feelings unintentionally" baffles even Anglophile Americans. In the United States, the giving of intentional offense signals that one is itching for a fight, in which case the gloves of manners come off. American and British manners would seem, then, to have at least one set of opposing priorities. But is there some first principle that unites them, along with all other human societies?

We may never know. Alford soon abandons the hunt and settles for anecdotes, personal surveys, interviews and thought experiments, many of which take him pretty far afield. Coming up with a polite way to tell someone he needs to blow his nose is a manners challenge all right, but what about waiting to make sure a friend you have dropped off late at night gets safely into his car and starts it up? Surely the well-being of fellow creatures is at heart a moral issue. What Alford may be trying to do is somehow blur the line between manners and morals.

When it comes to manners, he complains, it's easier to say what we shouldn't do rather than what we should. But this claim isn’t entirely persuasive, as becomes clear when he argues that manners be made more positive, more proactive - that we should engage in "lovely gestures." "If someone sends you a gift certificate, why not send that person a photo of what you bought"? O.K., but what's wrong with a thank-you note? It may not be as lovely as a snapshot of a silk scarf, but it's already one of the countless 'shoulds' of good manners.

"Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?" amuses as it informs, but Alford's book lacks focus and organization as he wafts from thought to thought. It has an entertaining index (samples under "Unintentional Bad Manners" include "Pregnancy press release" and "Department store assumptions based on blazer"), but it's too scattershot to be any kind of reference guide. For that, one would turn to Miss Manners, which Alford actually does, interviewing her in a hotel lobby and learning that the manners of the Southern white aristocracy were originally imparted by household slaves, whose own origins were often considerably less humble than those of their owners. Had he spent more time with her, Alford might also have learned that American women should not curtsy to the queen of England.

Still, he does teach Miss Manners something: how to steal a cab. This requires what he calls a 'hailing technique' and involves positioning oneself a block upstream of the last desperate hailer. What this has to do with manners is anyone's guess, but her response - "Wow, you really do have a technique" - is (of course) properly measured.

It's probably just as well that Alford doesn't tell her about "Touch the Waiter," a private amusement in which he vies with tablemates to see who can touch a waiter the most often without the waiter becoming aware of it. The game involves an elaborate honor code that's supposed to keep it from being objectionable. How can the waiter take offense if he remains clueless? Except that the game is right here in Alford's book, so it's hardly private now. This suggests a possible First Principle of Manners, one not dwelt upon in "Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?": discretion.

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