Recently Henry Alford caught my attention in a piece he wrote for the New York Times: When the Manners Police Knock.
In it he writes about the propensity we have for policing other’s foibles. When a woman initiated a cell phone call as a play was about to start, the gentleman seated in front of her gave her a dirty look and when that didn’t work he “reached around and yanked the phone from her hand, hung it up, and handed it back.” Or, on a more mellow note, consider Jenny Douglas the article continues, “who runs the Brooklyn Cottage, an arts salon in Prospect Heights, (who) takes a softer approach, and emphasizes compassion. When waiters sidle up to her at the end of a meal and ask the dreaded question, “Are you still working on that? she will either smilingly say, ‘Actually I’m still enjoying this,’ or she will look baffled and ask, ‘Might you be so kind as to bring me another glass of wine, please, so I can continue to labor?’” Ouch!
The snappy comebacks and quick put-downs are really such a temptation, especially when someone else commits a seemingly unpardonable faux pas. We become the manners police, our self-righteous goal to stop the offending behavior without regard for the effect our rejoinder might have on the relationship. And therein lies the danger of being the manners police: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
The biting sarcasm of Jenny’s comment to the waiter may not really matter to her because she'll probably never see that waiter again. Or maybe she will and service will be just a little slower. But what happens when Jenny finds she can’t turn the sarcasm on for strangers but turn it off for people she knows and cares for? That same sarcasm directed at a friend, significant other or child could mar her relationship with that person.
My daughter Anna, who works as a spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, was recently interviewed on the Today Show. In one simply phrase she articulated the etiquette alternative to being a manners cop: “The best etiquette absorbs someone else’s mistakes.”
Today is January 1, 2013, the day we traditionally make resolutions for the coming year. This year we could all help foster a more civil, polite and positive society if we all made a grater effort to “absorb someone else’s mistakes.”
Happy New Year!
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About the author
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."