I Hate People When They’re Not Polite

Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness
of Everyday Life
Lynn Truss

I think Lynn Truss might be one of those people who instantly understands what’s wrong in this story:

A little more than a year ago I attended a compulsory ‘training’ session organized by the firm for which I then worked. Thinking people will recognize these as indoctrination sessions in which a facilitator guides a conversation to a pre-determined outcome. Usually it’s about behaviors that need to be amplified or diminished.

This time, the subject was unconcious bias. As is typical of such gatherings, there were a series of exercises in between the ‘lecture’ material. And so the task arose to identify things you could observe about someone versus things you could not.

The obvious things were stated: race (observable), religion (not observable) and so forth. All went swimmingly until I proposed that manners were observable. The facilitator, a credible professional who likes to tout her educational attainment, looked at me blankly. “What do you mean?,” she finally asked.

Baffled by that it took me a few seconds to come up with a response. “Manners. You know,  politesse How we behave towards each other. ” The blank look continued and then we moved on. Manners were a subject not fit for inclusion in a discussion of how staff should behave towards each other.

Judith Martin aka Miss Manners
It wasn’t so long ago that she seemed to be everywhere.

You’ll have to ask someone else if any behaviors actually changed in such an environment.

Our author, I think would not be surprised at all, despite the amazing cynicism on display that morning. That’s because people have become, well, bloody rude to quote the subtitle, and she thinks that’s a bad thing.

I’m not sure she has a plan for us to turn back the tide, either. I might even try to argue that when she thinks about such a thing she gets dejected. Why else would she spend 195 pages pussyfooting around before clearly stating ill mannered behavior is bad?

Perhaps we should chalk it up to Ms. Truss’ sense of the proprieties.

A little background seems in order as we puzzle it all out. Lynn Truss burst, there’s no other word for it, on the scene in 2003 or so. A long-time copy editor turned columnist on all things Internetty, she penned a book about the demise of punctuation in particular, and I suppose grammar in general, among English speakers: Eats, Shoots and Leaves . It’s one of those books, like Junk English, that I’m drawn to. I suspect other word lovers were, too.

The British, reputedly, will stand on line at the drop of a hat.

Unlike me they probably read their copy. Mine sits on the shelf, horizontal, awaiting the day I’ll pick it up and do right by the thing. The present volume, she tells us, bears little in common with that publishing phenomena except a title composed of four short words. I suspect that’s not entirely true.

This book, like its author, is terribly British.  Now, the copy I read was published in Great Britain–the price on the inside front flap of the dust jacket shows the price in pounds sterling–so I suppose it could have been versioned for other English-speaking markets, but what would be the point? Hers is a generalizable argument from the point of view of an island nation widely (and probably equally)  known for polished manners and soccer hooliganism.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s the tenor of the times that Ms. Truss objects to. She divides her book into six sections each of which  focuses on a different facet of boorish behavior or the excuses offered for such. This allows her to lavishly illustrate with anecdotes drawn from personal observation.

Manners à la plage.
My favorite well-mannered buffoon and his guardian angel on holiday.

Woe to the ill mannered lout or lass who falls under that studying gaze. She conducts a veritable census of crassness: toddlers telling adults to sod off (using a more medieval verb); retail clerks ignoring customers to focus on their phones (and this was written before the iPhone was introduced); government sponsored ad campaigns that promote picking up litter while having oral sex in public places.

Truss has particular scorn for the one area in which mannered behavior, really its simulacrum, has been built-in: automated customer service. Most of her complaint, it seems to me, is the appropraite one: automation pushes work away from the service provider and onto the customer. But she seems genuinely bothered that anyone went to the trouble to program all those ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous.’

I have the distinct impression Truss believes that such matters are best left to humans.  Truthfully, I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint without the machine-directed ire. It seems to me, and Truss might agree, that manners are a representation of the social contract. Build them in and they’re meaningless. It’s sort of like the Thomist view of free will: unless entered into consciously, the act itself–even a beneficial one–is of dubious value.

Erving Goffman
1922-1982
Social theorist, defender of manners?

Here’s where Truss did her homework. Early on she quotes Nobert Elias‘s 1939 book on the civilizing process. At first, I worried I was about to encounter that parlor trick of best-selling non-fiction authors. You know, the one where they drop in a scholarly tidbit or two so the educated reader feels good about being able to identify it?

My fear increased when she quoted Erving Goffman. Prone to the same lax behavior noted above, I’ve at least read Goffman, although there’s so much you have to have the luxury of pursuing a PhD to read it all. Check the sources pages, though, and she lists four volumes by the magus in addition to Stephen Carter, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robin Fox and Robert Putnam and quite a few others.

I feel better about her spadework, now. I think she’s right to root her complaints in social science. Mrs. Thatcher and the Silicon Valley libertarians aside, society does exist and the choices we make in how we order it matter. Manners may seem a small thing, worthy of a blank stare and dismissal, but really, they speak volumes.

This small book offers some small hope that we can redeem ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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