By Kiernan Majerus-Collins
Judith Martin, whose Miss Manners column has been appearing in newspapers for more than three decades, said that contrary to popular belief, etiquette and manners are not written in stone.
Though she decried the failure of people to respond to invitations or write thank you notes, Martin said etiquette “hasn’t all gone downhill” in recent decades.
The desire not to offend – a key element of etiquette -- has largely wiped out bigoted jokes and many other hurtful comments, Martin said.
Martin, who spoke this evening to a mainly older crowd at the Mark Twain House and Museum, joked that Twain must have known something about etiquette in order to violate its rules so often.
Martin said that etiquette, unlike morality, depends on time and place.
“If you’re home alone with the shades drawn, you don’t have to answer to me—as long as you don’t tell me what you’re doing,” Martin quipped.
“One of the scariest virtues today is called honesty,” said Martin. She said that if someone says they’re going to be honest with you, “run—it’s not going to be pretty.”
Etiquette often requires disguising the “bald and hurtful truth,” Martin said.
Rules of etiquette don’t always make sense, said Martin, but they need to be followed so that everyone can get along.
Etiquette rules “are much more flexible, less frightening, and certainly a cheaper way of regulating human behavior” than laws.
“Life without etiquette is not pleasant,” said Martin.
She said that many schools have the mistaken idea that they exist to foster freedom of expression. Actually, she said, their purpose “is to pursue truth.”
Junior high school is “an etiquette nightmare” that many people never move past, Martin said.
Proper etiquette can allow serious discussion rather than name-calling and rudeness.
“We want a little excitement now and then, but not if it interrupts lunch,” Martin said.
When new technology comes along and changes our behavior, some people argue that there shouldn’t be any rules at all governing its use, while others want to destroy it, Martin said.
She said, for example, texting can be useful. When her son texted her in the maternity ward waiting room recently, she said she felt grateful.
But too many ignore the people they are with when it comes to texting and other distractions, said Martin.
“It’s not the texting that’s rude, it’s your friend. People tend to blame the medium and not the person,” said Martin.
She said that on Facebook, people expose too much about themselves. Their guiding principle is “let me tell you everything about me,” Martin said.
She said that “people have really lost the concept of legitimate privacy.”
Martin said that when people ask her to sum up etiquette, she says she can’t. “I write 500-page books,” said Martin, which wouldn’t be necessary if it was simple.
But, she added, “behave yourself” is a good motto.