"A Short History of Rudeness"

How can a writer investigate manners when his definition of manners includes everything we do?

Published August 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In Jerry Springer's America, using the word "rudeness" to characterize any behavior that slides past traditional boundaries of civility stinks faintly of mothballs and lavender. Of course, as Mark Caldwell reminds us in "A Short History of Rudeness," for many centuries commentators have cried out with fervor that "oafishness and riot abound," and he claims that one might adduce as many examples of increased delicacy in contemporary American society as of arrant misrule. Really, though, much of our culture at the moment seems deliberately built on the holes between old rules of politeness. Got burned by hot coffee? Sue the restaurant. Need a grabby hook for your cartoon comedy? Subtitle it "Bigger, Longer & Uncut."

Caldwell posits reasonably that rules of etiquette spring from the attempted aping of the upper crust by the hoi polloi, a paradoxical endeavor in our theoretically classless society, yet one that has proved ever profitable for publishers of etiquette manuals. But oyster forks and outstretched pinkies interest Caldwell far less than the way we conduct our relationships with family members, employers, people of different race or gender and strangers, whether in person or on the Internet.

The broadness of his approach diffuses an already vague subject. Boiling race relations and child-rearing down to mere questions of manners tends to trivialize moral and psychological questions, and Martha Stewart's perky shoulders can scarcely support a weighty discussion of her decorating tips as significant social barometers. Caldwell consistently concentrates on sociology rather than on the personal impulses behind civil behavior: Surely people go out of their way to be courteous because there's a reward, whether it's emotional or more tangible. "Manners," he writes, "are, after all, never obligatory in the same way that obedience to a traffic light is obligatory. Their meaningfulness derives in part from our perception that they have been observed voluntarily." The memorized greetings of the Blockbuster clerk and the bank teller don't count as any kind of manners, then. Do they make society more civil?

The mass media offer a tremendous array of models to emulate, but Caldwell barely addresses the extent to which social luminaries often -- usually, even -- rise to the top by flouting civility. You can either be honest and generous and concerned with the welfare of others, or you can be a basketball star, a real estate mogul or the president of the United States. Success in America has seldom depended on conspicuous gallantry. Oafishness and riot have been glamour professions from Davy Crockett's day through Marilyn Manson's. And faced with the habits of the oyster-fork crowd who used to draft our social contract, most of us would identify proudly with the Beverly Hillbillies.

Ultimately Caldwell's view of "manners" is so expansive -- they are what we do while we're alive, in short -- that the question of how and why each of us arrives at a workable set of rules for living gets slighted. It's unfortunate, because he's a snappy, clever writer with a keen eye for ironic detail. He's simply bitten off more than he can chew. And that's a gaffe that Emily Post would certainly disapprove of.

By Greg Villepique

Greg Villepique plays guitar in the band Aerial Love Feed.

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