“There’s something almost un-American about etiquette. . . . For a lot of Americans the idea that there are rules out there about the proper way to behave, rules more elaborate than just common sense, seems pretentious, European, like one more thing we fought the British to be free of.”
—Nancy Updike, This American Life, March 4, 2011
I do not quite recall when the bad manners (and worse English) routinely displayed on National Public Radio became one of our inalienable rights, but Miss Updike is clearly right. Most Americans do think that the rules of etiquette are as un-American as correct grammar or fair play. The proviso for common sense is meaningless. One man’s common sense is another man’s insolence. Last night we went out to dinner and could barely have a conversation with our guests, because a table of well-dressed thirtysomethings, egged on by a metrosexual waiter, were hooting and shrieking inanities that should have been put into a secret diary and kept under lock and key.
It is common decency, not common sense, that underlies any system of etiquette. It had never occurred to the loud young women in the restaurant that they did not have the whole place to themselves, because, for people of their generation, no one exists but themselves. Their personal code can be summed up as “Get out of the way, world—I’m coming through.” They are only the extreme expression of the good old American democratic belief that every American has the god-given right to make up the rules as he goes along. Once upon a time, men took their hats off when they entered a bar or restaurant. Since hats faded out in the 1960’s, when to don or doff has not been much of an issue, but now that the hat is making a comeback, younger guys (men would not be the mot juste) complain that their “signature” hat is an essential part of who they are. The Wall Street Journal, apparently sympathetic to their plight, wonders if we do not need a new rule for hats. I try but do not succeed in imagining an ego so fragile that it would be shattered by the absence of a hat.
I suppose it is an improvement when the American male is willing to replace his perennial ball cap with a hat. We used to have a colleague who showed up for every event with his signature ball cap on. He did take it off in restaurants, though not in our office, and he even wore it in Europe. Hey, it’s who I am. Hats are European and un-American. Well, then, why not wear a bathing suit to a wedding or a clown suit to a funeral? Oh, you wouldn’t do that because it would hurt people’s feelings? And you know that a baseball cap and boorish “I’m-an-American-and-I-got-rights” behavior does not offend anyone?
So, while it is true that consideration of people lies at the root of good manners, etiquette is not reducible to a set of basic ethical principles, because different societies develop different codes. There are countries where slurping food or even belching (or worse) is a polite expression of approval. In America, it is impolite to rest much of the arm—and, God forbid, the elbow—on the table, but in Italy it is a gaffe to keep your hands in your lap during the meal. (I assume it is because you might be fondling your neighbor or drawing a knife, but who knows?)
Perhaps the one guiding rule is to obey the rules. As they say in Italy, “Paese che vai, usanza che trove,” which can be rendered by our own, “When in Rome,” etc.
Here in America, offensive informality is now a bedrock of democracy, and the ultimate social expression of democracy can be found in the American rejection of formal titles and terms of address. In everyday discourse, Mr. and Mrs. now sound as quaintly foreign as the title
It is not just in Philadelphia and Charleston where people are polite, but large parts of the rural South. Hank Williams, Jr., not exactly everyone’s idea of the Princeton man, threw down the gauntlet in the 1980’s: “We say grace, and we say ma’am, and if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.” I almost had to learn this lesson the hard way when I started the eighth grade in Ft. Pierce, Florida. The first day in phys-ed class, the coach was taking the roll.
“Here, sir” (closer to Hyeah, suh).
“Here, sir,” and all the way down to Fincher, who answered, “Here.”
“I’m here, ain’t I?” Young Fincher’s self-indulging guffaw was broken off by the back of the coach’s hand administered smartly, first to one temple, and then to the other. I was next in the alphabet, and I knew the right answer. Today, the coach would be jailed for teaching the smart aleck a valuable lesson.
The leaders of the American Revolution did not set out to overturn the social order. George Washington was commonly referred to as His Excellency, a term of address still used in the protocol of foreign governments for the American president, but the fussier John Adams was typically known only as Mr. President. What had happened? Was this the inevitable triumph of American good sense and contempt for trumpery? Perhaps, but one should not ignore the events taking place in France.
The French Revolution, which began as an aristocratic and upper-bourgeois protest against an ineffective, corrupt, and overcentralized monarchy, was quickly taken over by petit-bourgeois lawyers who had read Rousseau and, worse, believed him. Not content with abolishing the privileges and titles of nobility (in the Decree Abolishing Hereditary Nobility and Titles, June 19, 1790), the radicals went on to discourage—if that is not too mild a word—use of ordinary titles of politeness, monsieur and madame. The city of Paris led the way, and Jérome Pétion, the ruffian Girondin, was the first to address the people of Paris as “citizens.” Pétion would go on to be the mayor of Paris who egged on the mob to rabble the king and queen and invade prisons to kill the aristocrats being held on suspicion. Fleeing from Robespierre’s terror, he committed suicide, and his body was found half-eaten by wolves.
Under the Convention, the radical coalition of Girondins and Jacobins that took power in September of 1792, the use of citoyens became the only safe mode of address, and, as the more radical montagnards killed off their rivals, even the use of vous as the polite singular you was repressed. But the way for this tutoiement had been paved by the Mercure National, which already in 1790 had published an anonymous editorial diatribe against a manner of expression that is “feudal, servile, and humiliating.” The French language, went the argument, must be purified of the disgusting feudal practice of using vous, which should be regarded as a criminal and despotic form of behavior.
Ever since, revolutionary movements have been marked by a contemptuous familiarity of address designed to eliminate all human differences. There would be no more lords and ladies, priests and nuns, only citizens, but, since even the term citizen implies a distinction, it had to be replaced by the more generic term comrade, first used officially, it is claimed, by the German Socialist Workers Party.
Wodehouse got the point, as he almost always did. In a very early work, Psmith asks his new pal Mike if he minds being addressed as comrade. “I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.” The story was first published in 1909, eight years before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, and nearly fifty years before the slightly ex-communist Milovan Djilas made a similar point in The New Class.
Socialism is far worse than a failure to understand the free market. All leftisms—libertarian as well as socialist—make war on the natural order and the social order. Leftism is a social rot because it is a moral and ultimately spiritual rot. Refugees from socialist countries can fairly easily give up their economic and political deliriums, and, while they may not call each other comrade, they will continue to wear blue jeans—the official uniform of the proletariat—and they still profess egalitarian contempt for all those fripperies of dress and manners some relics of bourgeois society still cling to in the West. I am speaking of the America of two decades ago. Today, if I had to produce a single word to express the salient quality of modern Americans, it would be something like shamelessness or impudence. Even elderly people no longer refrain from talking in church, and children never quit screaming during the services. Afterward, at coffee hour, they run riot, and, after knocking the coffee out of your hands and onto your suit, they are astonished when you give them the old question heard so often in childhoods of long ago, “What do you say, when . . . ?” They look at you in a cross between goggle-eyed astonishment and sullen resentment.
How often have you heard some child of eight or ten address parents and other grown-ups by their first name? Back in the early 80’s, when I first noticed this alarming development, I was in the midst of a tirade on the subject to a young woman I had just met. The door opened, and a 12-year-old punk came in, interrupting the conversation, to say to his mother, “Hey, Lucy, what’s for lunch?” Such behavior, as Lady Bracknell observed, “seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?”
Indeed, we do.