The grim state of public manners

Henry Alford, The New Yorker's New Yorker, on texting at dinner, clipping toenails in public, and why saying 'no problem' is so rude

On texting at dinner, clipping toenails in public, and why saying 'no problem' is so rude

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

Dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker Henry Alford has written about everything and anything for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. But his 2012 book focused solely on manners. Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? is less a collection of etiquette dos and don’ts than a more wide-ranging investigation into the often grim state of public manners—what he calls “post-apocalyptic public restrooms” loom large—and into how we can all treat one another better with grace and civility.

Q: After reading your bracing tour of your loogie-launching, real-estate-value-obsessed, cab-stealing fellow New Yorkers, it’s somewhat surprising to hear your opinion that manners are not at an all-time nadir.

A: That question can be argued either way, and interestingly, Judith Martin [Miss Manners] said the exact same thing to me. You can argue that manners have gotten worse or better depending on your mood. But it’s too easy to use one’s current, and probably mild, level of discomfort as a societal barometer. Yes, I too am hugely dismayed by the gentleman sitting next to me on the bus who is clipping his toenails. He looked like such an upstanding individual when I first boarded. But if we take the historical perspective, that toenail clipping is almost nothing compared to the behaviour you might see in, say, a medieval tavern. I refer to bodily fluids. I refer to bodily noises.

Q: If you set the bar that low—comparing the present to the era of those 17th-century German Christmas revellers you mention, the ones tossing dog turds at one another at the dinner table—then things have definitely improved.

A: It’s true!

Q: Then you don’t think tendencies in modern culture—a compulsion to share our innermost feelings, for one, not to mention the many new ways (social media) to do that—are acting to destroy proper manners?

A: There are more and more opportunities to display our bad manners: our new forms of media are just new platforms to do that on. Our propensity for expressing our feelings to strangers, when combined with the advent of reality television, has created a powerful cocktail. It’s now entirely possible that, if you were 10 years old, you might watch a lot of TV and think that it is an essential good to have a huffy, dramatic personality and a signature stock-phrase that you repeat over and over again: “That’s what I’m SAYIN’!” “Nobody slays the Henry-monster!” etc. That’s where absentee parenting plays a role—if you don’t spell out the rules to your kids, then they may ape whatever they see on TV. I’d rather feed my children to lions than have them pick up manners cues from most TV characters. But that type of behaviour isn’t new. There are probably a lot fewer differences than we’d like to think between Lord Byron and Snooki. The cult of personality: it’s not a new thing.

Q: Why do you think your people, Americans—and I would add Canadians here with no discernible difference—have a problematic relationship with manners?

A: We want the guidance but assume there’s an elitism involved that we should shy away from. Everyone loves and wants a road map, a set of instructions. You’re never really free unless you know what the rules are—otherwise doubt and fear are going to enter in. Commonly held ideas about manners are this road map. They tell you how to deal with other people, especially people who come from backgrounds different from yours. But unfortunately, over the years, manners have become linked to class.

Q: Yet you do discern a certain newness to contemporary manners.

A: Yes, the trend is that they are ever more relative and situational. They’re almost like microclimates. Look at varying attitudes toward the answering of cellphones or writing of emails when in another’s presence: in most situations, I find it rude. But what if it’s a group of working mommies? Then I don’t. Or if it’s anyone with pressing medical issues. What if you’re in a bar with your single friend, who runs into that gentleman she’s been hoping to run into? Suddenly it might be very polite for you to “answer” your phone in order to give the potential lovebirds some space. I don’t think manners have gotten worse. I think they’ve gotten more complicated. We need a Kinsey of manners to really help us out here. Someone who has a lot of time on his hands, and a lot of really cool-looking graph paper and iPhone apps.

Q: Why should manners rise and fall rather than maintain a level? Is it because there is a change in the social circumstances that they are supposed to lubricate, and people have to feel their way through things like email?

A: That’s part, but I think it’s about social mobility. The more people intersperse with other people who are very different from them, the more microclimates they enter, the better they have to be at sussing out the particular sensibility. You wouldn’t pee on the lawn in a suburb, you’d be considered a loon; but if you weren’t willing to pee outdoors at a friend’s ranch on a prairie, you might be considered a prude. Then there’s today’s prevailing ethos, which seems to be, “Do whatever makes you feel comfortable.” Which, if followed to the letter, is not a pretty picture. My “comfortable” is underpants and frozen waffles (in case you were wondering). That’s why I subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s term about manners being “fictitious benevolence,” meaning we are all actors in a play, so learn your lines.

Q: What are the distinctions you draw between etiquette, manners and protocol?

A: Manners are broad principles (do unto others . . . ). The two dominant forms historically have been morals writ in miniature (like waiting for someone to stop talking before you start) and codes of behaviour meant to exclude others (like talking in German when not everyone present can). I concentrate on the first kind, the ones that are essentially unchanging, because they’re a matter of sensitivity to others. My bottom line is about hurting someone’s feelings or causing emotional distress.

Q: And the other two?

A: Etiquette is the specific act of these principles (ask a friend if he needs a ride home). Protocol is a subset of etiquette, being the etiquette of a particular milieu (when you ask a friend if he needs a ride, do it before 3 a.m., when the last train leaves).

Q: And protocol can turn your standard manners and etiquette upside down—there is a time and place where you spit out the wine instead of swallowing it, for instance.

A: Just as there are times when people answer their cellphones in front of me and I don’t consider it rude.

Q: Moving from protocol to etiquette, there’s even a time and place for the well-mannered to steal cabs, at least if they’re New Yorkers?

A: That’s the status quo within the milieu that is New York City. It’s so common that it’s situational manners here.

Q: You impressed Miss Manners when you swiped her one in Washington, despite your worry that your competitor for the taxi was a man whose wife had just gone into labour.

A: I think I did impress her.

Q: In your own social circle, where everyone has similar opinions on large issues, you describe divergent takes on answering cellphones.

A: Even amongst people in the same highly specific demographic, there’s lots of variation. Some of us think that loudly shushing someone in a movie theater makes the situation better. Some invite 15 or 20 of their friends over and never once introduce any of the guests to any of the other guests. Some of us answer phone calls with emails, and emails with Facebook messages. Some of us don’t ask people who are coming over for dinner what food they can’t eat. Some of us offer macrobiotic diets to cancer patients, as if to say, “You got cancer because of what you eat.” There’s a certain obliviousness.

Q: You’re very precise about message-answering etiquette. Going downward, so to speak, is very bad manners?

A: Oh, in the communications hierarchy, definitely. Always stay at the same level—phone to phone or email to email—or bump upwards.

Q: Is age a factor in our unsettled manners, especially in the use of new media? That seemed to be coming through clearly in the lawyer-to-lawyer exchange you quote, in which the younger lawyer was so casual in an important matter, even concluding the exchange with “bla bla.”

A: That was incredible, and then she didn’t spell “bla-bla” with H’s. It’s like it’s doubly damned. A lack of respect for elders can lead to a lot of manners snafus. I’ve seen how some parents and kids talk to each other, and it makes me want to scrub both parties with a strong wire brush. But otherwise, I’m skeptical of saying that age is a factor, because it’s almost like saying nationality is a factor, and maybe I’m naive but I want to think that anyone might be the exception to the rule. You could make the argument that children or teenagers have worse manners simply because they have less experience interacting with other people, but other than that, yeah, I’d be nervous about that.

Q: How is your campaign of retaliatory apology going?

A: I do it constantly, I’m still apologizing for other people. I’ve taken on all the world’s ills. I’m asked for directions while walking on the streets of New York City probably twice a week, and if I don’t get a thank you after giving a long explanation I have no problem thanking the person who I’ve just given the information to. It’s like the British waiter who puts a cup of coffee in front of you and says, “Thank you.” My favourite thing now is when I experience concurrent examples of reverse apology and “No problem.” Someone will accidentally whack me with his briefcase on the street but say nothing, so I’ll say, “Oh, I’m sorry I was standing there at that precise moment.” To which the oblivious whacker will respond, “No problem!”

Q: You really hate the “no problem” response, don’t you?

A: “No problem” has become almost hostile. I think that unless an actual problem has been averted the use of the expression is falsely heroic. It traffics in implied martyrdom. Last year I sent someone an email that said, “Hey, great to see you last night. So sorry I couldn’t come by your place afterwards,” and the response comes back saying, in toto, “No problem.” And I had to think, “How is my coming to your house a problem?” You know? A while ago a waiter asked me if I wanted more water, and I said, “No thanks,” to which he responded, “No problem.” I thought, “Oh, so it’s not a problem for you to do nothing?”

Q: Despite some uncertainty of the etiquette involved, I must ask you about the metaphorical importance toilets seem to have for you. There’s even one on the front cover.

A: Life is like a public bathroom. We are always inheriting the toilet seat. Even if the only reason you went into that bathroom was to mess with your problematic hair, everyone is going to think, when you exit that single-commode facility, the spattered toilet seat is of your making. So isn’t it worth it just to give that seat a quick wipe? (I have been known to gather a huge wad of toilet paper, and to complete this courtesy seat-wipe by using my shoe instead of my hand. Whimsical, that’s me.) It’s important because it’s basic level manners. It’s based on the spectre of humiliation, which I admit is fairly primitive, but primitive is where a lot of people live. So the idea of inheriting the toilet seat is a good place to start.

Q: Yours may be a noble metaphor, but given the public washrooms we have all experienced, surely this is a lost cause?

A: I can dream, can’t I?

Q: If novelty, self-absorption and increased mobility are the problems, what are the solutions? Be practical, please.

A: Given all the manners abuses out in the world, clearly sensitivity hasn’t, uh, done the trick. So maybe the better aim is imagination. Maybe good manners is transporting yourself into the other person’s mindset, and seeing the world as he sees it. But what practical advice is there to give? I love pre-empts. If you have a favour to ask, why not start off with, “Please tell me if what I’m about to ask you is not possible, or if my even asking you is presumptuous . . . ”? My mother is hard of hearing, and she’ll pre-empt at a party: she’ll tell her seatmate right away, “I’m slightly deaf, so if any of my comments tonight seem absurdist, please don’t take it personally.” Think before you post. People love to post party pictures and baby pictures on Facebook—but some of the people who’ll see those party pictures weren’t invited, but might have been; some of the people who’ll see those baby pictures are trying desperately to have kids. Is this the reaction you were looking for? Imagine, imagine.