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We're familiar with Miss Manners work but wouldn't dream of being familiar with Miss Manners herself.
October 24, 2006 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Conversing with the matchless Judith Martin I know you are all familiar with the work of the inimitable (if syndicated) Judith Martin, alias Miss Manners, but I dared to presume that you have not come across this 2005 interview with her. In it she discusses the process of becoming Miss Manners, the cyclical nature of etiquette, her historical predecessors, sumptuary laws in Renaissance-era Venice, and the respective natures of aristocratic and democratic etiquette. Fascinating read.
posted by orange swan (41 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am a huge, longtime fan. Thanks for the link.
posted by everichon at 3:41 PM on October 24, 2006


Interesting. I enjoy the Miss Manners columns, but I've always found Judith Martin more interesting when she's out of character.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:49 PM on October 24, 2006


Very interesting read. Thanks.
posted by Penks at 3:51 PM on October 24, 2006


Another longtime fan. I hadn't been aware of the forthcoming Venice book. According to Amazon, its release is now scheduled for February. Can't wait!

Thanks.
posted by trip and a half at 3:58 PM on October 24, 2006


She could have a field day with the uncouth behaviors exhibittd here.
posted by caddis at 3:59 PM on October 24, 2006


The bit about how street gangs form a more rigid and internal system of manners than they receive from outside influences is amazing. Thanks for the link, one of the best I've read in a while.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:16 PM on October 24, 2006


This looks terrific -- I'm filing it away to read the rest later. Thanks!
posted by brain_drain at 4:31 PM on October 24, 2006


That was so much more interesting than I thought it would end up being. I need to visit Venice.

And remember, a gentleman always has a lighter in his jacket pocket for a pretty girl.
posted by blacklite at 4:33 PM on October 24, 2006


She could have a field day with the uncouth behaviors exhibittd here.

So true, caddis! I'd certainly read it if she wrote Miss Manner's Guide to Perfectly Correct Behavior Online.
posted by jamjam at 5:26 PM on October 24, 2006


Okay, and, can I just say -- I'm Canadian, and Miss Manners is not syndicated in any Canadian newspapers as far as I know, or else I've always skipped it -- the first answer in this particular column is awesome.

"But it freaks out the waiters."
posted by blacklite at 5:28 PM on October 24, 2006


This is wonderful. Judith Martin has many pale imitators, but there are none I have seen who possess her combination of humor, erudition, common sense. I love that the interviewer referenced Book of the Courtier -- it's a truly fascinating and witty book that I haven't read since college, and now I'm inspired to go back to it. Thank you!
posted by melissa may at 5:31 PM on October 24, 2006


I have so much to say on this topic but I'll try to restrain myself (out of courtesy for you, Gentle Reader). First off: longtime fan of Miss Manners. Next, many people have no idea how far manners will take them. I first realized it when I moved to San Diego for three years. Canadians tend to be much more about the pleases and 'thank you's. (the origin of the phrase "mind your P's and Q's", but I digress.) People stood up and took notice of my strangely overelaborate manners and I'm sure it got me hotel room and airplane upgrades.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:13 PM on October 24, 2006


Mid-twentieth century America had one of the cyclical attempts to overthrow etiquette.

Is that really true? How widespread was any effort to overthrow etiquette? I feel like conservatives are always exaggerating what went on in the 60s, and playing up the extremes, but I didn't live through it, so...
posted by ibmcginty at 6:15 PM on October 24, 2006


And remember, a gentleman always has a lighter in his jacket pocket for a pretty girl.

And some accelerant.
posted by Sparx at 6:17 PM on October 24, 2006


It wasn't a conspiracy of any sort. It was just a general attitude of "we're tired of being dictated to, let's live and let live". A lot of social mores were suddenly broken down. And that's not surprising when you hear about how conservative the fifties were. It happened in the twenties too.
posted by orange swan at 6:18 PM on October 24, 2006


She could have a field day with the uncouth behaviors exhibittd here.

This place would cause her to resort to her smelling salts. But then again I bet it's not worse than what crosses her desk every day. Some of her readers' letters leave me gasping.
posted by orange swan at 6:20 PM on October 24, 2006


I can relate to that, Turtles... I recently took my first trip to New York, and I got a lot of good-natured ribbing at my "yes sirs/ma'ams" and "thank you's". It's force of habit for me, and the attention it brought made me a bit self conscious about it... I'm from the south, and my parents just ingrained it in me. I sort of feel compelled to acknowledge and hat-tip verbally.
posted by grimcity at 6:20 PM on October 24, 2006


She could have a field day with the uncouth behaviors exhibited here.

She went to Wellesley. Do you think she chows box?
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:26 PM on October 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


Cole: Samuel Johnson said Chesterfield had the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore.

Martin: It's better than the other way around, right?


Umm... no, it's not. I'd rather be uncouth than a murderer, and a moral man is better than a mannered one.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:06 PM on October 24, 2006


street gangs form a more rigid and internal system of manners than they receive from outside influences

I'm guessing in part because of the potentially violent consequences of getting it wrong. You see it in a lot of, shall we say, touchy, as opposed to touchy-feely, cultures.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:08 PM on October 24, 2006


For all her politeness, Ms. Martin delivers the most beautifully worded smackdowns I've ever seen in a newspaper.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:18 PM on October 24, 2006


I adore Judith Martin. This was a great interview, except that now I want to hop a plane for Venice.
posted by dejah420 at 7:34 PM on October 24, 2006


the pleases and 'thank you's. (the origin of the phrase "mind your P's and Q's"

Not hardly.

She could have a field day with the uncouth behaviors exhibittd here.

Cf. Dear Emily Postnews.

This place would cause her to resort to her smelling salts.

See, that's the thing. People who don't read her assume that she's some bluenose. Just as she says that you can tell a society by the advice they give, if she gives advice on handling manners good and bad, you imagine she's seen some of both and maybe more of the latter. Martin is earthy and humane, and very aware of context, which makes her somewhat postmodern in her approach to manners.

My favorite answer ever:

Dear Miss Manners: How does one greet a gay couple at a party?

A. "How do you do? How do you do?"


Sensible, and puts the asker of an inane question in their place.

Okay, one more:

Dear Miss Manners: We're not sure what to do. My wife and I were to be the guests of honor at a party, and we just forgot to attend. Nobody has said anything. What should we do?

A. Leave town.


anotherpanacea: I'm not certain we're reading that phrase the same way. Suffice it to say I agree with Martin.

_Mid-twentieth century America had one of the cyclical attempts to overthrow etiquette._

Was that really true?


There certainly were dramatic changes. The use of "Mr." and "Mrs." declined abruptly, business language was stripped of any remaining niceties (and then replaced with obsequious flattery, but that's another matter), men and women were allowed to stop wearing hats. "Overthrow etiquette" is pretty strong, though -- it was essentially another cycle in reforming etiquette to meet the needs of more egalitarian times.

Some of it was a sense that formality created barriers to social advancement, something like voting proficiency tests. Another was that it hid reality under a fictive social drape. There wasn't, perhaps, a sense that behavior was one's reality. In retrospect much of it seems forced.
posted by dhartung at 7:45 PM on October 24, 2006


This is strangely apropos to the "mind your p's and q's" issue, since I always use that to chide my symbolic logic students to be keep their variables straight... as in this example:

Cole: "P & -Q"
Martin "P & -Q is preferable to -P & Q." Obviously, P denotes moral and Q denotes mannered. (This assumes that "the other way around" is not a strict negation, in which case it would be -P v Q. But that's just silly.)

Cole: Sam Johnson's "good manners, bad morals"
Martin: "good manners, bad morals" is better than "bad manners, good morals."
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:59 PM on October 24, 2006


Judith Martin is really cool.

I have the hots for Miss Manners. She seriously gets my motor running. When she used to go on Letterman... ROWR! What a hottie.

She is even more hot than when Arianna Huffington says "Prezeedont KlinTON." And that really get's me go...

Er...

Ok. It's official. I'm sick.

I'll leave now.
posted by tkchrist at 8:08 PM on October 24, 2006


Is it wrong to miss the idea of calling associates by their proper names?

And what's with people who don't know how to answer a thank you, if they acknowledge it at all?

"Yeah" or "uh-huh" or a shrug don't cut it.

And the door holding thing, and...etc., etc. The world would be a much nicer place if people just said "you're welcome" and were polite to others. Being polite isn't "giving in to the man."
posted by maxwelton at 8:38 PM on October 24, 2006


My favorite answer ever:

That answer reminds me of my favorite answer ever. Some of my college buds, George and Mark, attended a party at the club populated mostly by the football team. At the bar some drunken yahoo serving beer asked if they were gay. George replied, "No, but can we still get beer?"
posted by caddis at 8:51 PM on October 24, 2006


thank you thank you thank you loved the interview. wow!
posted by infini at 9:11 PM on October 24, 2006


What I love about her most is that her etiquette is not based on arbitrary rules, but on basic human consideration and even compassion, for the most part. What etiquette advice would Jesus heed? etc.

I don't agree with her that casual workplace attire is such a bugaboo, though. I'm pretty sure people have always complained about snotty, distracted, or stupid servers or retail workers, no matter how formally they were dressed. And I don't regret for one instant not having to spend money on hats, or wearing skirts, girdles, heels and hose every day. Everyone looked sharper, but they were often damn uncomfortable. My last two jobs have allowed me to wear blue jeans every single day, and I love that.
posted by emjaybee at 9:26 PM on October 24, 2006


In the early 60's, a friend of mine worked as an accountant in Chicago. She not only had to wear full makeup, but also gloves. You may be certain that we threw out a lot of crap in the 60s. It is true, however, that some of what was cast aside should be missed. But sometimes, the best way to improvement is to demolish then rebuild.
posted by Goofyy at 10:31 PM on October 24, 2006


I have to say, I don't think that she would find askmefi anathema. While there is, here and there, the occasional godwin moment, I find the mefi community a bastion on the web.

Questions are answered helpfully. Most posts that I see that tend towards disagreement make (as far as I can tell) a reasonable attempt to see the other's side of the question.

What I like here is that the ad-hominem flames are by far the exception than the rule.
posted by asavage at 11:28 PM on October 24, 2006


My favourite Miss Manners answer was in response to a man who was asking about a thank you note related matter. He had, with his wife, been friends with another couple, and the woman had left her husband for another man. When Christmas arrived she sent the asker a present. He responded with a note thanking her for the present and chastising her for her behaviour with respect to her ex. The asker's wife thought this was extremely rude.

Miss Manners said (as best as I can recall):

"Your wife is correct. Had you wished to express displeasure with this woman, you could have sent a curt note of thanks. Had you wished to express extreme displeasure, you could have returned the gift. Miss Manners is afraid that "Thanks, slut," is not a proper communication."

I was joking about the smelling salts. I'm sure Martin has as much fortitude as the rest of us, though Miss Manners may not;-)
posted by orange swan at 3:29 AM on October 25, 2006


Thanks for posting the interview, which was indeed a fascinating read. Furthermore, I often enjoy the columns when I happen upon them, and consider her a very smart and thoughtful lady. However, this sentence from the interview encapsulates the problems I have with her and what she represents:

The minute you have a community, you have to have some form of etiquette, of hierarchy, of recognition, just to keep people from killing one another.

Notice how she slips in that phrase I bolded as if it belonged there? It doesn't. Lumping "hierarchy" in with good reasons for etiquette is poisoning the well; manners are a useful solution to the stress of human interaction, but it was fatally easy to add them to the already daunting paraphernalia of Ways to Keep the Lower Orders in Their Place, and that's incompatible with true democracy. Which is why when true democracy (for white people, of course) hit America in the Jacksonian age, manners went out the window, and why those who long for some approximation to kings and dukes and earls ("Your High and Mightiness," forsooth!) keep wanting to bring them back. It's not enough to say "please" and "thank you," we have to learn to tug our forelock to our betters. Ms. Martin knows this and keeps returning to the tension, but she can't resolve it, because at heart she's not a democrat.
posted by languagehat at 5:46 AM on October 25, 2006


languagehat... I worry about the same thing, and plan to check out her Venice book when it arrives. I wonder how much of the tension is hers, though: clearly, there's a tension between the egalitarian republic we imagine and the highly stratified society we inhabit.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:31 AM on October 25, 2006


At a previous job, I used to bug my coworkers by dressing UP on casual Friday -- power skirt, heels, hose, jacket, the works. I would tell them I was hoping someone would mistake me for the CEO.
posted by JanetLand at 7:38 AM on October 25, 2006


Thank you, thank you for posting this great find, Orange Swan.

Miss Manners has some affection for formal manners. In one of her books she describes full-on Russian service, apparently the ultimate in using different forks. She also mentions a desire to own grape scissors, but that's probably just office supply fixation, and a lot of us share that. She's consistently witty and smart. I wish MSN didn't bury her column. Languagehat, you're right that she shows some affection for the trappings of class society, but she has also written about politics, and I think she is, at heart, a democrat, albeit dressed as a Victorian gentlewoman.
posted by theora55 at 10:41 AM on October 25, 2006


Great interview, thanks for posting. I've been reading Miss Manners since she debuted in 1978. I remember wondering for the first few months whether her column was intended to be a joke. For example, I vividly recall a letter that asked where, on a formal dinner table, the salad bowl should be set. Miss Manners replied, "On a formal dinner table, the salad bowl should always be placed directly underneath the salad."
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:01 AM on October 25, 2006


Dear Miss Manners:
Please list some tactful ways of removing a man's saliva from your face.

Gentle Reader:
Please list some decent ways of acquiring a man's saliva on your face. If the gentleman sprayed you inadvertently to accompany enthusiastic discourse, you may step back two paces, bring out your handkerchief, and go through the motions of wiping your nose, while trailing the cloth along your face to pick up whatever needs mopping along the route. If, however, the substance was acquired as a result of enthusiasm of a more intimate nature, you may delicately retrieve it with a flick of your pink tongue.

posted by found missing at 11:13 AM on October 25, 2006


Cole: Samuel Johnson said Chesterfield had the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore.

Martin: It's better than the other way around, right?

Umm... no, it's not. I'd rather be uncouth than a murderer, and a moral man is better than a mannered one.


Notice that Martin's dichotomy was not murderer vs. unmannered, but whore vs. unmannered. Being a whore is definitely not as immoral as being a murderer, if it is at all.
posted by orange swan at 5:24 AM on October 30, 2006


You came back to this thread five days later just in order to miss the point?
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:05 AM on October 30, 2006


Er, I didn't miss the point, though I believe you have missed mine. Martin didn't make some sweeping statement that being mannered was better than being moral.
posted by orange swan at 6:45 AM on November 6, 2006


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