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Miss Manners: Why Manners Matter

FEED DATE: September 22, 2005

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Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz
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WATTENBERG/OC: It’s said that Americans have lost their
manners, that they are coarse and vulgar, and that such
behavior ultimately corrodes our society. This happens
whether such behavior occurs in politics, in business or in
our personal lives. Today’s guest argues that manners still
matter. Has America lost its manners? To find out, Think
Tank is joined by Judith Martin. She is known to Americans
as Miss Manners, and appears in a widely distributed
newspaper column, in a variety of magazines, and the
Internet. She is the author of the new book, 'Miss Manners’
Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.'
The Topic before the House: Why Manners Matter. This week on
Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Welcome to Think Tank, Miss Manners, also
known as Judith Martin. Our viewers, I think, would be very
interested in your background and I wondered if you could
sketch in for us how a nice woman like you got into this
kind of a business.

MARTIN: As opposed to finding myself a respectable
career – I know, I know. It’s an embarrassment. Here I am
being polite. I know, it’s terrible.

WATTENBERG: I was going to say - but I’m sufficiently
tuned in to politically – political correctness – I was
going to say, how did a nice girl like you get into a
business like this, which is a traditional line, but I said
woman. Anyway, give us the quick take.

MARTIN: Well, I was immediately before a movie and
drama critic and I decided to widen the stage. Why not
critique the whole human drama, and that’s what I do.

WATTENBERG: That was in the famous Style section of the
Washington Post?

MARTIN: It was the Weekend section of the Washington

WATTENBERG: Oh, the Weekend section.

MARTIN: The Weekend section.

WATTENBERG: And then later it changed to the Style

MARTIN: No, the column ran in the Style section and
the criticism I did was for the Weekend section.

WATTENBERG: And I read somewhere in some – that you once
ran 43 consecutive or 23 consecutive negative movie reviews.
Is that right?

MARTIN: Did you? I never kept track. Somebody kept


MARTIN: Well, you know, the expectation that people
should be able to turn out good movies consistently, I think
it’s probably at a year if you have a few good movies. How
many good paintings are painted in a year? How many good
poems are written in a year?

WATTENBERG: That’s a good point. Now, you have been
called – I read through some of the – some of the material -
you have been called a social philosopher. Would you accept
that encomium?

MARTIN: I would accept it graciously. It is not
originally what I intended. I was dealing with people’s
problems, but the deeper you get into them the more
philosophical the bent.

WATTENBERG: Did you have a specific idea to say I’m going
to do an advice column that you brought to the syndicator or
brought to whoever?

MARTIN: I brought it to the Post. I...


MARTIN: I said I have an idea for a column, which
everybody universally thought was a terrible idea.

WATTENBERG: Oh, really?

MARTIN: Etiquette. This was in the 1970s, the late
‘70s. Who cares about etiquette, you know? And I said it’s
not going to be as bad as you think, and they were kind
enough to say it wasn’t as bad as they thought.

WATTENBERG: You write with a certain flair and
intelligence and humor and I would really recommend to our
viewers that you take a gander at this whether you’re
interested in etiquette or not.
Now, the question is – and then I’m going to read the
actual letter – the question is have we Americans lost our
manners and the letter that engenders that question is:
“Dear Miss Manners; Sometimes I wish we were back in 18-
something where everyone was mindful of their manners.
People nowadays don’t think it’s necessary to be polite;
they consider it ‘old-fashioned’.” You buy that?

MARTIN: Yes. She doesn’t say “18-what”, I mean
during the Civil War, during... when are we talking about?
Fantasy land when everybody used to behave...?

WATTENBERG: She’s talking about the good old days.

MARTIN: The good old days when we were young and
everybody behaved and don’t you wish you could go back? No,
because first of all, I’ve read history and I know what was
going on then, and second of all, there have been, in
addition to some modern failings, there have been great
strides in manners as well.

WATTENBERG: Great strides?

MARTIN: Strides. The spreading of dignity to people
who were never treated with dignity before.

WATTENBERG: And that would be blacks and Jews and
Italians and Hungarians and...

MARTIN: A lot of others, yes.

WATTENBERG: ...most everybody. Irishman at one point, I

MARTIN: Indeed it would. Yes.


MARTIN: So that’s an enormous stride, and we have our
downfalls. Goodness knows, I’m the first person to go
around saying “tsk, tsk” when I find this. But don’t tell me
about the good old days.

WATTENBERG: Okay. I won’t. Now, one of the things
that’s changed is the increase in the number and rate of
women in business and in the workplace, and the letter that
I’m going to read you is about that. “Dear Miss Manners; A
colleague in my office has a fondness for hot pants, tight
tops with plunging necklines and bracelets that rattle
together. I find them incredibly inappropriate for work. I
don’t want to hurt her feelings, but what’s a good way of
getting her to put on some more clothes?”

MARTIN: And it’s not – you said it’s women in the
workplace. The men with the plunging necklines and the
chests open and even the dangling bracelets exist, too.

WATTENBERG: Well, well...

MARTIN: This is part of the casualization, the
phoniness of the business world. We’re not really doing
business here; we’re really at leisure, we’re all friends,
we celebrate one another’s birthday...

WATTENBERG: A lot of this came out of the...

MARTIN: ... we dress for play.

WATTENBERG: A lot of this came out of the high-tech thing
where guys would come in with loafers and jeans and a t-

MARTIN: Well, they were hiding behind their
computers, yes.


MARTIN: Nobody knows what you’re wearing if you’re
home alone with a computer. But the idea that there’s
something demeaning about professional behavior and
professional dress is a very interesting question. I think
it goes back to a kind of – the hierarchy of jobs; everybody
feels they’re not quite as important as they should be, and
so well, I’m not really working here; I’m at leisure. I
just happen to be doing this. I can dress as I please; I
can talk as I please and of course I can go around
criticizing other people which is what this writer wants to
do, which is not a good idea. But...

WATTENBERG: But America, sort of from its inception was
regarded as a place that could be casual, where every man

MARTIN: Not casual; simple. Benjamin Franklin made
that point in Paris by refusing to wear a wig.


MARTIN: And that sort of thing. He was a simple
man... simple. That isn’t the same as casual. Casual means
“oh, whatever; who cares.” The language of clothing is high
symbolism and we all, in moments where we need to know this,
realize it. If you’re on trial as a criminal with a
criminal charge, you’re lawyer is going to tell you how to
dress and it’s not going to be in a t-shirt that says “blank
you” and torn jeans.


MARTIN: It’s got to symbolize that you’re an
upstanding citizen. Well, what is wrong with symbolizing
that you are in a professional role?

WATTENBERG: Here’s another one. “Dear Miss Manners; I am
a woman and my assistant is a man. I enjoy taking him out
to lunch sometimes to show my appreciation for him and he
seems to enjoy it. Sometimes the waitress makes a rude
comment such as ‘you’ – to the woman – ‘you should be buying
her lunch’. And I know that must embarrass him. Is there
something tactful that I could say to the waitress to save
his embarrassment?”

MARTIN: The thing is to embarrass the waitress, but
you don’t do it rudely. You look at her blankly and you
turn back to the gentleman and you say, “As we were saying”
and you go on. The idea – that’s part of the chumminess of
why not chime in and give everybody advice and be helpful
and so on. Very bad idea. The waitress is supposed to put
the food on the table and not guess at the relationship
between the diners.

WATTENBERG: Here’s one: “Dear Miss Manners; How does one
respond to and stay cool in situations where people disagree
and are very vocal? I have been in awkward situations where
vegetarians have accused meat-eaters of being animal-killers
and ‘carnivores’. Students” - on the streets, I assume –
“have accused people of the exploitation of child labor. Is
there a general strategy that one can use in such

MARTIN: Public debate is a wonderful thing, but that
is not debate; that is insult-exchanging and people often
think that etiquette inhibits the exchange of ideas and of –
of tough opinions and – and so on.
On the contrary, etiquette is what enables it. You
could have a discussion on both sides of any of these
topics, but only if people are polite. When people start
hurling insults at you, you know their minds are closed and
there’s no point in debating. You disengage yourself as
quickly as possible from the situation.

WATTENBERG: Do you approve, particularly in a one-company
town like – or a one-occupation town like Washington which
is politics, of people frontally asking somebody at a dinner
party or a cocktail party “What kind of politics do you
have? Are you a republican; are you a democrat; are you a
liberal; are you a conservative?” Is that appropriate

MARTIN: In a social occasion? No, it isn’t, really.
You can bring out topics that will illuminate the person’s
opinion if you do it in an open-minded, polite way. I mean,
we were just talking about the examples you gave which are
people who are stating a position and the fact that anybody
who does not totally endorse that position is an enemy. And
there’s no talking to such people.
Can people have civilized, even social conversations
when they differ in opinion? Yes, but you don’t confront
someone with “what are your opinions?”

WATTENBERG: Alright...

MARTIN: You can – if you’re two polite people, you
can debate anything.

WATTENBERG: You have been called a traditionalist. You
buy that?

MARTIN: I am a traditionalist and I’m an innovator.
Most of what I do is to weigh change and legislate to the
best of my ability on what should change and what should
not. Do I have a respect for tradition? Of course I do.
Do I have a blind belief in it? No.

WATTENBERG: You have been called, well, I’m going to call

MARTIN: I was gonna say, who’s doing all this name-

WATTENBERG: I don’t know if I’m going to call you that or


WATTENBERG: Give me an example of when you are a
traditionalist and when you’re an innovator.

MARTIN: Invitations. Do you still do – or letters.
Do you still on formal occasions use pen and paper or
engraving and so on? Yes. Do you use email? For a
thousand things. Email is wonderful. But it’s an entirely
different thing. Do you – should you use cell phones?
Well, it depends on the occasion. Of course, we all do.
But you can use them rudely and you can use them politely.
Things change.

WATTENBERG: I have a two-part answer myself. I’m one of
those guys who – I mean, I love it when somebody sends me a
personal handwritten note, but I always have the wrong
stationery. I think a year can go by without me writing a
letter, “Dear Judith”, so and so.
On the other hand, because of the wonders of email, I
find it very easy to say things that I wouldn’t say to a
person’s face, like “You are a wonderful person and thank
you so much for...” blah, blah, blah. So if you’re sort of
a bumbler like myself who has never gotten into that habit,
is there anything really wrong with that?

MARTIN: Yes. The – first of all, the people who say
they find it easier to say things when they don’t look at
the person, they don’t always say “you’re wonderful”; they
say some mighty awful things often because they’re not
facing people...

WATTENBERG: But you’re comparing it to a written

MARTIN: Yes. Alright. Suppose somebody’s parent
died. You’re going to send off an email saying, “Woops, I’m
so sorry.” And then put a little smiley face under “Cheer
up”? It’s a dignified occasion. It requires a dignified
method, which is not to say that email isn’t wonderful for a
thousand different purposes. It is. But we have one more
tool at our command. It doesn’t mean that we have to drop
everything. We have a richer choice.

WATTENBERG: Looking at the modern era, you see people
walking down the street or frequently in an elevator using a
cell phone or listening to iPod, whatever that is. Do you
find that objectionable?

MARTIN: It depends. Are they making noise that
annoys other people? With an iPod probably not, and with a
cell phone if they talk in a normal voice on the elevator
where they could talk to other people, no; I don’t. Would
you find it annoying if I’m reading a book while I’m in an

WATTENBERG: Would I find it annoying? No.

MARTIN: Why not? I’m just as tuned out as the person
with the iPod?

WATTENBERG: Because – right.

MARTIN: You just like books better, right?

WATTENBERG: Because we believe in America, I mean,
there’s a strong streak of individualism that people can do
what they want provided they’re not doing something nasty...

MARTIN: Well, exactly. So why would the iPod bother

WATTENBERG: I’m just asking. I’m trying to get a... Now,
you know, I want to become a better person. What about
arguing and interrupting? I have gotten into a lot of
trouble over the course of a couple marriages actually of
continually interrupting. Not continually, but – but I get
carried away – not carried away; I don’t want to... I get a
feeling that I got something I could add and I really want
to put it in. And I do it on television; we get some
letters in from people saying, you know, “Why don’t you let
your guest finish?” What do you think?

MARTIN: Well, there’s interrupting and there’s
interrupting. There’s enthusiastic, “let’s continue the
conversation” interrupting, which is sort of overlapping
talk which can be fine, not always depending on how much you
do it. But the kind of interrupting which you just
described is “look, I’ve got more to say about this than
you, so why don’t you stop talking and I’ll talk”, which
doesn’t hold onto wives, does it?

WATTENBERG: No. Thanks. Let me ask you this. Are you,
generally speaking, a feminist? And here is the question.
“What should an enlightened male do to help a presumably
also enlightened female into his or her car? My boyfriend
feels that it is demeaning to the woman when a man opens her
door and waits around until she gets all tucked in and then
closes the door after her.”

MARTIN: I am, to answer your question, a feminist and
I’m also a lady and I see no contradiction between the two.
There are certain traditional charming gestures that are
very appropriate in social life, which is what these people
are describing and – and very inappropriate in professional
life. If you are on business and people are constantly
treating you as if you are there socially as a lady, it
would be detrimental to your profession.

WATTENBERG: Do you think as a general matter, that what
is called political correctness has gone overboard in

MARTIN: Political correctness is only used in
connection with examples that have gone overboard. And so,
people who condemn all kinds of things that they call
political correctness find themselves in the peculiar
position of defending the open expression of bigotry and
insult and things like that.

If you say “what do you mean by political correctness?”
they will always cite an example of something ridiculously
outrageous where somebody has taken insult where insult was
not intended. And yes, that’s silly. But the fact that we
no longer tolerate the open expression of bigotry is

WATTENBERG: I agree with that. Let’s – let’s get down to
some of the hot stuff here. A lot of the new morality or
the new etiquette or whatever, has to do with sex and I
wonder a couple things. Do you approve of men and women
living together before marriage?

MARTIN: I neither approve nor disapprove. I don’t consider
it my business. I’m not legislating people’s sex lives.

WATTENBERG: So you sort of opt out of that and yet, as we
said in the beginning, you’re really – you call yourself
Miss Manners but you might call yourself Miss Behave – not
Miss Behavior but Madam Behavior or whatever.

MARTIN: Well, I’m not Miss Morals in that sense.
There is a moral underlining to manners but the sex life is
not part of that. That’s strictly in the moral realm.
The moral underlining has to do with how we get along
in society and how we are able to have communities where we
treat one another decently.

WATTENBERG: Having a code of etiquette – this is a
question; it’s not going to sound that way, but having a
code of etiquette is a necessity for a civilization?


WATTENBERG: Question mark.

MARTIN: Yes. Absolutely. Because – and we are
proving it in unfortunate ways right now by throwing over
most of the strictures of etiquette, refusing to obey them.
People have found that they are just as annoyed by
other people and they try to legislate by law and the law is
too clumsy and harsh to legislate everyday in little matters
like that that ought to be left to etiquette. But etiquette
is practiced voluntarily. I can’t throw people in jail if
they disobey it.
And so if we do not obey it, life becomes more and more
unpleasant and the way people try to deal with it is either
by law or by disobeying the law by violence. We see a lot
of that around of people who are – turn etiquette questions
into crime on the highways. Somebody cuts you off, you run
them off the road. People hitting or even shooting one
Those – in order to have a community, you have to have
a certain amount of restraint so you don’t keep irritating
everybody else, and they’re supposed to have a certain
amount of restraint.
If you don’t have that, the level of irritation rises
to the point where people go nuts.

WATTENBERG: What do you think about the idea that American manners, or
American culture, because you really are thinking more about
just specific etiquette, has sort of spread around the
world. They say, 'Yankee go home,' that we are Americanizing
but at the same time they’re wearing blue jeans and sneakers
and listening to our music and getting into our politics. I

MARTIN: We are the major etiquette influence in the
world today, it’s very true. And for better or for worse.
I mean, for instance, it’s an American concept that labor is
dignified and that people who don’t work are a little bit


MARTIN: ... who live off the fat of the land, we
think less of. That was never a European idea and it was
not an idea in many other cultures. You looked down on
people who worked with their hands. Well, that’s changed,
and America changed that so that’s one of the changes for
the better and I’m sure you can name plenty of changes for
the worse.

WATTENBERG: Right. Okay. So, I mean, do you think that
in general, that the export of the American culture and the
American experience around the world through all the
internet and the satellites and the television and the
newspapers and whatever, is a salutary development?

MARTIN: I think the good parts are good and the bad
parts are bad.

WATTENBERG: (Laughing) But you can’t separate them. I

MARTIN: Well, you could. You could.

WATTENBERG: Well not unless you had government control
over what goes out on the network...

MARTIN: No, no. Which would already defeat it. Yes.
WATTENBERG: do you ever feel that you might have given bad
advice to somebody and have it on your shoulders that they
went ahead and followed that bad advice?

MARTIN: No. I give good advice.

WATTENBERG: Right on. Okay.

WATTENBERG: On that note, let me ask you a final
question, which is if you had it within your power, if I
made you Queen Judith for the next decade or so...

MARTIN: Would you, please? Thank you.

WATTENBERG: Please. You are, yes. What kind of world
would you like to see? What would it look today?

MARTIN: I would like to see people accept the basic
contract of civilization which is you want to do the best
you can for yourself but not at the serious expense of other
people, and therefore you take other people’s – it’s the
hardest lesson in the world – you take other people’s
feelings into consideration and you don’t just act on your
own. And then, everybody be polite and I can go lie out in
the hammock and read my book.

WATTENBERG: It’s the biblical injunction, do unto others
– others as you would have them do unto you.

MARTIN: Basically. But then you have to have the
imagination to understand that other people have other ideas
and circumstances, so it’s a little more complicated.

WATTENBERG: Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners, an
American institution, we thank you very much for joining us
on Think Tank.

MARTIN: It was a great pleasure.

WATTENBERG: Great. And thank you. Please, remember to
send us your comments via e-mail. We think it makes our show
better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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Funding for Think Tank is provided by...

(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion dollars looking
for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health
experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion.
Pfizer, life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz
Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry
Bradley Foundation.

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