It was back in the high school days when I got into the habit of culling bookshops on Saturday mornings while everyone else was at the gym or nursing a hangover. I didn’t usually go to buy anything in particular – just to browse through the shelves, read the blurbs, flip through the remainder bins for any little gem — basically to check out what was new since the previous week. It was then that I came across Miss Manners for the first time.

The book was a clothbound hard cover that weighed about 3 lbs. called “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior” by Judith Martin. I leafed through a few sections and was soon laughing out loud at the humor and witticisms that the author imparts along with etiquette advice.

But don’t be fooled — this pseudo-Victorian lady may make you laugh with her entertaining writing, but when it comes to manners, she is dead serious. Her book is in question/answer format (with a detailed index), in which Miss Manners addresses her readers as “Gentle Reader” and refers to herself in the third person, like Julius Caesar. It covers all stages of life from birth to death — basic, intermediate, and advanced civilization — and encompasses social intercourse, table manners, rites of passage, marriage (for beginners), work, step-families, internet*, divorce, protocol, and even questions nobody asked.

Most general “etiquette” questions can be answered by Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt — but for the rationale behind manners, Miss Manners is the unrivaled authority on civilized behavior for a quarter-century, combining sometimes starchy asperity with a home-grown love of American democracy and classlessness. Who else could lay out so lovingly the rules for a formal dinner à la russe, followed by thoroughly sensible guidelines for the civilized use of cell phones, email, and instant-messaging? And you won’t find her wishy-washing when it comes to inviting same-sex couples to dinner or organizing a shower for an unwed mother; to her, people are people and all are deserving of polite treatment, if not always respect.

But let’s be honest. Manners aren’t always about aesthetics and civility. Sometimes people disguise manners as a weapon used in passive-agressive combat. By calling out your mother-in-law on a point of etiquette and proving that she was rude, you could also be demonstrating that she is an insensitive, loathsome cow who resented your marrying her son since day one — doesn’t that feel satisfying? But in her perspicacity, Miss Manners cuts through the layers of twisted, convoluted intentions and astutely separates what is politeness from improper pride and prejudice.

And her dry wit, as always, is a quotable marvel.

Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (*updated version)
by Judith Martin
745 pages


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