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Though sadly neglected nowadays, etiquette is more necessary than ever, and its lack of use in fact accounts for many of the social problems faced by modern society. So said Judith Martin, otherwise known as syndicated columnist Miss Manners, in her Charm School "commencement address" delivered last Wednesday.
A capacity crowd in Rm 10-250, including many Charm School graduates who filed in to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" played on a pair of tubas, laughed and cheered when Mrs. Martin declared that there was no inherent contradiction between "nerdiness" and charm. "On the contrary, what I find uncharming is empty-headedness, especially when it is gloriously crowned with arrogance-being proud of what you don't know," she said.
Some argue against the use of rules of etiquette on the grounds that such rules are either too trivial to bother with or elitist, arbitrary and artificial, Mrs. Martin said. However, they are the indispensable foundation for human social interaction, she argued.
"The philosophical basis of civilization is exactly the same as that of manners-that people must agree to restrain their impulses and follow a common language of behavior in order to avoid making communal life abrasive, unpleasant and explosive," Mrs. Martin said. In America, this history has been forgotten; "it's come to be believed that etiquette was invented by Victorian killjoys-I'm a prime suspect here-in order to ruin private pleasures, to quash the freedoms achieved during the Enlightenment, and just for good measure, to humiliate honest working people at every possible opportunity."
The breakdown in the teaching and use of etiquette is a primary cause of conflicts ranging from excessive litigation to street violence, Mrs. Martin said. Many people feel that lack of manners is a relatively minor issue, but it can be viewed another way, she said. "What if the decline of etiquette is one of the more serious social problems from which the other serious social problems devolved as epiphenomena?" While not claiming that all crime is "merely lethal rudeness," she noted that shootings and other urban violence often arise from a perceived lack of respect from the victim to the aggressor. "The response to feeling `dissed' is a major cause of crime in this country," she said. The only difference between such violent confrontations now and in the past, she added, is that "now we've eliminated some of the frills," such as slapping the offender in the face with a pair of gloves.
Etiquette needs to be taught to children to help them learn and socialize throughout their school careers, Mrs. Martin said. Politeness and restraint also need to be practiced by adults in university settings, which like other segments of society, are increasingly plagued with complaints about sexual harassment and other forms of incivility. "Fostering totally free speech is not the mission of the university. The mission of the university is to foster free inquiry," Mrs. Martin said. "A university can allow people to attack ideas without allowing them to attack one another, and it can freely protect discussion of offensive topics without permitting use of personal invective and other offensive speech."
The courts are increasingly being called upon to handle disputes that proper use of etiquette should have prevented or solved, Mrs. Martin said. The law, which was originally intended to punish serious conflict involving loss of life, limb or property, is continually being expanded in an attempt to outlaw rudeness and escalate the consequences thereof; thus, "old-fashioned insult gets redefined as slander or libel, plain old meanness becomes mental cruelty, and of course everything else is a major health hazard."
Some rules of etiquette involving dress and conduct change over time, such as the evolution to "ladies first" from "ladies never," Mrs. Martin said, but the underlying principles endure. Things like neckties may be viewed as arbitrary and impractical today, but dress-code elements provide "a tremendous fund of instantly perceptible non-verbal knowledge. a rich vocabulary of symbolism which enables people to recognize essential attributes or intentions in one another," such as the presence or absence of respect, friendliness and solidarity with the community, she said.
Similarly, observing etiquette rules associated with everything from salad forks to funerals creates necessary social cohesion, Mrs. Martin said. "Ritual provides a reassuring sense of social belonging which is far more satisfying than behavior which is improvised under emotionally complicated circumstances." The only ritualistic occasions that the nation as a whole still observes, she added dryly, are the Academy Awards, the Miss America Pageant and the Super Bowl.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 1, 1995.