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Civility in a Democracy

A Conversation with Miss Manners

HUMANITIES, January/February 2005 | Volume 26, Number 1

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talks with Judith Martin about how standards of behavior were adapted for an American democracy. Known to readers of her syndicated column as Miss Manners, Judith Martin is the author of twelve books, among them Star-Spangled Manners.

Bruce Cole: Have people always been interested in trying to improve their manners?

Judith Martin: No. Mid-twentieth century America had one of the cyclical attempts to overthrow etiquette. "It's artificial, it's snobbish," it's this, that, and the other. We go through that every once in a while. The French did that after the French Revolution.

There are times when etiquette can get so elaborate that it drives people crazy and interferes with their lives. Then they say, "Why don't we just throw the whole thing aside and act naturally? They act naturally, whatever that is--nobody knows what natural human behavior is--and they express themselves very freely. After the insults start flying, and then people can't stand it and they say, "Why don't we have some manners around here?" We're in that period now. But let us not forget there are periods when people disdain etiquette.

Cole: What I wanted to get at were your historic predecessors, people who wrote books--Castiglione with his Book of the Courtier and Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. He was reviled, right? Samuel Johnson said Chesterfield had the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore. Have you heard that?

Martin: It's better than the other way around, right? Emerson said he'd rather dine with a scoundrel than someone who had no table manners.

Throughout history there has been the question: How should man live? How should we behave? How should we treat one another? 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.

Etiquette is older than law and even now divides the realm of regulating behavior with the legal system. There are a lot of problems with that these days because people keep trying to turn over matters of etiquette to the legal system, which doesn't handle them very well.

There has always been a sense of how should we behave, and usually--but not always--among people who have had the leisure to contemplate this, people like Lord Chesterfield and Castiglione.

Erasmus's reason for writing an etiquette book--where he tells students not to pick their noses and not to spit on the ground--is because if you don't know how to behave well, you will not be admitted to the circles where they make important decisions. He wanted his students acceptable to important people.

There has been etiquette throughout history. It melds with other things. It melds with religion. The Bible is full of things which are really etiquette rules, and so are other religious tracts. Every society has to have an etiquette.

Cole: You draw a distinction between etiquette and manners and morals, right?

Martin: Yes. I also draw a distinction between manners and etiquette, manners being the principles which are eternal, and etiquette being the surface behavior, which varies and changes.

Manners have a moral basis. Manners are to etiquette as morality is to the law. Matters of serious morality have to be handled by the law because etiquette depends on the consent of the people practicing it. It has no punishment other than social disapproval--on up to shunning--which can be powerful, but it's not as powerful as throwing someone in jail.

Cole: You've been advising Americans on how to behave--how to mind their manners--since 1978. How did this all begin? What in your background led you to become Miss Manners?

Martin: I was twelve or thirteen. We were living in Greece. My father was an economist with the American government, but he would take United Nations assignments one year at a time.

Both my parents were big history and archaeology buffs. We went for a vacation to Egypt and in the Cairo Museum there was a tablet that was a letter from a man to his son, a Polonius-type letter. Do this and don't do that and don't forget this and that. We started to laugh because we realized we got a very good picture of what the kid was like, as the father knew only too well.

My parents said to me at that time, "If you want to understand a society and what they do, look at their rules. Whatever they are being told not to do, that's what they are doing, because otherwise you wouldn't have to tell them not to do it."

Cole: Exactly.

Martin: One of my mother's favorite examples was the expression "everything in moderation," which I used to be able to say in Greek. She said, "People think, oh, they were such moderate people." She said, "If they were moderate people, they wouldn't have to write this on the wall to remind themselves."

Cole: Yes.

Martin: So I started reading etiquette books. I define etiquette books very loosely. I read novels with manners and philosophical and religious tracts that deal with etiquette. Then, when I went to work for the Washington Post as a copy girl in the women's section, which no longer exists, people called in all day long with little etiquette questions, and I used to answer them. When I got promoted beyond that, the people who had to answer the phone would run over and ask me. So I knew that I was not the only person in the universe who cared about manners, although in the seventies it certainly seemed that way.

Cole: People wanted an anchor, right?

Martin: I guess. People were getting good and tired of being treated rudely. When you say I tell people how to behave, I do, but they don't ask me how they should behave. They ask me how to get even with the people who are being rude to them. Everybody wants as much freedom as possible, so they don't want to recognize restrictions on their own behavior, but they certainly want to recognize restrictions on other people's behavior. If you want other people to be restricted, then you have to accept some restrictions yourself.

Cole: Let's talk about the problem of manners or etiquette in America. I know you've explored this in your book. Is it confusing because there is no clear rule about one's place in society?

Martin: There is no aristocracy that we can copy.You are an historian. You know how aristocrats generally behave. It's not necessarily something you want to copy.

Cole: That's right.

Martin: We are in a wonderful position, and we are the greatest influence on manners in the world today, because the Founding Fathers explicitly looked at the manners they grew up with, the manners of their time, and realized that they had a very firm hierarchal court basis, and were not suitable for a republic. So they all went into the etiquette business. Jefferson wrote about etiquette, and Benjamin Franklin, of course, and others. First of all, they had to establish what would be an appropriate protocol for a republic. The reason we're so influential now is because other societies are coming into our form of government --or they are resisting it tooth and nail, in which case they are deploring what we're doing. One way or the other, it's an enormous influence.

The questions they were working on still haven't been solved. For example, how do you express respect for the dignity of high office without looking as if you're kowtowing to somebody better than you? Every president and other officials have to deal with the fact that we are all equal, yes, but we're not all equal in rank, and we want to have some dignity and some order. Jefferson thought, well, fine, just throw all the rank out. It was chaos.

Oddly enough, one of the influences on them was Venice, because Venice was determined not to have dynasties and despots. It was an oligarchy, but it was a republic and the citizens had very strong rights. We got from the Venetians things such as not allowing people to have foreign titles. When a Venetian ambassador came home, he was stripped of all his medals and titles. The titles that you hear in Venice now are either Italian titles or titles granted from the Austrians during the Austrian occupation. They had a very elaborate system of checks and balances.

The also had sumptuary laws. The sumptuary laws elsewhere in the Europe were made in order to reserve for the upper classes certain privileges such as wearing specific colors or jewels. In Venice, the intention was the opposite. They didn't want people showing off. If you were an aristocrat, you had to wear a big, black cape over your clothes.

Cole: I understand you're at work on a new book about Venice.

Martin: It's about the people who are crazy about it. Over the centuries there have been all kinds of Venetophiles--counting Henry James and Lord Byron and many, many others.

Cole: That's kind of a departure, right?

Martin: Yes, except it's a great love of mine. It's been going on for some time, since I was a child, practically.

Cole: But there's also the dark side of Venice, don't you think?

Martin: I am among those who believe that a lot of that is Napoleonic propaganda. Napoleon needed a justification for saying, "These poor, oppressed people. I have to liberate them." If they were so happy for him to come in, how come they are still angry about that?

Cole: Exactly. Yes.

You are familiar with San Rocco, the church and the Scuola. I think it was Ruskin who said, "I didn't know what painting was until I saw the Scuola."

Martin: And Henry James said that there is more genius in those four walls than anyplace else in the universe.

Cole: When is your book coming out?

Martin: Well, I have to finish it first. I have a revised edition of my first big etiquette book coming out in the spring. The Venice book will be out in the fall of 2006.

Cole: Parenthetically, I was just thinking about the way that natural rank or natural nobility was portrayed without any paraphernalia of station or rank. If you look at Charles II or if you look at the way even Washington is portrayed, the prototype comes out of Venice.

The portraiture of Titian established that whole idea, with the column in the background, the dog at the feet, but just natural innate nobility.

Martin: Fascinating.

Cole: How the Founding Fathers dealt with the new democracy is of particular interest to me. We have an initiative called We the People, in which we're trying to counter what I call "American amnesia." Americans, especially our kids, don't know enough about their history.

The Founders had to set the course. Jefferson wrote on etiquette. And so did Washington, right?

Martin: Washington copied out the Jesuits' rules, but, yes, he was also always making etiquette pronouncements and even etiquette decisions. I always quote him when people ask, "Well, if your guest is late for dinner, should you wait?" Washington never waited. He said his cook would kill him. He made the original rules of presidential protocol. The president doesn't have to return calls. He would have his levees and receive people, but he did not return calls. Still, there were people traipsing through Mount Vernon all the time to his great annoyance.

He set up that question of dignity versus equality. And I say "versus" because you have to meld them, but often one works against the other. When he gave the State of the Union address, he sat on a throne in the Capitol. There was no rebuttal allowed until he went home to Mount Vernon. People had to ride all the way out there to get any answer, which, of course, was on his turf. He was very often accused of being arrogant, but he was struggling with the paradox. Even now, every president is accused of either being arrogant or being too folksy.

Cole: It's hard to win. And, of course, there's this whole issue of how they were going to address the president.

Martin: Washington favored "Your High and Mightiness." He thought that had a nice ring to it.

Cole: I kind of like that.

Martin: He kind of liked it, too, but Adams was against it. Somebody pointed out that it was all very well for Washington, who was a tall man, but if there were a short president--and Adams was short--people would burst out laughing. So they skipped that one.

Cole: What about regional differences in manners?

Martin: There are a lot less than there were because people move around all the time and they have the same influences, just as accents are still discernable, but they are less than they were.

You can often trace manners to the conditions of the territory. Frontier manners obviously are a tremendous influence. If you live on a crowded island like England, you want to create artificial space to keep everybody from being all over you all the time. If you're out in the frontier, you need all the help you can get. Instant friendship and openness and cooperation--very nice American attributes--had a frontier basis. Then you have the Southerners, who mistakenly thought they were living the English country-house life on their plantations.

Cole: This was conditioned, too, by the waves of immigrants who had come to our shores, right?

Martin: Who brought all kinds of things. Our birthday celebrations are German, the birthday cake.

Cole: One of the things you write about is the evolution of Southern hospitality, which I found fascinating.

Martin: The plantation owners thought they were being English country gentlemen, but who was teaching etiquette to their children? The house slaves. The house slaves often came from a more elevated background than the masters. They were chosen among the slaves as the people who were more refined. They had been captured and brought over from Africa, whereas, of course, voluntary immigrants came because things weren't so great at home. The house slave, usually the mammy, taught manners to the children. So she taught them the manners she knew. The "y'all come see me" kind of hospitality is an African tradition that they brought over. Using honorary family titles, aunt so-and-so and uncle so-and-so, where there's no relationship, but to convey something between strict formality and informality--these kinds of things crept in to become what are now known as Southern manners.

Cole: The frontier and issues of space, that's uniquely American, right?

Martin: Very much so. Other countries didn't tend to have that kind of space. And they didn't tend to have that kind of mix. From this has evolved what we think of as American manners. I always get annoyed when people think, oh, they're just watered-down English manners. Well, no, they are not.

Venice, of course, never had feudalism, because you've got to have land to have feudalism. And so they never disdained labor. In those palaces they lived above the store. The ground floor was the store room. Americans made this very deliberate choice that not only is labor dignified, but leisure is undignified. Even if you had inherited an enormous amount of money as a young man in early America and you did nothing, you were--and are--rather disdained.

Cole: Right.

Martin: I still remember when, in England, when people would say so-and-so is "in trade," meaning how disgusting.

Cole: Where do writers fit in?

Martin: Writers were often an exception, possibly because you don't really work with the hands in the same sense. In many courts, including the English, the Japanese, the Chinese, you had to be able to write poetry and so on. Writing is a highfalutin vocation.

Cole: That's what is interesting about the artists. Artists in Italy could never achieve any kind of elevated status because they worked with their hands.

Martin: But the Venetians were an exception to this snobbery. Not only were they very proud of their artists, but the Venetian glass blowers were so highly regarded that their daughters were entitled to marry into nobility.

Cole: I didn't know that.

Martin: Glass was economically important to them. And the people who worked at the arsenal were of an elevated status. Even the top people, the oligarchy, were merchants. They were all in trade.

Cole: People who have made vast fortunes, like Bill Gates, still work.

Martin: Because it's shameful not to in America. If you just live off your income, people look down on you.

We're all equal. Even the term we use for servants in this country is "help." It's a polite fiction, you know, that they are just helping us.

Cole: Yes.

Martin: There is this wonderful passage in de Toqueville where he says that the basis of American manners--as opposed to, he says, French manners where the servant is toadying up to the aristocrat because he totally depends on him, or English servant/master relations, where the master also has obligations and they realize they are in a permanent situation--is that between American master and servant, he said, they both know that the situation could be reversed tomorrow.

Cole: Exactly. So you've got to be careful.

Martin: You've got to be careful.

Cole: I'd like to explore a little further the influence of American manners. What is going on now?

Martin: Well, it's better in the sense that there is a little more recognition of people as people. It is worse in the sense that one of the problems here is that we've done away with the stages of intimacy.

Cole: You talked about the tu. In your book, you said the tu was everywhere.

Martin: You hardly hear the vous in Europe anymore. You hear only the tu. First names immediately. The idea that all formality is suspect is a really bad idea. You have rank--professionally--which you need to recognize. You need to recognize degrees of intimacy among friends and acquaintances.

Why are high school kids renting five-block-long cars with bars in them and dressing up provocatively? Because they want a little formality in their lives and they have no role models.

Cole: You had talked about one of the last bastions of etiquette being street gangs?

Martin: Oh, yes. Symbolic etiquette . . . how you look at someone, the sign of greeting, the hierarchy. People always think that poor people or people in primitive societies are bereft of manners. It works the other way. The less outside structure there is, the more inside structure grows. Among aboriginal societies, they might not be using all the tools of the dinner table, but their table manners would be much more dictated than they are in a society like ours. Street gangs have symbolic clothing, and who can talk to whom and when and how is very strictly regulated.

Cole: In Italy, I remember in the old days there were these stages in which you got to know people.

Martin: But that was nice.

Cole: It was nice. And then they would say, you know, possiamo darci del tu? Can we address each other informally?

Martin: Great honor.

Cole: Or the English. I remember my mentor started off by calling me Mr. Cole, then it went to Cole. You were really getting familiar. Then he called me by my first name. He had this order of familiarity.

Martin: But that's nice. You have your circle of people you're close to, people you're further away from, and so on. When telemarketers call up and say the first name, why are people so offended? Because they think, oh, it's somebody I should know. Who is it? This must be a friend of mine. It's an exaggeration of the thing I mentioned--that frontier habit of immediate friendships.

Cole: There are no distinctions.

Martin: In a civilization as it develops, etiquette is useful in making distinctions between friend and foe.

Cole: What kind of good and bad influences have American manners had abroad?

Martin: It's influenced clothing to a great extent. People are much more informal in their clothing. American blue jeans, everybody walking around Europe with these fake American sweatshirts. When they raided Tariq Aziz's house they found a copy of my book. I don't know whose it was, but I suspect that someone wanted to be able to interpret American behavior or something like that.

Cole: How does Miss Manners translate abroad?

Martin: My column has been running in the Japan Times forever, but I don't get mail from them. I asked once, in Japan, why. They said, well, it would be rude to ask me questions.

I have approval rights on translation. In Washington, I found someone who knew someone who was fluent in both languages, English and Japanese, her father had been a diplomat here, she grew up here, and had a great sense of humor. She told me--I have to take it on faith--that they were able to capture the tone, the kind of slightly archaic tone, and the humor. But it's not an easy thing to do. It doesn't translate easily.

Cole: I had a book translated into Japanese. The Japanese are very interested in Renaissance art. I can't even find my name in it. I'm assuming it's my book.

Martin: If you get royalties, it's your book. (Laughter.)

Cole: Very, very interesting, though.

What's also interesting is when you're talking about blue jeans and sweatshirts that there is a kind of reversal: that fashion, instead of coming from on high, it comes from--

Martin: --it comes from the street now, yes. In the fashion industry, they are all looking to see what the people in the street are wearing.

Cole: Is that a particularly new thing? Maybe I'm thinking about Franklin and rusticity.

Martin: They were also dealing in symbolism in clothing. A lot of people felt that Washington overdressed and that Jefferson didn't dress up enough.

Cole: What about people who dress casually for the opera and events like that?

Martin: It undercuts the sense of occasion. The opera shamelessly advertised, "oh, you can come in blue jeans." They undercut the sense of occasion, and the manners that go with it.

Casual Friday was a disaster on many levels. First of all, anybody with any brains realized that there was still a symbolic system, so therefore you didn't really wear the grungy old clothes you wore on the weekend. You had to have a whole other wardrobe where you were pretending to be casual, but still look important. A lot of industries are cutting back on Casual Friday now. With it comes an attitude of, I'm my own person. You see it all the time. You go into a store and the employees will be having a personal conversation on the phone or listening to music and they feel they don't have to help you. They're at leisure. In professional behavior, you assume a persona. It's emphasized by the clothes, as we know from uniforms and the formal and informal uniform of how people dress.

Cole: This is still from the seventies, basically?

Martin: Yes, the sixties, the seventies. It's the revolt against etiquette.

Cole: But aren't men wearing more suits now?

Martin: Yes, because the cycle is beginning to change slightly. People are realizing that you can look at someone and gauge his importance.

Cole: Well, clothes make the man, right?

Martin: There's also, manners maketh man.

Cole: Are manners more necessary in a democracy than they were in the old aristocracies?

Martin: It's a little bit like language: you can't not have manners of some sort. You could have good manners, bad manners and so on. It's a bit easier in a hierarchal society, where you know automatically how to place everybody and what the proper behavior should be. I kowtow-to-you-and-you-don't-need-to-kowtow-to-me type of thing. It's harder when you're all equals and you have no way of knowing the person's place in the hierarchy. However, it's fair and we all think it's wonderful.

Cole: It's harder, though.

Martin: Yes, it's harder. Another thing is that you establish who you are much more through your manners. To use an old expression, somebody who is as drunk as a lord is still a lord, right? But if you're reeling around drunk in a democracy, in a republic, people say that's who you are--you're a drunk.

Cole: You've covered this town for a long time. What about the unspoken code between the press and members of Congress and their behavior back in the old days?

Martin: It was a convention. I'm always trying to take the boring middle route between one thing and the other. The big question which we have never solved, and I don't know the answer, is how much does a person's personal life bear on their fitness for service? Obviously, some. But does sex life bear on it? Does this? Does that? What shows character? When I was a young reporter, there was an unspoken agreement that nothing that untoward got into the papers. Now we say, and you can argue, it is relevant.

It's true, I think, when you enter high-level public service you give up a little bit of privacy. Should you have to give it all up? No. But should you be protected? I don't think so either.

Cole: Where do you draw that line, though?

Martin: Where do you draw that line, yes. And America has never decided.

Cole: I was just thinking . . . My father's highest accolade about somebody was that he was a gentleman.

Martin: Exactly. But in court societies you'd be a gentleman by birth no matter how you behaved. That's the point about America--you have to behave like a gentleman to be a gentleman. And surely that is a superior system.

Cole: That's a great way to conclude. Thank you so much for talking with me.

Martin: It's been a pleasure.