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Giving Good Behavior a Sporting Chance

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page D02

It's just an impression, but Miss Manners has the idea that there is more rude behavior associated with professional basketball than with, say, national spelling bees.

Could it be the difference in maturity of the participants? The society's adulation of physical triumphs and suspicion that there is something weird about mental success? The cumulative influence of an educational system that deemphasizes disparity in intellectual achievement on the grounds that it is discouraging to others, while maintaining rigorous standards for being allowed to play school games?

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Or is it that Miss Manners has not seen enough of either activity to be aware of how softhearted athletic stars really are and how viciously competitive the spellers?

Fortunately for her, it is not necessary to dig into a morass of social issues to discover why people so often behave badly in competitions. They do so because it is only natural, and they have not been required to be unnaturally polite. On the contrary, the belief lingers, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary, that it is good to get rid of ugly feelings by expressing them.

Perhaps; but there is still a difference between sneezing into one's handkerchief and sneezing into other people's faces.

The sad part is that it was once the world of sports that did a good job of teaching civilized competition. The very name of good sportsmanship was used in other contexts to define propriety under adversarial circumstances.

A situation in which the sides have no real quarrel but are merely testing their more-or-less evenly matched skills in repeated contests is ideal for teaching the kind of restraint that is required to settle serious differences. The restraint involved is key in conducting conflicts -- military, legal and political, among others -- that do reflect deep differences.

It is then that most people have to be reminded that no matter how bitter the contest, the boundaries of civilized behavior must be respected. This is crucial not only to preserving our humanity but also to preserving the possibility of resolving the conflicts and returning to peaceful coexistence. Nothing can be settled otherwise, unless one side is able to prevail by utterly destroying the other.

That is seldom possible, much less desirable, even in outright warfare. Yet that is the spirit in which even games are now conducted. Etiquette rules are tossed aside on the grounds that they interfere with expressing the pure enmity that is felt -- which is exactly what these etiquette rules are designed to do. Far from paving over the source of the conflict, etiquette enables the opposing sides to deal with those sources instead of their scorn for one another.

Miss Manners has never shared the naivete of believing that it is the task of athletes to live their lives as roles models of character and propriety. All she would hope is that they conduct their own business of playing sports in such a way as to again provide their fans, as well as people in other adversarial situations, with the example of good sportsmanship.

Dear Miss Manners:

My colleague and I are perplexed about a set of napkins she has purchased. In one corner of each napkin, there is what appears to be a buttonhole.

Neither of us has ever seen this on a napkin, and we were puzzling over what its use might be. A horrifying possibility occurred to us -- could it be that the manufacturer intends the buttonhole to be used to secure the napkin to the uppermost button on a diner's shirt?

Miss Manners is sorry to inform you that your horrified guess is correct. Contrary to what our parents and grandparents told us, the world was not perfectly behaved before our generation came along and spoiled everything. The napkins were incorrect then, and there were also sloppy eaters who were indifferent to that fact.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

©2005, Judith Martin


© 2005 The Washington Post Company