Letitia Baldrige was once chief of staff for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Now she has come to the aid of everyone below the age of 55 who must work for a living. Lamenting the lack of social graces in the marketplace, the author divides its inhabitants into three categories:
"Senior managers in their late fifties and early sixties . . . Theirs was a society of strong families, in which women stayed home and the family gathered around the dinner table every night . . . There was either a conscious schooling in manners, or the children learned them by osmosis.
"Mid-to-senior managers now in their late thirties and forties were products of several simultaneous social revolutions, the most serious of which was the youth rebellion. Individualism and protest flowered in their youth . . . The subject of manners was considered archaic by anyone over the age of fourteen.
"Young managers now in their twenties and early thirties were products of the new technology and innovation in education . . . Family life was segmented. Multi-marriages proliferated, and so did activities that took them out of the home or kept them in rooms with earphones on . . . They received very little education in manners and comportment after eighth grade."
In Baldrige's view, all but the first group needs her help but fast. Leave aside for the moment that her first group properly extends downward in age to the early forties. More interesting questions are raised by this book -- most notably, does it serve any purpose, and if so, what does that purpose say about our culture?
Much of the contents serves only to make a thicker volume. Despite Baldrige's low opinion of the manners of the younger workers, it is hard to believe they require all of the book's instruction, which extends so far into the realm of horse sense that even those raised in barns must know it. A good deal of the book consists of such admonishments as these: "Smutty gifts are particularly in poor taste during the Christmas season." "It is extremely rude to interrupt someone." "Don't ask a person who has just been diagnosed as having a feared disease (like cancer) if he would like to discuss it with you." It is hard to imagine anyone needing instruction of this sort or, for that matter, requiring such grooming advice as not to wear stockings with runs in them, which is what Baldrige delivers.
That is not to say that Baldrige does not include some useful tips. It is handy to have a reference book that discusses the peculiarities of doing business abroad (e.g., don't wear white in China, where it's the color of mourning). Similarly, entertaining by corporations has a protocol its own that I've never seen discussed elsewhere (e.g., the proper format of business party invitations). And it may even be useful to have, in the same volume, other niceties of etiquette that business executives deal with, which are available in other etiquette books, many of them more felicitous in style. (Fans of Miss Manners, for instance, may respond to Baldrige's flat-footed prose with a grab for the smelling salts.)
More disturbing than the gratuitous material is Baldrige's suggested motive to readers for taking her advice. "This book is based on the theory that good manners are cost-effective because they not only increase the quality of life in the workplace, contribute to optimum employee morale and embellish the company image, but they also play a major role in generating profit . . . On the other hand . . . 'negative behavior,' whether based on selfishness, carelessness or ignorance, can cost a person a promotion, even a job."
Baldrige's sales pitch is rather like telling people to keep their fingers out of the petty cash because they'll get fired if they get caught. Manners, said Hume, are small morals; manners, says Baldrige, are good for the bottom line. Her approach is disconcerting.