Weary of being called old-fashioned, Miss Manners is practicing a new expression:
"That is sooooo 20th century."
Even this dismissive exclamation puts her squarely within historic tradition, and not just because of the quaint circumlocution. (Miss Manners's "sooooo" is not nearly as well executed as her "Aha!") The phrasing may have been different during the last turn of the century, but the idea was the same:
Reward those from whose labor and wisdom you have benefited by pointing out to them that the longer people have been around, the less they can be expected to know about how to live.
At the last turn of the century, those who were soon to become Edwardians--people who prided themselves on being frank--were contemptuous of the manners of their Victorian parents, who, in turn, prided themselves on being sincere. We, who pride ourselves on being honest, consider them equally ridiculous.
And as for the ideas about manners at the last turn of the millennium, don't even ask.
So let us inaugurate the wiser manners of the 21st century.
We start by abandoning all that indignation about civilization being artificial and therefore something we don't want. Yes it is, and yes we do. Most of the last century was spent seeking ever more naturalness in behavior, and we've seen the results.
In their natural state, human beings are not much aware of the feelings and needs of other human beings, much less inclined to compromise to accommodate them. This makes it impossible to have such communal benefits as highways that provide a hope of getting home in one piece. It is therefore time to stop the redundancy of telling infants to express their feelings, and to require just enough restraint on everyone to make life bearable for us all.
Next, let us recognize that we have squeezed all the fun we're going to get out of playing with the conventions. It doesn't much matter how we choose our system of precedence, nomenclature, greetings and clothing, but it matters that we choose a system that everyone can follow and understand. People are battle-fatigued from hearing other people's opinions about who goes first, how children should address their elders, whether "Have a nice day" is better or worse than--or even substantially different from--"Good morning" and whether we should wear black to funerals or to weddings.
There is probably still fun to be gotten out of technology, however. Miss Manners looks forward to the next invention, without stopping to consider how it will cripple her life when it turns out to conflict with all the other unreliable technological inventions she has invited into her life.
But now that we are close to achieving the ability to contact any person anywhere at any time, we should be ready to recognize that this is not humanly desirable. In all centuries but the last, status meant not having to be constantly at everybody's beck and call. So we either exercise restraint about demanding other people's attention or we put on technological restraints that will neutralize our technological advances.
Miss Manners is nevertheless cognizant of the benefits of the increasing ability to be in touch with people from different societies. She just hopes that everyone else understands that this requires--not that everyone be conversant in every other culture--an international standard of etiquette that is intelligible in all countries and in all subcultures.
She realizes that instituting it and getting people to obey it should occupy her at least until the next millennium.
Dear Miss Manners:
In 1993, when we lost our 22-year-old daughter, my ex-husband and ex-sister-in-law spoke at the funeral. My sister-in-law got up in church and announced that they were the side of the family that takes their teeth out and does not replace them.
I have never mentioned this to people and found it a very strange thing to say in front of people you don't even know.
What should I do? It really bugs me. Why would a person do such a stupid thing? Perhaps I need to send her a book on manners.
You're not going to find one that forbids discussing competitive teeth-removing habits at a funeral, Miss Manners regrets to say. This omission does not mean that such a thing is proper but only that the Etiquette Council lacked the insight to foresee that it would be a problem.
In any case, it is not your problem, and certainly not one that you should be worrying about years later.
(c) 2000, Judith Martin