WOULD IT KILL YOUTO STOP DOING THAT? A Modern Guide to Manners
By Henry Alford
Twelve. 242 pp. $24.99
In some situations, it’s clear what it means to mind your manners. You hold the door for the person behind you, cover your mouth when you cough and never, ever ask a woman if she’s pregnant. But other situations are more tricky. Do you tell a stranger she has spinach in her teeth? Can you respond to a friend’s phone call with an e-mail?
In “Would it Kill You to Stop Doing That?,” humorist Henry Alford surveys how we navigate such situations in an era when many people say good manners have all but vanished. His research takes him from the streets of Japan, where even the tiniest daily rituals have precision and order, to New York, where he says people are as brazen about stealing each other’s cabs as they are about asking others what they pay for rent.
A valuable premise of the book is that manners and etiquette aren’t necessarily the same. Manners are a display of civility, while etiquette is about protocol and procedure. It’s an interesting distinction for those who may argue that manners are nothing more than outdated exercises in formality. “We yearn for the predictability and sense of order that manners provide, but we are turned off by the elitism and privilege that they seem to bespeak,” Alford writes. “The essence of good manners,” he adds, “is not exclusivity, nor exclusion of any kind, but sensitivity.”
The book is a bit haphazard — it jumps quickly from lists of dos and don’ts to history lessons to anecdotes of the author’s own manners-related victories and failures. But his self-effacing tone and dry sense of humor help to unify the pieces. He doesn’t always advise the reader on the best way to behave in a given situation, but ultimately that’s not his aim. Instead, Alford examines how a society defines manners and sets forth a framework by which to think about them in the 21st century.