I can remember the tough graduate instructor who made the surprising observation to our group that we should take the subject of etiquette seriously. He meant the kind of advice freely given in “Ms. Manners” columns and their modern counterparts. The idea took us by surprise and had us wondering if we would next be parsing the warblings of singer Pat Boone for some unseen profundity. What could future rhetoricians possibly gain by looking at advice on how to slip through awkward social knots?
In hindsight, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that a verbal response intended to solve or defuse an awkward moment is interesting. We eventually got the point.
The process of negotiating differences is almost always a linguistic task. We usually have to talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude. Presumably, the person giving it can channel a load of practical solutions which might be used to manage a social challenge. Today these folks exist online as well as in more traditional media, distant heirs to the traditions firmly laid out by Emily Post or Dear Abby.
For example, the New York Times regularly runs an ethics column where the author suggests reasoned responses to gnarly workplace or family problems: for example, what a junior employee should do if they notice that a senior employee is padding the books, or what to do about a relative who persists in offering unsolicited and unwelcome political views. When we substitute what’s “ethical” for what’s “proper,” we are perhaps closer to the vernacular of our times. It works even if we are addressing the racier behaviors that show up on Slate’s “Dear Prudence” feature.
There’s also a second advice-giver at the Times who deserves special notice. Philip Galanes writes the Sunday “Social Q’s” column in the Styles section. Galanes seems to like reader questions that can be addressed with sensible responses that allow a graceful escape. Consider his suggestion to a writer who doesn’t know how to tell a friend that she dislike’s her smoking. A fear of saying something has kept the writer from offering an invitation for dinner. His solutions usually take the form of a direct request. Say “I love you, May, but I can’t take your secondhand smoke. If you’re willing to to take your ciggie breaks in the great (and frigid) outdoors, we’d love to have you to dinner at our place.” Even so, he advises that there should be no general lecture on the risks of smoking.
To a questioner who wants to confront the drunk that her young daughter encountered at a children’s party: “Say nothing. You are not the right messenger.” And to a vegan who is tired of advice and health warnings given by friends who mean well but should butt out, he offers a simple but effective response: “I’m good with my choice, but thanks for your concern.”
We would be mistaken to assume that a “good manners” means retreating to passive language. But take another look at the last suggested comment. The “Thanks for your concern” wording from the vegan can have a subtext that might be more brutally said as “Mind your own business.” But the use of the word “concern” softens a more confrontational effect. It gives the intrusive advice-giver the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, the assertion “I’m good with my choice” is perfect: “my choice” is reminder of the vegan’s obvious right to make their own decisions. In it’s own way it makes the advice-giver seem a bit small, but in rhetoric that has a non-confrontational “covering.”
Comments to defuse awkward situations always work better when they are close to our own authentic “voice.” Responses to the big and small moments of social interaction carry our unique rhetorical signatures. The familiar observation we often make about someone else, “That’s what I would expect them to say,” is a reminder that our personal rhetorical style precedes us. This complicates the utility of a “one size fits all” response in any setting. But it doesn’t make the attempts any less interesting.
The idea of finding what might be the perfect response is a good exercise with wide applications. For example, think of a screenplay as a worked-out set of character-specific responses and, inadvertently, as commentary on the appropriateness of responses in a given scene. Are they the right words for the circumstances? Polite or crude? Do they civilize or brutalize us? Because we easily buy into the process of parsing responses for their appropriateness, questions like these can never be out of place.