We have little choice but to try to manage social challenges through language.
It might appear that the heydays of advice columnists are mostly in the past. But who better to offer suggestions for just the perfect response than a writer on etiquette and manners? We usually must talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude, even if multiculturalism, and the raw ends of various cultural awakenings would seem to make any response suspect. After all, we are now a coarser nation. And in some settings, pleasing others with our words or acts carries less importance. In the 21st Century can the quaint idea of ‘etiquette’ still have something to tell us?
I can remember the tough graduate instructor who made the surprising observation in a seminar that we should take the subject of etiquette seriously. He meant the kind of advice freely given in “Ms. Manners” columns and her modern counterparts. The idea took us by surprise and had us wondering if we would soon be using Ouija boards rather than libraries for basic research. What could academic rhetoricians gain by looking at advice in the popular media about how to slip through awkward social knots?
But he had a point. In hindsight, it does not take a deep thinker to realize that a verbal response intended to solve or defuse an awkward moment is always interesting. Our connections with others is much more fluid, but predicated on expectations that will not be violated. We still have no choice but to find the right words and gestures to maintain or strengthen the contacts that make civil and predictable. The seminar members eventually got the point, coming to see any etiquette guide as but a simple form of a rhetorical manual. In fact, old guides offer chances to peer into long-abandoned social norms that help illuminate how we evolved into our current social selves.
The key point here is the idea that negotiating differences is almost always a linguistic task. Movie guns and stunts might have us believe otherwise, but we know better. We usually must talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude. If our goal is to thrive in many different contexts, we have little choice but to try to negotiate tricky social challenges by using the resources of language.
Today the professional advice givers exist online as well as in legacy media, distant heirs to the traditions firmly laid out by Emily Post or Dear Abby. But we should not really be surprised. Discussions vary from the familiar (Do I need to spend time with my right-wing inlaws?”), to workplace problems that raise clear ethical issues (“My boss is sexist.”)
For example, the New York Times regularly runs ethics columns in its Sunday Magazine and business pages. In each the authors suggest 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 is “ethical” for what’s “proper,” we are perhaps closer to the vernacular of our times. These columns still work, even if they are not addressing the racier behaviors that show up in Slate’s long-running “Dear Prudence” feature.
Because we easily buy into the process of parsing responses for their appropriateness, questions of etiquette can never be out of place.
There is 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. He seems to like reader questions that can be answered with sensible responses that allow a graceful escape. Consider his suggestion to a writer who does not know how to tell a friend that she dislikes 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 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 “good manners” means retreating to passive language. But take another look at the last suggested comment. The suggested “Thanks for your concern” wording for 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 its own way it makes the advice-giver seem petty, but it comes wrapped in 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 does not 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.