"We all know bad manners when we see them," NPR and Vanity Fair contributor Henry Alford observes at the beginning of his new book. But what, he asks, do good manners look like in our day and age? When someone answers their cell phone in the middle of dining with you, or runs you off the sidewalk with their doublewide stroller, or you enter a post-apocalyptic public restroom, the long-revered wisdom of Emily Post can seem downright prehistoric.
Troubled by the absence of good manners in his day-to-day life-by the people who clip their toenails on the subway or give three-letter replies to one's laboriously crafted missives-Alford embarks on a journey to find out how things might look if people were on their best behavior a tad more often. He travels to Japan (the "Fort Knox Reserve" of good manners) to observe its culture of collective politesse. He interviews etiquette experts both likely (Judith Martin, Tim Gunn) and unlikely (a former prisoner, an army sergeant). He plays a game called Touch the Waiter. And he volunteers himself as a tour guide to foreigners visiting New York City in order to do ground-level reconnaissance on cultural manners divides. Along the way (in typical Alford style) he also finds time to teach Miss Manners how to steal a cab; designates the World's Most Annoying Bride; and tosses his own hat into the ring, volunteering as an online etiquette coach.
Ultimately, by tackling the etiquette questions specific to our age-such as Why shouldn't you ask a cab driver where's he's from?, Why is posting baby pictures on Facebook a fraught activity? and What's the problem with "No problem"?-Alford finds a wry and warm way into a subject that has sometimes been seen as pedantic or elitist. And in this way, he looks past the standard "dos" and "don'ts" of good form to present an illuminating, seriously entertaining book about grace and civility, and how we can simply treat each other better.
High-handed hurling of etiquette barbs from New York City to Japan prompts this wickedly witty account by urbane observer Alford (Big Kiss). A New York City journalist and self-described "cultural ambassador," Alford resolved to challenge the received wisdom about manners, so as to smooth human-relational feathers and to expose his own appalling lapses, such as when playing "Touch the Waiter" while dining out (a "brief, tactile contact with a stranger in the same way that you might laugh at her joke"). Alford defines his terms: there are manners, such as the disciplined behavior required of each of us to show respect for one another, e.g., not soiling the toilet seat for the next person (and here we are treated to a fascinating exegesis on the marvels of the Japanese toilet), while etiquette and protocol are more specific expectations within a general heading, such as how to behave at weddings (e.g., not offering to wipe the bride's cheek with a sanitary towelette before you have to kiss her) and whether you can forage in the host's pantry while cat-sitting at her house (yes, as long as you leave a portion's worth behind). Alford has consulted the experts meeting Miss Manners in person, and lunching with Tim Gunn (Project Runway) as well as friends for their etiquette pet peeves, like whether to greet acquaintances at a drugstore (what might they be buying!) or pose importunate questions to the sick and elderly ("Are you okay?")? E-mail protocol abounds, not surprisingly, and advice in making small talk, rendering this a charming, funny, Noel Cowardesque primer in smartening up.