Mind your manners, please

Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door

By Lynne Truss.
Fourth Estate, London. Pages 214. Rs 199.

Review by Roopinder Singh

PLEASE, thank you, excuse me, sorry —  expressions that smoothen human interaction and become a way to get out of millions of awkward encounters every day. In our public schools, children are told that these are “magic words”, which they are, indeed. Manners matter. That’s a fact.

alk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life

Some time ago, I held open the door and stepped aside to allow a lady following me to precede us while entering a building. Out poured three young men without so much as by-your-leave or a “Thank you”, sweeping us aside, confident in their swagger and unconcerned in their manner.

Their action simultaneously triggered emotions ranging from bemusement to outrage, to plain and simple rage-quite out of proportion of the un-civic act that had happened. A glance at the fellow victim showed a similar reaction in her too, along with a bemused, resigned look.

We had just come back from a holiday abroad and seen orderly traffic, courteous behaviour of people in packed mass transit stations, and the total absence of blaring horns. Now this! It was intolerable. It was just not fair. Why is it that we react so violently when we are confronted with a situation in which the other party acts as contrary to the rules that define good conduct and behaviour?

Good manners are basically rooted in empathy for the feelings of others. Naturally, a rude person is often taken as much more than a lout. Sometimes we even take a leap and erroneously equate uncivil with immoral.

We have a Hobbesian notion of a world without rules and good conduct and even thought we are in no danger of returning to what the 17th-century philosopher called “the state of nature”, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. We want our world to be orderly where people are well mannered and courteous.

Lynne Truss, who wrote the best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves, on bad grammar in everyday life, now takes on bad conduct, in her book, which has been released in India now. The title, “Talk to the Hand, (because the face ain’t listening),” successfully introduces us to this delightful diatribe against the erosion of manners in everyday life. She is anecdotal, and also quotes from a variety of sources as she takes us on an instructive, opinionated and sometimes erratic tour of the manner-less world.

“Just as the rise of the Internet sealed the doom of grammar, so modern communications technology contributes to the end of manners. Wherever you turn for help, you find yourself on your own,” she says. Anyone who has to deal with an automated voice service, so much of a darling of banks, corporations and others of their ilk, will assert how maddening the process of navigating through their system is. We are seeking help, and we find that, to use Truss’ phrase, “there is an unacceptable transfer of effort.” The system is not designed to put the consumer’s requirements first, and is, therefore, frustrating.

Devices like mobile phones give us freedom, and also somehow create a situation in which we believe that we are in isolated bubbles even as we are in a crowd, we talk and others listen, we share all on Facebook and Twitter. Like the 1897 quote from The Times prophetically announced: “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to one another.”

Truss does rant from time to time, and actually echoes us during our exasperated moments. Here is an interesting one: “The effect of all this limitless self-absorption is to make us isolated, solipsistic, grandiose, exhausted, inconsiderate, and anti-social. In these days of relative affluence, people are persuaded to believe that more choice equals more happiness, and that life should be approached as a kind of happiness expedition to the shops.” Rants, even those concerning boorish behaviour, get boring if they drag on. Sometimes they do so in the book. Occasionally you want her to say what exactly you should do in a particular situation, instead of just raving about it. Some examples are too British, even for Anglophile among us, and at times you long for the sure touch that was exhibited in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Truss, however, had touched on a subject close to the heart of millions of people who simply fail to understand the way the social order around them is devolving at a stunning pace. This is unacceptable. Tehzib or manners are fundamental to civilised societies and the last word on this must go to the American who wrote Etiquette in 1922, the famous Emilie Post: “Beneath its myriad rules, the fundamental purpose of etiquette is to make the world a pleasanter place to live in, and you a more pleasant person to live with. Amen”.

This review was published in The Tribune on July 4, 2010

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