"If we looked inside ourselves and remembered how insignificant we are, just for a couple minutes a day, respect for other people would be an automatic result."
- Lynne Truss
If she doesn't have a soapbox, British author and radio talk-show host Lynne Truss invents one. A few years ago, as uproariously addressed in the bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves, her target was punctuation. By placing a comma after "eats," she explained then, we might envision someone coming into a bar, eating, and then shooting the bartender before leaving the premises. Or, sans the comma, she could have been describing the diet of a panda bear.
Now, in Talk to the Hand, her assault is against poor manners or, as her publisher calls it, "a colorful call to arms from the wittiest defender of the civilized world." After reading Eats, I became paranoid over comma use; now that I've finished Talk, I'm having trouble deciding when, if ever, to open the door for someone else.
Take the following incident, for example - an exercise in "social correctness," I presume - which illustrates her sub-title, "The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today":
A man and a woman approach a door, the man opens the door for her and the woman asks, "Are you holding that door open because I'm a woman?"
"No," he replies, "I'm doing it because I'm a gentleman."
Judging by the number of people who, preoccupied I presume, let the door slam in my face as they precede me to the other side, this manners-challenged woman must have a horde of clones.
Just as the Internet sealed the doom of grammar, Truss believes, cyber-communication has contributed to the decline of manners. In our computer-dominated society, we have less interaction and fewer "doors' to open anyway. We merely click on tiny icons and leave the "opening" to the discretion of the recipient.
Fact is, we are becoming so accustomed to working alone that we are losing our ability to relate to non-virtual people, or to exercise qualities once known as "social graces."
Truss is no fan, either, of the impersonal "press one, press two" answering system to which 90 percent of do-it-yourself, corporate America subscribes, and which only adds to the growing cult of leave-me-aloners and their mantra, "stay out of my space." For some reason, however, it's entirely permissible for you, mobile phone in hand, to walk through supermarkets, down office hallways or along crowded sidewalks and invade my space with your high-decibel conversations with someone else. (We "talk to the hand" because no one else is listening to us.)
What a paradox! We push social correctness under the guise of being ultra-respectful, but what's really happening is, "we're covering ourselves and avoiding prosecution in a world of hair-trigger sensitivity." On the other hand, our reduced contact with other people causes us to forget our impact on others and, in another Truss-coined phrase, leads to "social autism," a rise in the aloof, self-assertiveness she calls "My Bubble, My Rules." Eventually, we absolve ourselves of the very complaints we form about others and abdicate our own responsibilities because, after all, as she addresses in her final chapter, "someone else will clean it up."
Finally, Truss lays down her witty pen and admits, almost apologetically, that we must have known her book would end with a "moral homily" against bad manners, and the lady delivers.
"Bad manners lead to other kinds of badness," and "without manners, serious human relations are impossible." And, in a final quote from Henry James, her far-from-unique remedy is so simple: "Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."
Where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, years ago in Sunday School: "Be ye kind, one to another" (Ephesians 4:32).
I wasn't sure how I would end my attempt to relay the message of this book until I entered the rest room of my neighborhood supermarket and found the floor littered with discarded paper towels. Besides the patrons who couldn't seem to locate the trash container, I wondered why "someone" hadn't come by to clean it up.
I was the only one in the room.
Suddenly I realized I was that "someone."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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