Missing the Etiquette Bus

Missing the Etiquette Bus

Fall reminds us that resistance is useless. At first it seems just like summer, except slightly colder. So you go to school, happily wearing your T-shirt, not knowing forces of nature are working against you. Suddenly you’re drenched in cold rain. Now you’ll be spending your week shoving Kleenex up your nose and Nyquil down your throat. Naturally, you’re angry and bitter.

“To hell with Fall!” you’re thinking. “To hell with the cyclical concept of death and rebirth, life extinguished in the twilight of Autumn to make way for new life in Spring!”

The following day you have a physics test and you’re really ticked off. You’re sneezing violently, your eyes are watering and you can’t see the test. You don’t bother to cover your mouth when you sneeze. The people sitting around you look nervous about your germs. You enjoy their fear. Soon you’re deliberately aiming sneezes at people. This, of course, is bad manners.

Ask just about anyone who is old enough to have gum problems, and they’ll tell you manners and etiquette in this country have plummeted since the sedate 1950s. Back then a person would sooner give himself an appendectomy with a bobby pin than cut someone off in rush-hour traffic. Today, people routinely cut off ambulances to get home in time for the Simpsons. We don’t cover our mouths when we sneeze, and if you ask us to, we’ll steal your wallet and put your driver’s license picture up on the Web.

Just the other afternoon, I saw a man run across the middle of a street, right in front of a clearly visible bus. This bus had the right of way in much the same manner an approaching herd of bison would have the right of way. The bus driver hit the brakes, honked, and the man flipped him off. This, of course, was a breach of proper etiquette. By slowing down, the bus driver had carelessly allowed this man’s genes to be passed on to future generations.

Bad manners are hardly a new problem. The ancient Egyptians used the Ptah Hotep, an etiquette guide which taught the ambitious young Egyptian proper conduct. It included many helpful solutions to common etiquette questions like: “How to invite a woman up to your pyramid,” “seventeen proper hairstyles for romantic liaisons with prominent Roman Emperors,” and “how to politely vanquish your brother Set from the Underworld after he dismembers your body into 14 parts.”

During the Renaissance, generally referred to by historians as the “Era of Reasonably Tight Pants,” poor manners were found in the Papacy itself. Pope Alexander VI (known to his close friends as “Robbie”) used his position as the moral and political head of the Western World to have illegitimate children and a wild good time. Alexander and his son, Cesare, competed over Lucrecia Borgia, who, through no fault of their own, was Cesare’s sister and Alexander’s daughter. Sadly, they did not have access to the Ptah Hotep. Otherwise, they would have known in such disputes the daughter is clearly supposed to marry her father’s nephew, Alfonso.

Fortunately, this problem seldom arises in modern discussions of proper etiquette. (Although, in these cases Ann Landers suggests you ask Dear Abby.) Instead, we see whiny etiquette questions in newspapers:

Dear Martha Stewart,

I am planning a small dinner party for our minister, our interior decorator, our accountant and his six illegitimate children. My question is: how many croutons should I put in the Caesar Salad? Signed, panic-stricken in Chicago.

Dear Panic-stricken,

This depends on the ambient temperature of your dining room and the denomination of the minister. I suggest you consult the Ptah Hotep.

No wonder we’re all acting rude, running in front of buses and sneezing on each other. Where can we turn for etiquette guidance? We’re busy and sometimes we don’t have time to flip people off. How can we know what to do?

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