Having observed Japanese manners first hand in Hawaii, I was still surprised by some of the revelations in Henry Alford’s first chapter of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? Using a trip to Japan, the “Fort Knox of the World Manners Reserve,” as his baseline for creating his modern guide to manners, he stumbles through his own cultural gaffes but finds a few that would be nice to transfer when he returns to the United States, and some he would not (soup slurping). Mixing humor with common sense, Alford offers a universal source book on good manners, which he defines as no more than “treating one another well.”
Alford does not pretend to be Emily Post or Judith Martin (Miss Manners), and suggests you refer to their well-versed publications for information on the proper fork to use, or the appropriate response to your mother-in-law’s views on rearing your children. Alford does have a list of 22 “commonly overlooked unpleasantries that we commit each day, without even knowing it.” Among my favorites:
- Department Store Restraint: do not assume that person in the navy blazer with the vacant stare is a salesperson; better to ask that person – “have you seen a salesperson?”
- The Drop-Off: wait until your friend is safely in his/her car, or has unlocked the front door, before squealing your tires to get away.
- Pregnant or Well-Fed?: Never assume anyone is pregnant; wait for the person to tell you so.
- Elder Pestering: “Most older folks do not like to be repeatedly asked, ‘Are you OK?’…Similarly, people with a terminal illness don’t want to hear ‘You look great.’ “
Emails can be landmines, and Alford devotes chapters on electronic communication, including Facebook. It might be better to reach out and call (I recently did when I realized my lengthy response required overediting and too many emoticons).
Noting that no one can demand better manners of others, Alford offers a few not so mannerly suggestions for bringing uncouth behavior to the attention of the less civil. One I may try:
Shine a flashlight on that person behind you in the audience who is unceremoniously chatting through the performance (verbally berating them would only add to the noise).
But he also offers his “lovely G’s” – lovely gestures, a list of ways to endear yourself to others with your good manners, for example, sending a picture of what you bought with that gift certificate with your thanks.
Alford ends with his new-found determination to transfer good manners to his home turf – New York City. He now volunteers as a tour guide, and shares the local etiquette, including how to steal a cab and how to ask intrusive questions.
A light and funny treatise on civility in the vein of an Oscar Wilde or Calvin Trillin, Alford’s Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? also had some memorable lines that could be used to politely start party conversation. A few I will remember:
- Old age is very, very taxing. The memory banks start to cloud, or to be covered with a caramel-colored, resinous sludge that is the mother of earwax.
- A compliment to a woman “should be a single sunflower set on a windowsill for her to walk up to and admire, not three dozen roses delivered by an exhausted-looking bike messenger in an angel costume.”