“I grew up reading Miss Conduct!”
She actually said that to me. I was drinking a craft cider in Davis Square with some millennial friends, feeling all young and hip, and then a young woman’s compliment aged me dramatically. I am, as another well-meaning reader recently told me, “an institution.” I guess writing this column for 15 years will do that to you.
In February 2005, when I wrote my first Miss Conduct column, the question everyone wanted to ask was “Are manners getting worse?” They asked it in Ipsos Polls and Atlantic articles and community forums, and they asked it in my column and after my public events and once, memorably, in the locker room of my gym. (“I don’t think you want to hear my thoughts on that right now,” I answered.) It was such a prevalent question that it formed the hook to the optimistic core argument of my 2009 book, Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, in which I wrote: “People who bemoan the current state of today’s manners — which can be pretty bad at times, I’m not denying that — are missing a crucial aspect: in the past forty years or so, for the first time in human history, the modern West has signed on to the idea that courtesy should be extended to everybody.”
In 2020, that’s sadly not as settled as I assumed. Cruelty is being promoted as a virtue once again, in important places. Misogyny and white supremacy are on the rise. The question “Are people getting ruder” has dropped from the discourse: The one thing we have all come to agree on in this polarized age is that yes, manners are getting worse.
I went from writing “[F]or all the talk of culture war or red and blue states, I almost never get questions that are directly political in nature” in 2009, to “We’re increasingly caught up in an ugly political climate” in 2015, to “Wittingly being in the company of Nazis removes one from the company of the civilized” in 2017, because apparently this is something you have to tell people these days.
These fears and hatreds are newly stoked. In the meantime, the economic and technological changes that occupied me in the early years of the column continued to snowball. The financial crisis of 2008 led to a spike of letters about handling job loss, fielding well-meaning questions about long-term unemployment, cutting back on entertaining and gift-giving, how to turn down friends’ requests for loans or donations. The emergency subsided, but the realities of a gig economy and multiple jobs, the pressure of constant networking and “hustling,” still complicate social life — and Boston’s housing and transportation crises don’t make things easier, either.
On the tech front, even a few years ago the main etiquette challenge seemed to be developing protocols for each new social platform as it arrived, and keeping track of friends and family’s communication preferences as you do their dietary requirements when planning a party. I still get these questions, along with the perennial howl of “Why does everyone have to be on their phones all the time?” For the longest time I dismissed this concern as whining, a refusal to acknowledge the important ways that smartphones can enhance our relationships. But I’ve misgauged how deeply disconcerting the new world is. I think what people are bothered by are the space-and-time-annihilating effects of technology, and we don’t yet have language for that. You walk into a subway car and your fellow riders might be, mentally, at the office, in a movie theater, in a meet market — and you don’t know which.
So, dear readers, we’ve all been dealing with a lot, haven’t we? And I haven’t even touched on the aging of the population and related issues of elder care, bereavement, and the like, which are also an increasing theme — both in the questions I get and in my own life, as my mother and father-in-law both died in 2017. And this is where we come back around to that 2005 classic, “Are manners disappearing?” — a question that I always responded to, except in the locker room, with “What do you mean by ‘manners’?” (Yes, that’s how I should have responded there as well.)
In 2005 I was treated to many people’s views on what etiquette was, once I announced I was writing a column about it. The framing, back then, tended to be etiquette as formality versus etiquette as “making everyone comfortable.” I went along with that dichotomy myself, contrasting “common decency” with “mastery of the rituals of forks and calling cards” (which is not to dismiss the latter; no point reinventing every wedding and dinner party from the ground up).
Fifteen years later, formality is not even a contender in social interaction, and that “common decency” bit needs further elaboration. Because etiquette is not about making everybody comfortable. It is about making the people who are upholding the social contract comfortable. If you strive to make the bullies and grifters and advantage-takers comfortable, it can only ever be at the expense of everyone else.
Before becoming Miss Conduct, my primary social-skills training wasn’t in debutante school, but in self-defense classes, and that has always informed my approach. Being too accommodating, ignoring boundary violations, being afraid to make a scene — these “polite” behaviors can get a person killed. Predators and abusers understand and weaponize other people’s desire to not be seen as rude. They thrive on gray areas and making their victims second-guess themselves.
And people are becoming more aware of this dynamic, and the importance of stopping it.
It’s more important to be good than to be nice. It’s more important to stand up than to smooth over. We see this all so much more clearly now.
And this is where my optimism lies, these days. That so many people are interested in being good, and all the multiple ways one can be, and dealing gracefully with one’s inevitable failures. Last summer, I took a question from a woman who abstained from air travel for environmental reasons, and wanted to know how to discuss this without seeming judgmental of globe-trotting friends. I replied, in part, that a conversation about attempts to make the world better is key: “Don’t focus it on travel per se, but on how we are all trying to do something — and avoid other somethings — in order to make the world a better place, and how do you choose?”
I want to have more of these discussions, in my life and in my column. To focus less on the darkness and more on how to be good well. How to most effectively use our skills and networks to benefit others. How to maximize the good impact our actions have. This is where I’d like to focus my energies in the next five years.
Because I’ll admit it — I’m afraid of what 2020 is going to bring. Your questions and comments will help me think my way through whatever it holds, though. They have for 15 years now.
I grew up writing Miss Conduct.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.