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Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners

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  • Posted August 2, 2009

    Etiquette, Ethics, and Engineering have a beer together

    Because I enjoy Robin Abrahams' 'Miss Conduct' column in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine, and follow her blogs, I looked forward eagerly to Mind over Manners, and I am happy to say it lives up to my expectations. Abrahams writes in a brisk, witty tone, grounded in her study of both psychology (she has a Ph.D. in human development) and theater (she has done standup comedy.) I always enjoy a good evolution-based theory, especially one flavored with commentary from current psychological research, and Abrahams wields these deftly.

    This is not a compendious, rule-based etiquette book, another one of which there's not much need of; it's a philosophical inquiry into ethics, with a practical bent. There's very little information about which fork to use, but quite a lot about how to avoid poisoning, disgusting, or starving your dinner guests, because with all the diets and allergies these days, who knows who eats what? "Needing food rules to keep us alive, we also find that they keep us together--and keep other people out. ...And once food rules take hold, they perpetuate segregation, because it is hard to eat with people who can't eat the same things you do, or who eat things you can't." And so on through "money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets," the hit parade of anthropology, and of manners.

    Her point is that tribalism is part of our ancestral toolkit. Familiar ways of eating, worshipping, speaking, and so on, are attractive to us for good reason. "From an evolutionary point of view, fear of difference isn't a bug, it's a feature--we evolved to be suspicious of those we don't know, those who look or act different, because such people may have bad intent toward us or be carrying diseases to which we are not immune." Since our modern culture is, if nothing else, diverse, our confusion and skittishness is perfectly natural.

    What to do? Abrahams commends a twofold policy: know yourself, and be curious about others. Chapter after chapter gives examples clear communication, including how to ask for what you need, and how to ask questions without trampling on people's feelings. This advice, (offered in the context of delicately asking if a friend if they plan to have children,) goes farther still: "Whatever answer you receive, accept it. ...When someone's deep, existential choices don't in any way accord with how you make sense of the universe, let it go." Good news! Curiosity can coexist with courtesy; and news about the ideas and cultures of other people will not kill you.

    Here's another piece of good news: " 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." Amazing, indeed: poke a little into any period of 'the good old days,' and you'll find a class of people you would not have wanted to belong to, for whom being treated shabbily was a central fact of life. Abrahams goes on, "It may not be universal yet--this kind of monumental change can't happen overnight or even within a generation--but the mere fact that the ideal of universal courtesy is accepted and not considered fecklessly utopian or an outright wicked assault on social order is itself astonishing."
    Yes, and profoundly hopeful. All in all, it's a good time to be alive.

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