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Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners

by Henry Alford


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"We all know bad manners when we see them," NPR and Vanity Fair contributor Henry Alford observes at the beginning of his new book. But what, he asks, do good manners look like in our day and age? When someone answers their cell phone in the middle of dining with you, or runs you off the sidewalk with their doublewide stroller, or you enter a post-apocalyptic public restroom, the long-revered wisdom of Emily Post can seem downright prehistoric.

Troubled by the absence of good manners in his day-to-day life-by the people who clip their toenails on the subway or give three-letter replies to one's laboriously crafted missives-Alford embarks on a journey to find out how things might look if people were on their best behavior a tad more often. He travels to Japan (the "Fort Knox Reserve" of good manners) to observe its culture of collective politesse. He interviews etiquette experts both likely (Judith Martin, Tim Gunn) and unlikely (a former prisoner, an army sergeant). He plays a game called Touch the Waiter. And he volunteers himself as a tour guide to foreigners visiting New York City in order to do ground-level reconnaissance on cultural manners divides. Along the way (in typical Alford style) he also finds time to teach Miss Manners how to steal a cab; designates the World's Most Annoying Bride; and tosses his own hat into the ring, volunteering as an online etiquette coach.

Ultimately, by tackling the etiquette questions specific to our age-such as Why shouldn't you ask a cab driver where's he's from?, Why is posting baby pictures on Facebook a fraught activity? and What's the problem with "No problem"?-Alford finds a wry and warm way into a subject that has sometimes been seen as pedantic or elitist. And in this way, he looks past the standard "dos" and "don'ts" of good form to present an illuminating, seriously entertaining book about grace and civility, and how we can simply treat each other better.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446557665
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Henry Alford is the author of three acclaimed works of investigative humor: How To Live: A Seach for Wisdom from Old People (While They are Still on this Earth); Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top; and Municipal Bondage: One Man's Anxiety-Producing Adventures in the Big City. He has been a regular contributor to the New York Times and Vanity Fair, and a staff writer at Spy. He has also written for the New Yorker, GQ, New York, Details, Harper's Bazaar, Travel & Leisure, the Village Voice, and the Paris Review. He lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That

A Modern Guide to Manners
By Alford, Henry


Copyright © 2012 Alford, Henry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780446557665


In which the author visits the worldwide epicenter of manners, and has a vexing experience with bananas.

You need spend only twenty-four hours in my beloved New York City to unearth the city’s essential truth: People really know how to spit here. These ain’t no dainty, Catherine Deneuve–type loogies we’re talkin’ about, yo—these are liquid blow darts. This shit’ll mess you up.

Also: Looking for a fun little fistfight, or to be casually body-checked? Need compelling evidence that “rabble” does not require more than one rabbler?

We got you covered.

Which is why I’d traveled almost seven thousand miles from my home to Japan.

Japan, the Fort Knox of the World Manners Reserve.

The Tokyo Lowdown

The best way to get a really good look at something in your day-to-day life is, of course, to not look at it at all. Leave it behind in a pile on the floor. Go somewhere where things are so different, where every one of your preconceptions and assumptions will be made so glaringly obvious, it will be like looking at pictures of yourself naked: searingly verité.

If the thing you want to look at is manners, and the place you go to is Japan, all the better: here is a place where etiquette has been burnished to a high art. To enter these highly codified realms is to be alternately baffled, delighted, aggrieved, wonderstruck.

I had two teachers during my stay in Tokyo. The first was a Japanese etiquette coach I’d hired for a two-hour lesson. A warm, attractive, bespectacled woman in her thirties, Aiko Uda offered cultural immersion classes to individuals and groups in Tokyo; formerly, while living in Canada, she helped hotels and other companies understand the psyches of their Japanese customers.

Aiko had asked me to meet her in a café near the Shinjuku subway station. Her vibe was equal parts friendly and purposeful—family pet meets loan officer.

“What do you notice when you’re riding on the subway?” Aiko asked me early on in our session.

“No one eats,” I suggested.

“Right. No eating or drinking. And a lot of text messaging but no phone calls.” She added, “There’s so much social pressure here. If someone talked on a phone, people would stare, and that would be a big deal. It’s a lot more like a collective here.”

Trying not to let Aiko see me, I casually brushed a piece of my green tea muffin into a napkin in an effort at crumb management.

Aiko smiled warmly and then proceeded to run the Japanese manners gauntlet for me.

Slippers: Take your shoes off at the entrance to apartments and any building where others are doing so. Wear slippers on the intermediary flooring, and wear only socks on the tatami. Don’t wear the bathroom slippers anywhere but the bathroom, even if they are more “you” than the slippers offered you on arrival.

Pointing: Don’t point with your fingers or feet like an orangutan. If you must indicate something, use your palm.

Eye contact: Too much direct eye contact will freak out your interlocutors. Lose the beadiness, my friend.

Doing business in Japan: Be punctual. Wear a dark, conservative suit. Bring a wrapped gift from a department store’s food court; spend about ten to twenty thousand yen, and present it with a lot of self-effacing remarks about the gift’s modesty. Have a lot of business cards to hand out. Try to hand out and receive the business cards with both of your hands. Put others’ business cards faceup in front of you on a desk or table so you can refer to them. Take notes—it’s considered respectful and not wonkish.

The loveliest piece of instruction Aiko offered started with her observation, “We also have this idea of saving face. From the collective. Not to embarrass someone.” So when someone mispronounces a word or is unaccountably ignorant of the correct word or term to be used in a conversation, Japanese people will often—instead of outright correcting the person—gracefully interject the correct word into their response. If a visitor to Japan marvels at having flown over a very large mountain that bore an exceptional resemblance to a flattened snow cone, his polite Japanese interlocutor knows to seamlessly drop “Mount Fuji” or “Fuji-san” into his response. Calamitous embarrassment: neatly dodged.

Aiko wondered if I had any questions.

“I read that it’s considered impolite to sneeze in public,” I said.

“Sneezing is a dirty thing to do. If you can get out of that situation, you should.”

“Okay,” I said, my mind conjuring the image of a sneeze-threatened salaryman hurriedly getting up from a conference table during a meeting and then plunging out a skyscraper’s window.

“If you must, you must. Do it into a napkin that is disposable.”

“Got it.”

I also had a noodle question.

I’d read in various books that the Japanese audibly slurp their ramen or soba noodles; indeed, two days earlier, my boyfriend, Greg, and I had gone to a mom-and-pop lunch counter to eat terrific bowls of ramen with sliced pork. Unhabituated to slurping as we are, we hadn’t made any noise, and I’d wondered if the mom and pop had been a little disappointed in us.

I asked Aiko, “Is it rude not to slurp noodles?”

“They would make an exception for you. You are a foreigner and you look like a foreigner.”

“We were the only Westerners in this noodle bar. The slurping: It was a wall of sound.”

“Maybe sometimes people would look at you—the same as if Japanese people used a knife and fork to eat french-fried potatoes.”

I’ve eaten french fries with a knife and fork before: very nice.

My other etiquette coach in Tokyo was self-elected. Greg and I had walked around Tokyo’s bustling wholesale fish market, Tsukiji, one day, and stopped to have sushi at one of the tiny, ramshackle restaurants located near the fish-selling. I’d already learned a lot of restaurant etiquette from books and from Aiko: Don’t wipe your face with the hot towel. Use the top ends, not the licked ends, of your chopsticks to take food from a common dish. Hold the rice bowl up close to your mouth, to avoid spilling. Pour sake for others, and let others pour sake for you, but never pour for yourself.

But it was J.J., our waiter at the restaurant at Tsukiji, who gave me the gift of “please.” About five feet tall and in his forties, J.J. wore a down vest, designer sunglasses that rested over his ski cap, and a tool belt that dripped with key chains on thin straps of leather; the look was very Gay Ski-Lift Operator.

Typically, I like a waiter or waitress who will flirt with me a tiny bit, just so I know I’m still in the game, but J.J.’s client comportment was less romance than car wash. Emitting a constant stream of excited chattering in his high-pitched nasal voice, he became a blur of suggestions and salutations, an affection dervish.

And then there were the mimeographs that he handed out—jumbled, handwritten concatenations of text featuring phrases and dining instructions in English. Prominently featured on them was the phrase onegai shimasu (own-uh-guy shi-MOZ-zoo).

J.J. told me, “You can say ‘Sashimi, onegai shimasu.’ At end of meal, ‘Check. Onegai shimasu.’ ”

I nodded and then onegai-shimasu-ed him.

J.J. returned mid-meal to scribble some phrases and suggestions on the mimeograph. At one point, he started yelling at me “Double hand! Double hand!” and I realized that he wanted me to bring my rice bowl up to my mouth so I would spill less.

A few days after our first visit, I returned to J.J.’s restaurant, without Greg. This time J.J. handed me a second mimeograph detailing dining etiquette.

“Why do you do this?” I asked him. “Is it because foreigners have such bad manners?”

J.J. laughed. “It might be!”

[Sound of Gong]

The Japanese word for “yes” (hai!) sounds very, very similar to one of the English words for “hello” (hi!). To an unsophisticated linguist such as myself, this is highly confusing, giving the impression of an advanced greeting disorder:

“Excuse me, sir, can you please tell me where the Shibuya subway stop is?”

“Hello! It’s down the street, take a left.”

“Thank you. So I take a left out your door, then another left?”

“Hello! Hello!”

Arigato. And the Ginza subway line stops at Shibuya?”

“Hello! Hello!”

Feeling unnerved at the beginning of my three-week stay, I was determined to equip myself with some courtesy words in order to mask my paralysis. At bare minimum—which, sadly, is mostly where I live—the two most important phrases for traveling foreigners to learn, it has always struck me, are “Thank you” and “Excuse me.” (Sure, “please” would be a nice thing to have, but in a pinch you can use “Thank you.”) “That was delicious” would also be lovely—but it, too, is implied with a very effusive “Thank you.” Additionally, “Hello” and “Good-bye” are fine things to know; however, these are both expressions that others will be saying to you a lot, and thus you can simply go into parrot mode. If your mind is as cluttered as mine is, you’ll want to keep things to a bare minimum, which brings us back to two pillars of courtesy, “Thank you” and “Excuse me.”

Japan-wise, “Thank you very much” was easy—the phrase “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” echoes in one’s head. I found “Excuse me” in my guidebook: sumimasen (soo-me-moss-SEN). But as soon as Greg and I had arrived at the airport for our flight to Tokyo, I realized that I wasn’t sure if sumimasen meant “I’m sorry” as well as “Excuse me.” And so I found myself chatting up our Continental Airlines service representative. I’d fallen deeply in love with her even before we started talking: She’d seen me tangling with an obstreperous check-in machine, and had saved me. That her name tag bore the name HIROKO WOODCOCK only sweetened my admiration for this celestial being: a huge head on top of a tiny body, emitting a pleasing stream of guidance and high-pitched murmuring. Think warm, sympathetic eyes. Think neck scarf knotted at throat to resemble silk croissant.

“Hey, I’ve got a question for you,” I added. “If I bump into someone on the street in Tokyo, do I say sumimasen?”

Sumimasen, yes.”

“I’m trying to be a cultural ambassador.”

“You’re going to change the world!”


“Like Michael Jackson!”

“Uh, okay.”

She paused before counseling, “In Tokyo not many people will say this. They’re in a hurry.”


“But I wish you good luck!”

Surfing the Wave

Culture clash can be unpretty. Some years ago, singer and actress Diana Ross went to Kenya to “find her tribe.” According to New York magazine, Ross did a lot of research before arriving at Samatian Island in the middle of Lake Baringo, where she was to meet the ethnic group called the Pokot. All went well until the grandmother of the Pokot’s most powerful chief greeted Ross respectfully by “sharing water” with her—i.e., she spat in Ross’s face. Whereupon Ross, bewildered, screamed, “This is not my tribe!”

I neatly dodged face spitting in Japan; that said, I knew right away I was very distant from New York City: For two mornings in a row, a construction worker near our hotel bowed at Greg and me as we walked past.

“I hope he’s doing that for us and for no one else,” I said.

We stopped and stared, heartbroken, as the worker proceeded to bow his head for each passerby.

We wondered how long it would take for the building to be built.

That afternoon, we encountered another example of this intense commitment to decorum. After blithely paying our lunch bill at a restaurant—there’s no tipping for services in Japan—we’d walked about a block away when we heard someone running after us and calling out to us: our waitress. She was bearing the ten yen (roughly, eleven cents) that we’d absentmindedly left on our table.

One rainy night, unable to find a restaurant in the Ginza district called Bird Land, I ducked into a shoe store and asked a salesman if he knew of it. “One minute, please,” he said, disappearing into a back room to get an umbrella. Umbrella in hand, he motioned me to follow him out of the store where we walked two blocks in the rain, then took a left, walked another block, then ducked down into a subway entrance, went through a door, and turned left again. Motioning with his hand, the salesman said to me, “That is the restaurant.” I was gob-smacked. My expression of baffled gratitude, combined with my frenzy of bowing and domo-arigato-ing, was nothing short of aerobic.

But no aspect of Japanese culture is as intensely gracious as the opening of department stores every morning. At the beginning of each business day, the sales staff at all of the big Japanese department stores engages in a bowing ritual for the store’s customers that lasts about five minutes. Each employee stands in front of his or her counter, creating rows of ten or fifteen bodies down a corridor of a store. They then proceed to bow about forty-five degrees as each customer walks by.

Seldom have I felt more honored. As you walk down a couple hundred feet of cosmetics counters at an old-guard store like Mitsukoshi, your movement sets off a ripple of appreciation that starts directly in front of you, then shimmers briefly over the Lancôme counter prior to wafting up to the ceiling and bursting in a cirrocumulus pillow of good tidings; it’s a non-stadium version of “the Wave,” and you get to surf it.

I kept returning to department stores during our trip, thinking that the charm of the bowing ritual might fade, but it didn’t. Some mornings, thanks to the various stores’ staggered opening hours, I could get in two openings—say, the Takashimaya store in Nihonbashi at ten o’clock, followed by the Matsuzakaya’s opening in Ginza at ten thirty. Waltzing into these stores’ embraces and setting off a bodily ripple of good vibes, I felt at once welcomed, acknowledged, loved. Only personalized skywriting would have been more vivid.

Fruit and Its Implications

All this graciousness does not exist in isolation, however. If the key word for the Japanese mind-set I’ve alluded to is adherence, this adherence can cut both ways. Consider the conversation I had with a Tokyo cabdriver one night. When he broached the topic of how much magazine writers and book authors get paid, I delicately steered the conversation away. He brought it up again, glancingly; I glancingly skittered away. Then he asked me outright how much money I make a year. Here, the energy and sense of mission that in other circumstances might be directed at an elaborate bowing ritual was instead directed at a series of questions you’d expect to hear from your accountant.

Or consider my banana episode. One night, in a grocery store near my hotel in Ueno, I saw some delicious-looking bananas for sale. But because they came in bunches of twelve or fifteen, I snapped four off a bunch. I took them to the cash register.

A faint look of horror passed over the face of the cashier, a skinny, fastidious guy in his thirties. He pointed at the fruit and asked me something in Japanese. I pantomimed snapping the four bananas off from the larger bunch.

“No. Cannot. Sorry,” he said, shaking his head with what seemed more vehemence than necessary.

Sumimasen,” I apologized.

He got the attention of his fellow cashier. Look what the round-eye has done. He has attempted to assert an alien system of portion control.

The other cashier shook his head, too, and started talking excitedly. The cheek! Americans: always defiling time-honored and traditional banana configurations!

I assumed that the next moment in this chain of events would see my cashier either prorating my bananas, or asking me if I wanted to buy a larger bunch.


Instead, he stowed the four pieces of fruit on a shelf near his register for safekeeping. Bastard bananas. Bananas conceived out of wedlock. Banana untouchables.

I happened to have a rubber band in my pocket at the time. And so, producing it, I pointed first at my bananas and then at the bunches for sale, and pantomimed a tying motion.

“Not necessary,” the cashier said. Pointing at the eight bananas from which I had so brutishly severed the four, he added, “We will make the price of other bananas lower.”

And, presumably, incinerate my four bananas in a cleansing ritual at dawn.

If You Can Get Out of That Situation, You Should

The dark side of adherence is perhaps most strongly felt in the presence of crowds. Anyone who has visited a shrine in Japan and found himself amid a sea of grandmothers knows whereof I speak. These tiny wonders, all built to two-thirds scale, push inexorably toward the basin into which people are throwing good-luck coins, as if possessed. You’d sooner lie down in front of a tank than these grannies. They will thresh you.

More famously, the Tokyo subway testifies to the thesis that the Japanese mob is a powerful mob. In Underground, novelist Haruki Murakami’s non-fiction account of the 1995 Sarin gas attacks, one subway rider tells of getting on a crowded subway car with his briefcase. When his briefcase gets caught between two other passengers who are moving forward in the mass of bodies, the rider is forced to choose: let go of his briefcase or break his arm.

Where You Go

Though J.J., Aiko, and the woman behind the desk at our hotel were wonderful fonts of information, there was one bit of Japanese etiquette that I felt uncomfortable broaching with them. This, of course, was the topic of perilous Japanese toilets. These bad boys, as you probably know, often come equipped with a console arm that is loaded down with buttons—one to summon a bidet feature, one to create flushing sounds (to mask embarrassing sounds), a seat warmer, an air dryer. The Japanese toilet, in short, is one-stop shopping.

One night, upon entering the single-toilet men’s room of a restaurant, I was slightly surprised to be greeted there by the toilet’s seat automatically lifting itself up. Hello/hai! Fortunately, I had to pee. I did so, and then left the bathroom, the seat still up. As I left the bathroom, I thought, Surely I wasn’t meant to lower the seat myself, either manually or by button? Or was I? That the restaurant was fairly crowded with diners only heightened my anxiety and potential humiliation. I imagined a CEO in a three-piece suit entering the bathroom and being thrown into moral crisis… Or a restaurant employee forced to cleanse the bathroom of my transgression via some elaborate ceremony featuring incense and flashing swords… Banana ritual at dawn.

So I devised a game plan: Walk out of bathroom, close door, stand in front of door, and wait fifteen seconds to see if seat goes down again; if anyone should see me closing door and waiting in front of it, I’d quickly reenter bathroom pretending to have dropped wallet or important legal document.

I closed the door and waited; no men in need showed up. When I reentered the bathroom, the seat was still up. Meanwhile, the toilet clicked and thrummed in a state of almost military readiness; it sounded like it was about to produce small feet, walk out of the bathroom, and get on with its day.

I looked at the console arm and saw a series of illustrations—a spray of water; some squiggly, vaporous lines; and something that looked like an occluded front on a TV weather map. I started to reach out to touch one of the buttons when a small voice inside my head said, No. Don’t do a Diana.

Jittery, I returned to my table, where I would describe my facial expression as “darty-eyed.”

I Can’t Thank You Enough

On the last day of my twenty days in Tokyo, I returned to J.J.’s restaurant. He automatically reached for one of his mimeographs to present me, and I removed my hat and said, “Konnichiwa. It’s me.” He smiled in recognition.

I said, “I’ve been eating in Japan for a couple of weeks now, so my manners should be much better.”

“Yes! Very good!”

I ordered the sashimi, as I had the last time I’d eaten there, largely because it contained the best thing I would eat in Japan: a sweet, raw scallop the size of a child’s kneecap.


Excerpted from Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That by Alford, Henry Copyright © 2012 by Alford, Henry. Excerpted by permission.
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