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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We've all seen too many incidents of bad manners: the guy who showered half the bus with an uncovered sneeze; the lady who cut into the movie line. But these days, good manners can be harder to define.

While we all like a sense of order, even the word etiquette sounds like something on the continuum between elitist and prissy. So in a new book writer Henry Alford tries to uncover the purpose and principles of manner and how our world might look if people could be just a little bit more thoughtful.

Tell us about a time you had a manners problem, someone else's or your own. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the responsibilities of a ship's captain. But first Henry Alford joins us from our bureau in New York. His latest book is "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners." And Henry, I have to begin by apologizing, it's Alford, correct?

HENRY ALFORD: You can go either way, Neal.

CONAN: OK.

ALFORD: I'm not going to chastise you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. I have to ask, though, at one point in the book you show Judith Martin, Ms. Manners herself, how to steal a taxicab.

ALFORD: Can you believe it?

CONAN: Is this manners?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: Well, no, it's a joke obviously. I did actually do that, but I thought it would be quite hilarious to, yes, show our leading icon of decorum how to do something quite awful. And she understood. She nodded her head. I don't know if we're going to see Ms. Manners out there stealing cabs left and right, but she knows how to do it now.

CONAN: The fine art has been explained to her.

ALFORD: Indeed.

CONAN: Short-stopping, I think it's called, in another context. As you went through his book, clearly you went through some history of manners going back to, well, many, many years ago when we were all members of the same tribe and this sort of social lubricant at that point invented. But everybody had the same, pretty much the same context.

ALFORD: Exactly, yeah, and as we have needed to interact more with strangers, we've needed to develop etiquette because the story of etiquette really is the story of how to deal with strangers. You know, it's no surprise that there was a huge efflorescence in the publication of etiquette manuals and in the reading of them during the first two decades of the 19th century, a time when people were moving into cities in droves.

CONAN: And I was curious about your discovery of a set of rules drawn up when the first public buses went into service.

ALFORD: Right, yeah, it's that - that's when people really needed etiquette for the first time, was to sit on these forms of public transportation, because you were placed in close proximity with total strangers.

CONAN: And given that problem, we have to figure out how to get along, politely, with them, indeed maybe give them a moment of grace in their lives.

ALFORD: I think so. You know, to me, life is a public bathroom, and we are all perpetually inheriting the toilet seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You - after you suggest indeed that if we are the only person in a public toilet, it's a one-staller, it is our responsibility, even if we have not used it, to go ahead and wipe the seat.

ALFORD: Right. I mean, you are only in there to mess with your hair again, but everyone's going to think that the state of the toilet seat is your doing. So you might as well give it a little wipe.

CONAN: And as you ask yourself in the book, wait a minute, I just $24.95 on a book that tells me I have to grow up to be a bathroom attendant?

ALFORD: It is one of the many valuable tips that this book offers you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There are so many more. One of the most interesting stories to me, you open the book with a visit to Japan, which you describe I think as the Fort Knox of manners, and there is a time when you ask someone in a hotel, I believe, about the address of a restaurant.

ALFORD: Oh, this gentleman, actually it was a gentleman who worked in a shoe store. He said wait one minute please. He went into the back room, got an umbrella as it was raining. He let me get under the umbrella. He walked two blocks north, we took a left, we walked another two blocks north, took a right, went down the subway, down a set of stairs into the subway, took a left, opened a door, and then he pointed and said that is your restaurant, sir.

This guy owed me nothing. He just took it upon himself to do the - to show me the restaurant. I was amazed. I was gob-smacked.

CONAN: And if this does not - this sounds positively un-American, to tell you the truth.

ALFORD: Yes, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: Exactly.

CONAN: And you live in a city that is, well, famous for any number of things, but its grace and charm for strangers is not among them.

ALFORD: No, New York City is a place where it is thought not impolite to ask a total stranger how many square feet is your home and how much do you pay, or did you pay, for it.

CONAN: Yeah, the rent question is a huge question and indeed virtual strangers are perfectly happy to ask each other what they pay.

ALFORD: It's - and that's appalling. I mean, that's - it's tantamount to saying how much money do you earn a year. Then the cab-stealing, as we mentioned, that too is really quite weird. So yes, there's a chapter in the book where I become a tour guide, and I realize that if I'm really going to teach these foreigners who come into New York City how to coexist with New Yorkers, I've got to teach them bad New York City manners.

So I teach this one German woman how to steal a cab, and I say, you know, you've got to go at least one block upstream so that you're - so that people won't see you. And she said: Oh, it is a game of dirty poker you play.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I have to tell you, I lived for many years in the city of New York and then moved to London, not exactly the Fort Knox of manners but not all that far away, maybe in the same state, and from my habits on the subway in New York, where as you're preparing to exit the door, you sort of brace your shoulder against the person next to you so that they don't knock you over on the way out, I would do that in the London Tube and find that I was knocking people over.

ALFORD: Oh yeah, don't - yeah, Brits, they don't want to get too physically close to you. Yeah, and if you do, they're totally unprepared for it.

CONAN: We want to hear the questions that you've had when you've encountered questions of manners, your own or someone else's. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Our guest is Henry Alford, who is the author, humorist and sometime NPR commentator for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. His latest book is "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?" We'll start with Gaylan(ph), Gaylan with us from Duluth.

GAYLAN: Hi, I actually recently took a trip to Nashville with my fiancee and our twins, and I noticed a big difference in manners between Minnesota and Nashville, which does not reflect well on my home state, unfortunately.

CONAN: And the difference could be, well, capsulated in which story?

GAYLAN: In Minnesota we get a lot of questions from strangers about fertility treatments and how was the birth, and similar very personal questions. And we were in Nashville for a week, we didn't get a single personal question. It was all how old are the beautiful babies, and what are their names, and are they two boys or two girls.

ALFORD: Well, yeah, that is - it's a very American trait to reveal your innermost feelings to total strangers. And, you know, to do that is to suggest that those innermost feelings don't mean a whole lot to you. So I can see how Gaylan was taken aback or can be taken aback by that.

An interesting thing, too, about Southern manners, and this is something I learned from Judith Martin, was that a lot of the things that we think of as being quintessentially Southern manners, things like the expression y'all come, or using aunt or uncle for non-relations or using a first name with an honorific like Mr. Neal or Mr. Henry - that a lot of that stuff came from household slaves. That plantation owners very often would give the care of their children over to the household slaves, who had been high-ranking members of their tribes in Africa and who had a lot of deference and who passed on these really lovely habits onto the plantation owners' kids.

CONAN: Gaylan, did you have fertility treatments?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: More importantly...

CONAN: This is just lively curiosity, it's not being rude. Gaylan, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

GAYLAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Connie(ph) in Augusta, Georgia: I could write 10 pages on the egregious habits of public cell phone users, but by far the rudest thing I've encountered is people continuing their cell phone conversations while checking out at the grocery store or completing some transaction that involves a human being.

It's demeaning to the cashier or clerk, it's utterly insensitive to keep prattling on oblivious to one's surroundings.

ALFORD: Yeah, absolutely, and the thing about a cell phone call, I think what really grates there is you're only hearing half the conversation. So being the nosey neighbor that we all are, you're forced to imagine the other end of that conversation, and that's very distracting.

I'm also - I go to a lot of movies, and so the people who are texting during movies, that's very, very rude, I think. And, you know, it's just very distracting to see people lit up by this kind of spectral, crotch-based incandescence.

CONAN: Does it drive you crazy if you're in line to check in at a motel or to pay at a store, and the clerk says wait just a second and answers the phone? I'm there in person. The person on the phone is calling. Can't you put them on hold?

ALFORD: Yeah, right, that's definitely a no-no, and that's a tricky part about the - you know, the ease of the Internet is that now that we can bank and live our lives and do all these things instantaneously online, we have much higher expectations about our offline, person-to-person interactions. We're much more impatient.

You know, suddenly dealing with an actual breathing human being feels very hand-crank, and we in turn become very hand-cranky.

CONAN: Being treated thusly. Henry Alford is our guest. His new book is "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?" He's also handling your etiquette conundrums. If you've got one, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or you can zap us an email, talk@npr.org. We'll have more in just a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. For his new book "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?," Henry Alford visited Japan, where he writes etiquette has been burnished to a high art. Yet two teachers in Tokyo who ran him through Japanese manners gauntlet, teaching him how to point, palm, not finger; how to do business, wear a dark suit and bring a wrapped gift; and how to eat noodles in public, the Japanese slurp audibly, but if Westerners do not, they'll be excused.

You can read more about the lessons he learned in Japan in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you've got a modern etiquette problem you need solved, tell us about it, Henry's here to help, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Joanne(ph), Joanne with us from San Antonio.

JOANNE: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOANNE: My thing is fundamentally when someone has the audacity, or they take away your power when they call you hon in a business environment. They'll tell you: Well, have a seat a moment, hon, not ma'am, not Mrs. So-and-so, but hon.

CONAN: And you take that as an affront?

JOANNE: Yes, I think it's very - it's demeaning, and it's meant to be demeaning. If I used to use it, and I did, it was meant because they were lesser than I was. So yeah, you know, but I have three grandsons, and I want them to do the right thing. It's difficult to get them to hold the door open for people coming out, and not a single person will say thank you, or, you know, that's just...

You know, I've got to tell you, my fear has got to be that once all of us, you know, baby boomers that everybody doesn't really like, once we pass away, we move on, what's going to happen because everybody's going to forget?

CONAN: Henry Alford, it's possible the people are just from Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: It is. It is very possible. Well, Joanne, I feel your pain on the hon front. I was, until this year, very youthful-looking, and so I am someone who has been doll-faced all his life. I think what you have to do there is just grin and bear it. But if the person does it repeatedly or frequently, then I think what I would be tempted to do is to launch into what I call retaliatory manners, and that is to say I would hon a hon, I would doll-face a doll-face.

If you throw it back in their faces, what it does, it just forces them to realize oh, well, I don't really love it when people call me that name.

JOANNE: Yeah, yeah, but I'm wondering, because of the economy not being as thriving as it once was, how many of these corporations - and I'm talking about your everyday Wendy's, McDonald's, just your run-of-the-mill things that we use all the time, if it wouldn't serve their service better if they were taught these little particular etiquette things. You know: Smile at your customer; thank them for buying; thank them for - you know, but everybody assumes this power stance, here's your order and that's it, you know?

ALFORD: Yeah, it's true. Some companies are instituting etiquette classes, and I think that is a good thing. Yeah, it's really something that the manager needs to be looking out for. I think it comes from the managerial level. It's interesting that you bring this problem up because my book was born in a grocery store in New York City where a gal behind the register dropped my apple on the ground and then put it in my bag without saying anything.

And I said: Oh, I'm sorry. And she said nothing. And then I said: No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean for you to drop my apple like that, at which point she stared off into the mid-distance as if receiving instructions from outer space.

So I think that yeah, customers, yeah, that we feel really slighted and put in our place when people treat us that way.

JOANNE: But, you know, more than anything else, to me it's not that - and I don't mean this like in a derogatory form at all, see, so I'm not trying to correct you, but even on that first-line managerial thing, some of those people got there because they were high-productive people bringing in some hard cash to where the upper levels would be oh, he makes money.

CONAN: I don't think that quite applies to the manager of the McDonald's.

JOANNE: OK, all right, so then the manager of McDonald's, and (technical difficulty), you know, he's 19. He doesn't know any better. He has no history. You know, I mean, back in the day, we were taught simple things. I mean, don't even think about talking...

CONAN: Maybe there's an etiquette course at Hamburger U. Joanne...

JOANNE: Exactly, that's sad, so sad.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

JOANNE: Thank you very much, you guys. Let's solve these problems.

CONAN: Jack(ph) sent us an email: I was raised in Vienna with old-school manners pounded into my thick American head by my Austrian relatives. As I grew up and applied those same manners in a workplace - holding doors for ladies and helping with coats and such - I received a visit from my manager at the time that I was in violation of company and social work rules, would I please act appropriately American? Go figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: Hey got chastised for being too polite, wow, that's so rare. That almost never happens.

CONAN: Let's go next to Eli(ph), Eli with us from Hot Springs in Arkansas.

ELI: Hi, yes. I actually - I'm Southern by birth, born in Birmingham, Alabama, but I actually grew up in Tokyo, Japan. My parents were actually missionaries there. And it's an interesting juxtaposition about how I thought deferment was a thing.

I think it's where - it's like a juxtaposition between Southern and Japanese etiquette, and where you always will politely, oh, defer, and the patience of Japan as far as, like, being able to wait in line or things like that, it's amazing how it wins you friends and whatnot like that.

ALFORD: Absolutely. Patience is - I mean, the cliche patience is a virtue is based in something really powerful, which is that, you know, this idea that whenever we interact with strangers, you have to hold a part of yourself in abeyance. You have to suspend part of yourself, and that's what the Japanese and some Southern-Americans are so great at is holding back the kind of rapacious, grabby part of their personality.

CONAN: At which point I have to...

ELI: I would just add, though, to that, though: I have garnered, you know, friends and acquaintances planet-wide just by doing that in my travels, just by, you know, politely deferring to them, you know, or whatever. And then they end up striking up a conversation while we continue to both wait in line and things like that. And yeah, just politely let someone go first, it's amazing how - what a little gesture like that will do in terms of, you know, easing it for everybody, you know.

CONAN: Eli, thanks very much for the call and for the advice. Though Henry Alford, I have to say yes, you're praising Japan, then explain the banana incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: Simply that I went into a grocery store to buy some bananas, and the bunch that they had had about 12 bananas on it. So I broke off four of them and presented them to the guy at the cash register, and a look of horror came over his face.

And we had this whole, long, pantomime of what was going to happen and no, finally, no, he was not going to sell me those bananas. And because he didn't speak any English, I don't know what happened to those bananas, but I was led to believe that they were to be cleansed in a ritual at dawn.

CONAN: Let's go next to Amar(ph), Amar with us from Bentonville, Arkansas.

AMAR: Yes, hey. Great - huge fan of the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

AMAR: And, well, I've - my parents were originally from the former Yugoslavia, and my parents are extremely direct people, and one thing that I've found - and I've definitely shed that - but one thing I've found that is when my attention is preoccupied - for example I was attempting to leave a tip for a waitress at the front of the store, we check out at the front, and the waitress who rang me up, I was leaving her a tip, and as I'm writing a tip, she asked me would you like a receipt.

And when I'm preoccupied, I'm extremely rude, and I literally go uh-uh, and my girlfriend was extremely embarrassed. And we get in the car, and she just grills me for about 10 minutes on the way home saying that I was extremely rude, and I'm extremely embarrassing to her when I'm preoccupied. And I think it's just a really interesting cultural difference between how my parents behave and how I've attempted to shed that behavior here in the U.S.

CONAN: Or you can just move to New York, Amar.

ALFORD: Exactly, we applaud that kind of behavior in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: The scientific term for that, Amar, is inattentional blindness. That's what it's called when you're sort monomaniacally involved in one activity at the expense of incoming data. So you were inattentionally blind.

AMAR: And it's interesting because I'm an extremely courteous individual. My parents are extremely courteous people. The culture is extremely courteous. But for some reason, when I am preoccupied, it is unbelievable. I just become notoriously rude.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your very polite call, Amar.

AMAR: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye.

ALFORD: And I think that's a great call because I think it's really important that we cop to our own bad manners. Part of the book is this idea that so many of our manners are based in ignorance. I have a chapter where I ask people of various professions what rude questions are you asked. And they're almost always based in ignorance, like people who ask doctors how long have you been practicing; or students who ask teachers, once they've missed a class, did I miss anything last week, you know, as if to suggest that some weeks we just stare at the doorknob for two hours; people ask lawyers, are you billing me for this call?

And, yeah, I, myself have been guilty of bad manners. I'm someone who, until last year, I would ask someone with a heavy foreign accent, where are you from, because I love to travel and hear about exotic lands. And, you know, if that person lives in the United States, it's very possible that that's a rude question, where are you from, because that's someone who probably wants to be perceived primarily as American.

CONAN: Where are you from originally, might that...

ALFORD: Where are you from originally - yeah. But even better, I think, is, you know, let them volunteer that information themselves. And, again, I think that, yeah, we need to - if we're going to change manners, which I hope we will do, we've got to each cop to our own bad - to our own misdeeds. And I think that's part of why this book has gotten such nice attention from book groups is because it can lead to a conversation, not only about what are your pet peeves, but also what are some of the things that you yourself do unintentionally that cause - that bring distress to other people.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from @MSUgrad(ph): A coworker brings me emails and other printouts I send to the community printer - seemingly nice - but I think she reads them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: Kill the messenger. I think she reads the tweets. Uh-huh. Right. Well, why isn't our writer getting the tweets herself?

CONAN: Can't tell you that, but...

ALFORD: Can't tell you - yeah. Hmm.

CONAN: "Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?" is the name of the book, "A Modern Guide to Manners." Our guest his Henry Alford. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. Heidi(ph) is on the line from Grand Rapids.

HEIDI: Hi there. Yes. I have a friend who is the mother of a biracial child. And very often in public, she's asked, well, you know, is your son adopted? And, wow, I take it anyway is that that person really - what they really want to know is whether or not she's married to a black guy.

ALFORD: Yeah, I have a friend, too, who I write about in the book who's black and has a white godchild. And when she goes to parks, she is sometimes asked, how much do they pay you an hour?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HEIDI: Oh.

ALFORD: It's just so presumptuous for people to do that. So, yeah, I think you, you know, it's the much worst case scenario of my asking where are you from. Or another variant is, you know, walking up to the person in a department store and saying, you know, where is the women's department, assuming that that person works there when they might just be milling about. So I think we all need to be a lot more careful about making these presumptions. And, you know, a question about, you know, a - this question about the biracial child, I just think it's really not something you should be asking a stranger.

HEIDI: Yeah. And, you know, I always suggest to her, I mean, I would just go ahead and say to that person, would you really want to know whether I'm married to a black guy? Is that your, I mean, is that what you really want to know?

ALFORD: Yeah. Exactly.

HEIDI: She just really has the nerve to do it, but I...

ALFORD: That's the perfect...

HEIDI: ...take that kid and walk around with that kid one day and sit at a little play place and strike up a conversation, and that way I can just throw it back at them.

ALFORD: Exactly. It's the same when someone asks you, you know, how did your spouse die. You just say, why do you ask? And that, it just sends the question right back to them and they're going to be forced to confront the inherent rudeness of it.

CONAN: Heidi, thanks very much.

HEIDI: Thanks.

CONAN: Email from David in Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Does your guest have any suggestions for driving manners in this road rage age? I suspect his answer will be mass transit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALFORD: It's true. Move to a large city. Get on the bus. Well, yeah, the people who are changing lanes without any directional signal, that seems like it's just such a constant now. It almost seems like - it seems unusual when someone does use his passing blinker. So, yeah, that's a biggie. What about you, Neal? What - you probably spend more time in a car than I do.

CONAN: Actually, I don't drive, so I'm always on mass transit. There's a lot of rules about that too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I'm always on the bus, which was my example of the person who sneezes on a bus without covering up, which is incredibly rude, not to mention, you know, a risk to public health.

ALFORD: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, that's one thing we can say for the cars is it's a nice place to sneeze.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It's - it is. As you've gotten reactions to this, do you fear that for the rest of your life you're going to be answering etiquette questions?

ALFORD: Well, that I don't think would be a bad thing. I do - I worry about my friends. It's a little bit like, you know, going over to your friend, the caterer's - or having your friend, the caterer, come over for dinner, that suddenly all my friends are frantic around me and about - you know, the thank you notes are coming to me so fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I bet they do. Have I folded the napkins in an inoffensive way?

ALFORD: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, it will be an interesting existence. You may talk to Miss Manners about that too.

ALFORD: I did. Yeah, a little bit. And - well, she's been at it so long that it's a given. But, no. You know, the phrase that I love for manners is Samuel Johnson's, which is fictitious benevolence, that there is this element of playacting when we need to have good manners.

CONAN: New Yorkers aren't rude. They're just honest.

ALFORD: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, Henry Alford, thank you very much for your time. Good luck with the book.

ALFORD: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: It's called "Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?: A Modern Guide to Manners." When we come back, we'll talk about the role of ships' captains. Captain Francesco Schettino is charged with causing a shipwreck off the coast of Italy and abandoning his post while there were still passengers aboard his vessel. He made us wonder what exactly is expected of ships' captains. That's next. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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