When one is about to see the Queen of Etiquette, even riding an elevator can become a matter of propriety. “Which floor? Oops, I mean, may I push the button for your desired floor?” said the woman who found herself by the controls. “I suppose that’s how Miss Manners would say it.”

When Judith Martin spoke at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in January on “Star Spangled Manners,” it gave pause to those gathered in the reception hall to hear her.

Was bunching your coat under your chair the correct way to uncloak? Should an introduction be made before asking a question? And had everyone remembered to turn off their cell phones? (Unfortunately, Gentle Reader, everyone had not.)

As the host of the event, Professor of Anthropology Bradd Shore reassured the murmuring crowd that Martin was not merely a “contemporary Emily Post or a walking rulebook.”

Instead of simply providing a guide for which fork to use at dinner, Martin teaches us how to “move through our daily encounters with grace by keeping alive the sacred rites of social engagement,” says Shore, who invited the syndicated columnist to Emory to speak as part of the Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) colloquium series.

Martin, gray hair pulled into her trademark bun, smiled tolerantly. “You study the rituals,” she replied. “I have to try to keep them respectable!”

Since crowning herself Miss Manners in 1978, Martin has seen fit to do just that through her column, which is printed weekly in more than two hundred papers in the United States and abroad, as well as on the Internet. A graduate of Wellesley College who spent twenty-five years as a writer and critic at The Washington Post, Martin also has authored several best-selling books, including her latest, Star-Spangled Manners: In which Miss Manners Defends American Etiquette (For a Change).

Despite her jabs at America’s laid-back attitude (she calls casual Fridays our “national costume party,”) Martin admits to a certain fondness for American manners, which were born of revolution. “Driven by our dreams of equality for all and stardom for each, we . . . have always been eager to test the standards of social behavior and create our own rules for interaction,” she writes.

Martin finds constant inspiration in a society that relishes freedom of expression so much that it relies on etiquette, rather than law, to restrain people from openly insulting its leaders, shouting awful things at crowds, wearing vulgar clothes in public, and stomping on its flag.

As for the argument that etiquette restricts freedom, Miss Manner would agree wholeheartedly. “Of course,” she says. “That’s the idea. There is always a trade-off between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community.

“As far as we know,” she said, “the intention was not to create a country that was perfectly free and perfectly unbearable.”

Enter the code of civility: a voluntary system of politeness that restrains bad behavior. Its weapon? Social disapproval.

Judging and even condemning others for inappropriate actions or comments, says Martin, is often necessary as a tool for social change. Because it is no longer acceptable to make bigoted or sexist statements in public, bigotry and sexism has–for the most part–been banished from civil discourse. If speakers choose to ignore this rule of etiquette, they do so at their peril.

“I believe we saw a recent example of that,” Martin said, alluding to the Trent Lott debacle.

In a world terrorized by acts of violence large and small, people are searching for a way to live together in tolerance and respect.

“Etiquette,” says Martin, “compensates for our failure to love one another.”–M.J.L.



© 2003 Emory University