Friday, January 12, 2007

Book Review: Talk to the Hand

January 12, 2007

We are an anxious people, explains author Lynn Truss, in part because we have lost our guidelines for acceptable manners. Proper protocol has eroded in the past couple of generations to the point where we don’t even know for sure if we are being rude. As Truss says in this book, “We live in a ‘talk to the hand’ world. Yes, we are systematically alienated and have no sense of community. … But just because there are the conditions that promote rudeness does not mean that we can’t choose to improve our happiness by deciding to be polite to one another. Just as enough people going around correcting apostrophes may ultimately lead to some restoration of respect for the English language [Truss is also the author of the best-selling grammar critique Eats, Shoots and Leaves], so enough people demonstrating kindness and good manners may ultimately have an impact on social morality.”

The first part of this book, which is subtitled "The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door," I found hilarious. I was laughing so hard that Dr. H. suggested I go to bed, as I was interrupting his football game. The rest of the book I found strangely reassuring: I’m not the only one who finds the lack of manners in today’s world appalling. And yet I can understand why there is mass confusion concerning manners: no one knows what we’re supposed to do or say because moral absolutism has become fuzzy in society. As Truss says, “The problem is that it has become politically awkward to draw attention to absolutes of bad and good. In place of manners, we now have doctrines of political correctness, against which one offends at one’s peril: by means of a considerable circular logic, such offences [sic, she’s British] mark you as reactionary and therefore a bad person. Therefore if you say people are bad, you are bad.”

It is difficult as a parent to teach your children good manners when they are constant witnesses to rotten behavior. And of course, the definition of “bad manners” has a funny way of changing year-by-year. We have to rely on our guts to guide us through social situations. The modern-day Christian equivalent to this might be the mantra “WWJD?” Says Truss, “The crying shame about modern rudeness is that it’s such a terrible missed opportunity for a different kind of manners—manners based, for the first time, not on class and snobbery, but on a kind of voluntary charity that dignifies both the giver and the receiver by being a system of mutual, civil respect.” (Hmm, sounds to me like, “Love your neighbor as yourself…”)

Great book. I’m very glad I don’t live in Britain, as her descriptions of the British (and she is British) are terribly, well, rude. I leave this book feeling more determined than ever to instill a concrete foundation of good manners in my children.

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