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Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?
A controversial recent book suggests that what we think of as good manners is a relatively new thing, a commodity manufactured to meet the needs of an industrial age. But now that the Industrial Revolution is over, we may need them more than ever—for very different reasons.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
All of us have encountered surly check-out cashiers, come up against uncivil civil servants, and witnessed rude public behavior. The couple behind us who talk through the entire movie. The stranger who lets the shop door slam in our face. The driver who steals our parking space. We often hear—and voice—the complaint that bad behavior is on the rise, that chivalry is dead. But are Americans really less polite than ever? Are manners in perpetual decline from some golden age of civility? Are there, as etiquette advisers like Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) have argued, eternal and unchanging rules for proper behavior?
John Kasson, who teaches American history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says not. His book Rudeness & Civility , published by Hill & Wang, is a study of manners and etiquette from the first colonies to today. His findings challenge the conventional wisdom.
“I don’t think there is an absolute standard of manners that is durable,” he said during a recent interview in his Chapel Hill home. “People have always felt manners are going downhill. There are always jeremiads about how the new generation isn’t matching up to the old one’s standards. You can find it as early as Socrates talking about how the younger generation no longer keeps up the standards of their fathers. Manners, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.”
That is not to say that Professor Kasson is an ill-mannered fellow. Far from it. Though a Midwesterner by birth—Muncie, Indiana, in 1944—the soft-spoken, politely gracious scholar seems quite comfortable in Chapel Hill, a university town set amid forested hills, where the bustle of intellectual pursuits is tempered by a measured Southern pace of life. A graduate of Harvard who did his postgraduate work at Yale, he has made his home here since 1971. It was while writing a previous book on American popular culture— Amusing the Million , a study of turn-of-the-century Coney Island—that he became intrigued with the history of American etiquette.
Standards of manners, Kasson contends, reflect the political, economic, and social realities of their day. In the sixteenth century, for instance, young noblemen being trained for the chivalric courts of Europe had to be taught not to sniff at their food, blow their noses on the tablecloth, or relieve themselves in the corner of the dining area. Were even the most casual of today’s Americans to visit a New York theater of the 1830s, they might well be shocked by the boisterous clamor of the “gentlemen” in the (all-male) audience, who might interrupt their visiting with the prostitutes in the balcony to show their displeasure at the performers by hurling dead animals onto the stage.
Then again, even the most well bred of today’s Americans might be taken for boors if they attended a dinner party in New York or Boston in the 1880s. As a saying of the day went, “Brutes feed. The best barbarian only eats. Only the cultured man dines.” And woe betide him who mistook his ramekin fork for his berry fork—or was so vulgar as to give any sign that he was even enjoying his food.
Manners change with the times. For the historian, tracing those changes through time is rather like “looking for salt in the sea,” Kasson says. “It’s everywhere, but it’s hard to find it and crystallize its forms.” In his research he made his way through scores of old etiquette books and pored over the travel accounts of European visitors to America. He read descriptions of everyday behavior in memoirs and novels, newspaper columns and theater programs. He had as a rough guide two landmark studies of manners—Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1946 Learning How to Behave and The Civilizing Process by the historian Norbert Elias, published in Germany in the 1930s but not translated until the late 1970s. Kasson found that for most historians manners have been “more a subject of anecdotes than a topic for serious study,” a situation he and a few other scholars are just now beginning to address.
To understand how and why manners have changed, Kasson says we must go back to the European courts of the late Renaissance, where young nobles learned such fine points of table manners as how to check to see that their seats had not been fouled before they sat and then how to sit so as not to display their private parts to fellow diners. These may be extreme examples, but they are also indicative of a society in which more elaborate rites of behavior were largely unnecessary. They bespeak a patriarchal, rankordered society in which one’s status was fixed at birth, automatically conferring upon the great lord or lady qualities of virtue, beauty, intelligence, and refinement believed unattainable by those of lower station. All members of this society knew their places in it, recognized their superiors and inferiors, and openly displayed their ranks in how they spoke, what they wore, and what they did.
In the American colonies, Kasson says, “attempts to establish that European model of society never quite fit.” The Jamestown settlement reflects how quickly and utterly the vastly different conditions in the New World dismantled the old social pyramid. New crops like tobacco and the availability of great tracts of land mutated the old economic order, making prosperous landowners out of families with no previous claim to rank. Slavery, introduced in the 1660s, was another factor that forever altered the old relationships. The new social network was far-flung and more highly mobile, with vastly more distance, both physically and politically, between citizens and the old centers of authority.
The changes in the social order that continued during the eighteenth century were “not just an American phenomenon,” Kasson explains, “but it certainly took on a special tinge in America. It has to do with both the establishment of a republican government and the development of an industrial capitalist economy, bringing in turn the development of a class society. The two—liberal democracy and a new stage in capitalism—are very much merged in American history. By the mid-eighteenth century, even before the Revolution, people were less and less willing to pay the kind of deference to gentlemen and ladies that inferiors traditionally had given.”
In Rudeness & Civility Kasson cites the accounts of European gentlemen visiting America in the 1700s, who were by turn appalled and amused at the egalitarian spirit of local manners. One such gentleman was a Scottish physician, Dr. Alexander Hamilton, who visited Maine in 1744.
“Hamilton traveled as befitted his gentlemanly status,” Kasson writes. “He dressed in elegant clothes, laced hat, and sword and rode on horseback, attended by his personal servant, a slave named Dromo. By no means an arrogant man, he nonetheless expected the quiet deference and honor that were his proper due.” He rarely found it. Instead, he discovered what Kasson calls “a society acting out a perpetual comedy of manners,” where rustic plowmen chatted with him as equals and common innkeepers’ wives affected the rank of great ladies. “At a Newcastle, Delaware, inn Hamilton came upon another bit of social farce performed by a man named William Morison, ‘a very rough spun, forward, clownish blade, much addicted to swearing, at the same time desirous to pass for a gentleman.’ Conscious of his lapses in manners, Morison both apologized for and defended them, saying, ‘Damn me, gentlemen, excuse me; I am a plain, honest fellow; all is right down plain dealing, by God.’ The landlady, observing Morison’s ‘greasy jacket and breeches and a dirty worsted cap’ as well as his crudity, mistook him for a plowman or cart driver and served him a menial’s breakfast of cold veal scraps. The would-be gentleman was enraged. ‘Damn [me],’ Morison thundered; only respect for ‘the gentleman in company’—Hamilton himself—kept him from hurling the breakfast out the window and breaking the landlady’s ‘table all to pieces should it cost him 100 pounds for damages.’ Then he pulled his worsted nightcap off his head, clapped on a linen one in its stead and declared, ‘Now … I’m upon the border of Pennsylvania and must look like a gentleman; ‘tother was good enough for Maryland.’ ”
Morison was at great pains to impress on Hamilton that “tho he seemed to be but a plain, homely fellow, yet he would have us know that he was able to afford better than many that went finer: He had good linen in his bags, a pair of silver buckles, silver clasps, and gold sleeve buttons, two Holland shirts, and some neat nightcaps; and that his little woman at home drank tea twice a day.” In effect, Kasson writes, Morison was appealing to “a new measure of social status, one that determined rank not according to fixed ‘qualities’ compounding ancestry, power, learning, and prestige, but instead on the basis of the quantity of a family’s wealth.” Thus he represented the beginnings of a new social order, where “gentility itself became something to be purchased, and such items as linen, silver, and tea were for rising men such as himself powerful symbols of its achievement.”
Even the most well bred of today’s Americans might be taken for boors if they had to make their way through a dinner party given in the 1880s.
This ability simply to buy the signs and outward appearances of rank and status was not entirely a new American phenomenon. But in eighteenth-century America upward mobility began to take on a new pragmatism. Kasson finds one of its clearest expressions in the life of no less a Revolutionary figure than Benjamin Franklin, who, he says, “embodied the transformation from a hierarchical society to a republican and capitalist one.”
As he later recorded in his Autobiography , young Franklin went to Philadelphia intent on establishing himself as a printer. He was also fleeing Puritan Boston, where he’d managed to establish an unsavory reputation as a satirist, a political rebel, and an enemy of religion. In Philadelphia, “In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary. I dressed plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, and gave no Scandal: and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at the Stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an industrious thriving young Man, and paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationery solicited my Custom, others propos’d supplying me with Books, and I went on swimmingly.”
Privately Franklin was a brilliant young man of very strong opinions, argumentative and prone to question authority, and not above the pleasures of drink, daydreaming, or consorting with loose women. But he understood that to get ahead among the merchants and bankers of Philadelphia, he must put on the appearance of a sober, industrious, clean-living, right-thinking young man. He practiced what might be called a form of situational etiquette—not as a way to defraud other businessmen but certainly as a way to be accepted and rise among them. He dressed for success, a tactic he would use again, and brilliantly, as the representative of the American cause in the courts of Europe. There he would trade in his gentleman’s silk stockings, wig, and cane for a humble outfit and rough walking stick, once again presenting an image that best served his ends.
Franklin’s pragmatic use of dress codes and etiquette is a strain that Kasson sees running through the next two centuries of American life. The political Revolution that Franklin had helped to success unleashed a self-asserting, egalitarian society entirely more free-thinking than most of the patrician Founding Fathers had anticipated. In the nineteenth century it was followed by an economic revolution: the explosive growth of industrial capitalism, with its booming urban centers and rapid expansions in transportation and communications. By the mid-1800s a new social order was clearly definable. It was based not on rank but on economic strata, with emerging working, middle, and upper classes of “diverging and at times antagonistic conditions, outlooks and aspirations,” Kasson writes. “In the critical realm of work, the distinction rapidly developed between manual and nonmanual labor (preserved in the twentieth century as ‘blue-collar’ and ‘white-collar’ jobs). A hierarchy of specialized nonmanual pursuits proliferated, from store and office clerks and assistants, to intermediate managers of various sorts, to manufacturing and financial executives—all of which were physically and socially segregated from the dirtier, less ‘refined’ work of manual production. In contrast to ‘handworkers,’ young clerks and other lowerlevel nonmanual workers were often encouraged to regard themselves as ‘businessmen in training,’ who through character, initiative, and perseverance might climb the ladder to both commercial success and social prominence.”
Where Benjamin Franklin had relied on his own wits and keen observations to get ahead, the upwardly mobile “businessmen in training” of the nineteenth century found they had a whole army of advisers to help them climb the social ladder. These were the original Misses Manners, who, carried by the extraordinary proliferation of the printing industry from the 1830s on, churned out hundreds upon hundreds of books on manners and etiquette. Printed in the millions of copies, these books reached virtually every home, from the large cities of the East to the farmhouses on the prairies. They bore titles like Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, Genteel Behavior, and The Standard Book of Politeness . They ranged from massive tomes like the 872-page National Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Forms, Embracing the Laws of Etiquette and Good Society to the modest Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette (72 pages) and the rival Etiquette, and the Usages of Society , at a trim 64 pages.
Some of these manuals were written by women prominent in high society, like Grover Cleveland’s sister Rose. But the authors were extremely varied.
“They were both men and women,” Kasson says. “Women tended to write a bit more, but not by a huge margin. Sometimes they would be written by a publisher taking a pseudonym that testified to social authority, such as ‘By a Gentleman’ or ‘By a Member of the Four Hundred.” They’d be written by people who wrote other kinds of popular literature: novelists, essayists, magazine critics, journalists. They’d be written by educators or ministers. Some of the books are written simply by taking extracts from previous advice literature. In that sense, you or I could compile a perfectly proper mid-1800s etiquette book.”
Kasson argues that while books were universally available, the increasingly elaborate codes of behavior they promoted were actually developed for and by the burgeoning middle classes in the rapidly growing cities, especially in the East. As New York, Boston, and Philadelphia centralized wealth, power, and industry, they drew together huge populations. On the crowded streets, middle-class bankers and businessmen and their ladies found themselves jostled and eyed by rough workers and other “low” types. In the bustling, confusing, dirty, and dangerous maze of the cities, the middle classes developed codes of dress and behavior that distinguished them from the anonymous masses. Elaborate rituals of politeness and “refinement” became signs by which they recognized their equals. At the same time, mastery of these rituals was one way by which the upwardly mobile proved their fitness to enter this “good society.”
In this sense, Kasson contends, manners became “a kind of mediate between the demands for a democratic polity,” a republican society of equals, “and the desires for wealth and social distinction in a commercial society,” in which the prosperous and successful are more equal than others. “These ideals are somewhat contradictory. They wanted both to achieve a universal observance of good behavior and to offer possibilities of social distinction.” In the crowded, impersonal cities, “the clues to where one fitted in this social matrix were much more subtle, much more nuanced than before. But there was still that desire to find out where people fitted and the anxiety to present oneself as ‘respectable.’ So we have to understand the nineteenth century as a time when the middle classes were establishing their authority, trying to generalize and disseminate a model of behavior. They took it out of an old tradition and literature of courtesy, but they were trying to adapt it to the terms of modern industrial life. One of the ambitions that many of the self-styled experts on manners had was to try, through a system of manners, to get everyone to behave as they ‘ought’ to—according to the urban middle class.”
At the height of the Victorian era, in the 1880s, the standards of proper behavior the middle class sought to impose had become extraordinarily complex and ornate. Kasson illustrates how enormously accepted behavior changed by contrasting a formal dinner in 1830 with one in 1880.
“Were someone raised on McDonald’s hamburgers to go back to a dinner party in the 1830s, he or she would probably be surprised—might even be shocked—by the way people ate with their knives, the way they seemed to inhale their food,” he says. He conjures a dinner of middle-class gentlemen in the 1830s, perhaps in New York or Boston. Rather than a series of courses, the entire meal would be laid out at once in the “Old English” style—soup, fish, meat, game, fowl, sweets, vegetables, relishes, pies. There would be no servers in constant attendance; throughout the meal the diners pointed to dishes they wanted and passed them around the table. Either the host or guests seated closest to the meats carved at the table. There was no elaborate silver service with specialized forks and spoons. Most likely each diner had a knife and a two-pronged fork of iron or steel. The fork, in the left hand, was primarily used to hold food down while it was being cut; the food was then speared on the knife and raised to the mouth. If a “dandy” was in attendance and affecting “European” manners, he might bring his own silver fork, with four prongs, and use it to raise the food to his mouth. But such affectation would likely prompt mockery among his fellow diners. Napkins were tucked under the chin and used to wipe the nostrils as well as the lips. There would also be a great deal of alcohol consumed—not just at dinner but at lunch and even at breakfast.
By 1880 a dinner at the home of the children of these same gentlemen had become a lavishly embellished test of one’s social graces. Guests arrived with strict punctuality; the concept of being “fashionably late” was still generations away. Gentlemen would be in tails, ladies in full dress. They gathered in the drawing room. Cocktails before dinner had not yet been invented. When the butler announced dinner, each gentleman offered his lady his arm, and they made a genteel procession to the table, where the hostess assigned the order of seating.
Dinner was served à la Russe , a style supposedly introduced by the Russian ambassador to France in 1810. The distinction between servers and diners was now strictly observed; ladling and carving took place out of sight, with the dishes formally carried to the table by the servants. The meal would be quite sumptuous, lasting as long as two hours, with numerous courses that might begin with oysters and champagne and progress through fish, a selection of vegetables, a roast, a game fowl, salad, cheeses, pastries, ices, fruits, and nuts or candies—each with its accompanying wine or sherry. It was not uncommon for the host to display his wealth and largess by cleverly distributing gifts to his guests. The display could be relatively subtle, as when guests found real pearls in their oysters, or more forthright, as when the after-dinner cigars came wrapped in one-hundred-dollar bills.
Despite the lavish spread, Kasson writes, “appetites were no longer to be freely satisfied, but to be disciplined in accordance with sanctioned notions of taste and ceremonial forms and rhythms. In dining à la Russe the meal assumed a dignified and stately progression [during which] diners sought to cloak their bodily needs and invest the occasion with dignity by distancing themselves from organic processes.” Proper guests never indicated dishes they desired but only declined those they did not; indeed, throughout the meal they made no comment about the food whatever, even in praise. Polite dining “meant that one’s food was touched as little as possible.” The habit of cutting food into bite-size portions developed, so that the food on one’s plate never revealed distasteful teeth marks. One used one’s fork as much as possible for this and, of course, never used the lowly knife to raise the food to one’s mouth. Sneezing, scratching, coughing, and laughing or talking too loudly at table were sure signs of ill breeding. Minor disruptions, such as a dropped fork, were politely ignored by all.
And there were many forks to drop: pastry fork, terrapin fork, berry fork, fish fork, pie fork, ramekin fork, and oyster fork-spoon.
There was a reason for such stylized “rituals of refinement,” Kasson says. Their mastery “certified the diners’ own place in the larger social hierarchy” as members of the urban middle class. Etiquette set “standards of social distinction” by which its adherents not only distinguished themselves from the lower classes but even criticized the truly wealthy elite whose conduct fell below these rigid standards—the ostentatious host with his hundred-dollar cigars, for instance.
The somber “straitlaced” costumes we instantly recognize as Victorian were thought to impose sober, moderate behavior and character on the wearer.
The elaborate rituals of Victorian etiquette extended beyond the formal dinner to encompass every aspect of daily life. On the city streets there were rules for how high to tip your hat, how low to bow, and a system of appropriate greetings depending on the other person’s station relative to yours. When you visited acquaintances and found them not at home, you not only left your calling card but crimped the corners according to a complicated code. Folding the upper right corner meant you’d made a personal visit, the upper left meant congratulations, the lower left signified condolences, the lower right signaled a formal leave-taking when you were departing the city for some time.
The Victorians also carried Franklin’s interest in outward appearances to extremes. The somber, all-black, “straitlaced” costumes we instantly recognize as Victorian were thought by many advisers to actually impose on the wearers sober, moderate behavior and character that distinguished them from the hot-tempered, lustful working classes. The great Victorian intellectuals Charles Darwin and William James both were convinced that people could control their moods and emotions by controlling their facial expressions. Etiquette advisers took this notion further, declaring that people could mold themselves into desirable personalities and characters by dressing and acting in the proper way.
The reality, of course, fell short of the ideals. One ironic outcome of the Victorian mania for outward appearances, Kasson notes, was the wide avenue it opened up for criminal impostors. The confidence men, pickpockets, shoplifters, holdup men, and prostitutes who prowled Victorian streets found it very easy to prey on the middle classes once they succeeded in aping their clothing and manners. Crime stories of the era are replete with otherwise intelligent bankers who lent their gold pocket watches to polite con men on the street and with upstanding churchmen who followed distressed maidens into dens of iniquity where they were robbed.
Despite its imperfect facility for regulating behavior, it is to this “golden age” of lavish manners, Kasson believes, that today’s etiquette advisers hearken when they bemoan the modern erosion of good behavior. It is no accident, he says, that as Miss Manners Judith Martin affects the clothes and hairstyle of a Victorian matron. But the society that created this elaborate code had reached its zenith by the turn of the century. The twentieth century brought with it a new social matrix, new immigrants, new postindustrial economies, new role models—and new standards of behavior, which we generally perceive to be more “relaxed,” more “casual” than the stiff formalities of the Victorians.
Not surprisingly, Kasson says, there have been people throughout this century who have complained of the changes—often deplored as a “lowering of standards” in manners—and sought explanations.
“Early in the century, they suggested that it was due to the increase of working women among the middle classes. That it was the rising divorce rate. That it was the First World War, that it was Prohibition after the First World War. That it was the Depression, or automobiles. It’s the Second World War, then it’s the soldiers coming home from the Second World War, then it’s television in the 1950s, the women’s movement in the 1960s, fast food in the 1970s, the Pill. Judith Martin likes to argue that it was the student movement and hippies. And through the years, each new wave of immigrants has gotten the blame.
So we have a whole host of villains. I choose none of them. The twentieth century didn’t bring an end to the class society, but it did bring the broadening of economic, political, and social power to new groups so that the old forms by which the middle classes measured themselves no longer have quite the same sway or same authority. Women, for instance, developed new forms of power. Immigrant groups increasingly developed their own power. Not that all ethnic and class differences were erased. They’re obviously not—for blacks, to take a particular example. Yet blacks are no longer expected and certainly no longer willing to comport themselves with the kind of deference that the whites demanded at the turn of the century. We’ve left that behind.
“Also, we have different institutions that have become models of our deportment. We have different kinds of figures we look to as heroes and models. For example, in part we now get our notions of how to dress and behave from movies and television, magazine and celebrities. In the nineteenth century theatrical celebrities would often model themselves upon the ‘lady’ and the ‘gentleman.’ Celebrities don’t do that now. They’re more extravagant in their demeanor and develop their own styles that become quite seductive for the young. Advertising itself has become, I think, a way of telling us not just what we should buy but how we should live, how we should associate the advertised objects with ourselves. In the broadest sense, advertising has come to tell us what is appropriate for us to desire.
“Obviously we’ve gone through a series of important changes since World War II. Though in many offices the business suit is still required, styles of dress for many jobs and occasions are much more informal. Styles of deference have changed—for instance, the development of a first-name basis. When I was growing up, I learned to address all adults by Mr. and Mrs. That’s less observed now. My in-laws still refer to their friends as Mr. and Mrs. I think they must be the last people who do that.”
But if our manners seem less formally regulated in private life than they once were, says Kasson, the development of a service-based economy since the Second World War has, if anything, intensified the importance of behavior on the job.
The politeness of flight attendants may go thin and seem highly formulaic. But by and large it works: the flight is a fairly pleasant experience.
We have created a society where many people’s jobs are what might be regarded as emotional labor, in the sense that part of their job is to help customers or clients feel good,” he says. “Their job is to guide customers toward certain outcomes by the way they express themselves. There’s a marvelous book by Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart , in which he talks about flight attendants and bill collectors. The job of flight attendants is, of course, safety and knowing how to handle things in an emergency. But it’s also public relations: how to serve meals, how to discipline the ‘audience,’ to look out for troublemakers, and to make the passengers feel good in the process. They coach you on how you’re supposed to deal with the various events on your trip, even get you to regard unexpected delays in a rather cheerful way. They are specially schooled in certain rituals of politeness. We may be aware sometimes that the politeness goes thin and seems highly formulaic, but generally it works. For the most part the flight seems a fairly pleasant experience.
“Flight attendants by and large are women. This has to do with what people still expect in the way of deference from men and women. Women have to play a kind of altruistic role. They have to take a rather different tone. Given a particularly irascible or troublesome passenger, the male flight attendants go to work—precisely because in the eyes of their audience they are often able to command authority. The unpleasant news is delivered by a man. So bill collectors, on the other hand, are almost exclusively male. They often work by telephone. Their job is to intimidate, to remind people rather gruffly and authoritatively that they need to attend to their financial obligations. This is another kind of emotional labor. The point of Hochschild’s study I found fascinating is that in both cases these workers are practicing a kind of ‘deep etiquette.’ They discipline themselves to perform certain scripts, to elicit certain responses from people. Their jobs depend on their success in doing this.”
At the same time, it’s undeniable that over the last several years complaints seem to have been on the rise about the deteriorating service we get in shops, restaurants, government offices, and so on: “If we’re supposed to have become a service economy, why is the service so bad?”
Kasson sees in the exchanges between customers and workers in shops or restaurants an illustration of how modern American rules of etiquette continue to reflect “notions of manners that are often based upon mutual deference one to another, broadly presuming a kind of equal footing—but also a way that we signal our place in society. The two, of course, are in tension. We all are equal, but some are still more equal than others. When you go into a shop or into a hotel, the people behind the desk address you as ‘sir’ or ‘madam.’ You don’t ordinarily do the same to them. When people are performing a service, they give more deference than the people who are receiving it.
“When we’re dissatisfied with the service, it often has less to do with the actual service given than with the sense of regard or attention we get. If you have a salesclerk who’s talking on the telephone during the whole time of your transaction—as I’ve had done to me more than once—you feel, in a certain way, dissatisfied. Even if that salesperson observes certain rituals of respect, such as saying thank you at the end, you’re going to feel a little let down.”
Kasson notes that standards of behavior continue to be in flux today. In some regards American society seems to be retrenching from the broadly casual behavior that dominated through the 1980s. He sees signs of a swing back toward more formality.
In the 1980s your waiter would be an unemployed actor who’d say, ‘Hello, I’m Steve. I’m your waiter tonight.’ That level of informality and blithely casual service was quite common. Certain restaurants now are trying to school their waiters and waitresses back to a more formal relationship. They’re realizing that the whole success of the meal in the eyes of the customer very much depends on the waiter’s performance, on his being able to coach people’s feelings about the meal.”
And that’s not the only good news for the Misses Manners and the Amy Vanderbilts of the world. Kasson mentions the irony that while contemporary society may seem more “relaxed” about etiquette and manners, there are in fact more professional “advisers” circulating their views in print and other popular media than ever before, even at the height of the Victorian age.
“There’s a tremendous market for it,” he notes, “a proliferation of all sorts of advice and experts. Some insist on the acquired conventions more painstakingly than others, giving us advice on traditional etiquette. But there are also psychological-advice columnists, advice on sexuality, on marriage, on how to be your own best friend, how to pick up women or men, all of that. We have whole series of books that offer more specialized etiquette, often for business purposes: how to run an effective meeting, how to conduct a power lunch, how to swim with the sharks. In fact, I think we’re much more highly regulated in our manners than we ordinarily give ourselves credit for. We still have an enormous literature telling people how to use social settings for various operational purposes.”
Still, Kasson offers a note of caution for today’s etiquette advisers. “Etiquette was never able to keep a firm lid on and regulate American society in the nineteenth century,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that.” As our society grew more “highly heterodox and highly combustible” at the end of that century, old formalities gave way.
At the end of this century, Kasson believes, American society is even more heterodox and combustible, the economic and political competition more fierce, the gaps between the classes even wider. We may look back with bemused nostalgia at the more genteel and polite era of the Victorians, but we must not forget that in many respects this golden age of civility was—and remains—an idealized fiction with only limited applications in the real world.