Manners maven: Humorist Henry Alford on the importance of being civil

Henry Alford, author of 2012's "Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners," will join the Howard County Library System for its Choose Civility symposium Oct. 11 at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City. The writer is known for his contributions to The New Yorker, The New York Times and Vanity Fair and is often heard on National Public Radio. Alford says manners are "a perennially interesting topic to a large group of people because we've all been dealt misdeeds and everyone has a grievance." He agreed to share more of his perspectives on civility with Howard Magazine.

HM: Were you familiar with Howard County's Choose Civility campaign before you were invited to join the Oct. 11 forum?


HA: No, I hadn't heard specifically of Howard County's campaign, but I know about these Choose Civility campaigns because I interviewed their godfather, P.M. Forni, for my book. [Forni, a Johns Hopkins University language professor, wrote "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct" in 2002 and founded the Civility Project in 1997.] I'd wanted to interview him because it's surprising to me that so few etiquette experts have gone on to be reformers or activists, but he certainly has.

HM: Is our campaign a little like celebrating someone for turning in a lost wallet? Shouldn't civility be an expected virtue?


HA: Yes, we all wish that civility were a given. But it isn't, alas. The fact that we celebrate it doesn't attest to its weakness necessarily. You take your honey out for dinner on Valentine's Day, but that doesn't mean your relationship is rocky. It just means that you want to train a spotlight on your relationship. Ideally, this spotlight helps you both to appreciate what's lit up and possibly to improve it, too.

HM: Don't some people feel that asking/telling them to be civil is in itself an uncivil act?

HA: It's not rude to ask people to be civil; it's only rude if you ask the wrong way — loudly, or with an aggressive tone of voice, or with a foghorn and a blitzkrieg-strength public address system. Tone is everything. The people who enforce manners are often the people with the worst manners: The "shusher" in a movie theater is often louder than the person he's shushing. This is an irony that we manners mavens need to be aware of.

HM: Why should civility matter, and why doesn't it?

HA: The way we treat other people — particularly strangers — is a mirror of our culture's values. If we're unable to lend a helping hand to someone else, then that augurs something more fundamentally flawed with the culture. But by the same token, small acts of kindness can create an environment in which larger acts of kindness and thoughtfulness are more likely to take place. It's the broken windows theory, but for manners.

HM: Have manners always mattered to you?

HA: I had a lot of manners taught me as a child, but my relationship to them was largely one of obligation. They didn't really mean much to me until I was a teenager, ironically, given that that's the age that many people think of as being especially poorly behaved. My teens were the age at which my feelings first started getting really hurt by other people. In a way, I can see my interest in manners as germinating in my desire not to be hurt by, or to hurt, other people's feelings. Good manners are essentially empathy, and in my own case I started empathizing in my late teens.

HM: Your book leads off with a reverse Valentine to New York. Are you a native New Yorker, and why do NY residents have a reputation for rudeness? Is that culture cultivated there to some degree?

HA: I'm from Massachusetts but moved to New York to go to college. You'll probably always find lots of bad manners anywhere where there are a lot of transients. There's less accountability with strangers; you can burn all of your bridges with them, and it won't matter. New York has that phenomenon going on, but then also compounds it by being a city that celebrates bluster (see P.T. Barnum, Donald Trump, the expression "Fuhgeddaboudit!").

HM: Did U.S. citizens have better manners in modern times? If so, what caused a shift toward a dearth of considerate behavior?

HA: This is the most-asked question of someone who's written a book about manners. And it's the one question I cannot answer. I don't know how you'd gauge whether or not manners have gotten better or worse over the years. You'd need a Kinsey [scale] of human behavior to figure it out, not to mention graph paper and some very cool iPhone apps.

There's no way for me to quantify manners today vs. manners 10 years ago. But I DO think we can say that manners have gotten more relative with time. Because we are a more mobile society, and because we're exposed to more varying cultures than we used to be, we're less confined to a sole organizing principle of behavior. Look at something like the question "Can I answer my cell phone here?" It's almost as if each day we walk through a series of manners "micro-climates." In your office, say, you absolutely cannot answer your cell phone; but with your working mommy friends, you can; and with your drinking buddies, you can, but only under certain situations. Each situation is different.


Fifty or sixty years ago, for most Americans, there was more consensus about behavior; but manners today are all about reading the room, looking for clues, gauging the temperature of the water.

HM: Who is the audience for your book, and what can readers learn from it?

HA: The book is really for the common reader. It's for anyone who thinks that life today offers up tricky situations. Can I tell my friend it hurts my feelings when he answers his cell phone when I'm talking to him? Do I invite BOTH members of a gay couple to my bachelor party? Should I tell a new friend that I Googled her before we got together for drinks? What readers can learn from [my book] is that most of these very modern situations need to be parsed individually and that, because of their eccentric nature, there may not be one answer that works every single time.

HM: What did you learn by writing it?

HA: I learned that I have some work to do, too! I definitely need to stop asking people with foreign accents where they come from, and I need to learn to RSVP to events promptly, and I need to give up the idea that screaming "Would you please stop talking!" to people in movie theaters is helping the situation. I'm at fault, too, which helps keep my approach (I hope) from being hectoring.

HM: What advice do you have for Howard County's Choose Civility movement?

HA: I think it's important that we all — even those few of us who have written books about manners — fess up to our own bad manners. Everyone always thinks that bad manners are something the OTHER guy has. But I bet that, if you think about it, there's something you've done in the last month that, upon reflection, you'd handle differently. The war starts at home.

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