I had the pleasure last week of interviewing etiquette maven Henry Alford, whose new book title is a question we’ve all wanted to ask: “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?”
Henry’s focus is of particular interest to me because Real Simple’s readers, I told him, rarely ask how to improve their own manners; they’re typically more concerned about how to respond to someone else’s bad behavior—politely, of course, and without escalating the situation.
Henry: It’s so tricky. The greatest irony of manners is that people who enforce them are often ruder than the initial violators. You don’t want to be the person who “shushes” in the movie theater if your “shush” is going to sound louder than the people talking.
Michelle: So, what’s the answer?
Henry: Well, let’s say there’s a potentially embarrassing situation afoot. Like someone has a visible booger. I tend to implicate myself to reduce the humiliation of telling the other person about the booger. My inclination is to walk up and say, “Apparently you and I both need to go blow our noses.”
Michelle: But wouldn’t the person see that isn’t true?
Henry: I would not go so far as to plant a booger on my face, but I think the person is going to be so alarmed by my approach that he won’t be looking that closely. I would say, “I don’t want to name our accuser, but I am going to go into the bathroom and blow my nose.”
Michelle: What if you’re at the doctor’s office, and the nurse or receptionist calls you “honey?”
Henry: That’s where I do what I call “retaliatory manners.” I “honey” them right back. There are times you need to throw it back into a person’s face. I would “honey” a “honey,” I would “guv” a “guv’nor,” I would “doll face” a “doll face.” What would you do, grin and bear it?
Michelle: I’d probably give the person the benefit of the doubt and think the nickname was affectionate, rather than condescending. But then, I’ve reached an age where I am starting to appreciate any endearment.
What about you? Do you practice “retaliatory manners?” When is the last time you had to correct someone else’s manners? How did you do it without becoming the rude one?