Changing the World Takes Time, Gentle Readers
by Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin
Miss Manners | August 4th, 2022
GENTLE READERS: There is a disturbing trend in Miss Manners' correspondence that she wishes to address, lest Gentle Readers give up hope of a more polite future. It concerns letters that begin:
-- "When did it become OK to ...?"
-- "Am I just being hopelessly old-fashioned or ...?"
-- "Am I being too sensitive when ...?"
What follows is an example of something that was never OK. Miss Manners' field is external behavior, not internal squirming, but her concern is the implication that the victim has, or should have, given up hope of improving society.
A fourth type of letter underscores the point: It seeks a polite response to a slight, real or imagined, that the Gentle Reader already answered with a taunting rejoinder, a rude gesture or worse.
Miss Manners does, on occasion, supply responses which, though faultlessly polite, cause an offender to explode in a burst of mortification and apology. But she more often counsels more subtle responses, which, even had the reader known them when the event occurred, would not have required a fire extinguisher.
This is because the goal is not to strike someone who struck you first -- the goal is not to get hit in the first place.
This should be apparent, as even Miss Manners' most caustic advice is too late to touch a driver who has long since sped away, a line-cutter who is off offending new people out of reach of the Gentle Reader, or everyone else who has long forgotten what happened at that date, luncheon, meeting or class reunion.
It takes time to improve the world -- or even, truth be known, one's friends and relations. This is not because there are no solutions to rude behavior or because one must either accept rudeness or be rude oneself. Nor is it because the solutions proposed do not work.
True, Miss Manners' approach does not always provide the instant gratification of smacking our fellow citizens under the guise of good manners. She realizes this runs counter to a world that is impatient when the package just ordered is not already at the door. What she advises used to be known as solving the problem, an activity that Miss Manners accepts is old-fashioned, even if it is the only one that ever worked.
And just because we do not see the offenders shrivel up in front of us does not mean we have not succeeded. Who knows but that, having been shown a better way, they have not spent a sleepless night repenting?