Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Beaver Can Have It

Some of you may remember me as an etiquette-advice columnist—and although I've put that work (mostly) behind me, I do follow developments in the world of manners.

So I read a recent Huffington Post article, "Rudeness Is a Neurotoxin," with interest—and, then, disappointment.

I don't (and really couldn't) dispute the notion that early experiences shape a person's brain, and that a child who is physically or verbally abused is likelier to grow into a person who is abusive (or, one could say, "rude")—not only because he learns the behavior, but also because the abuse has measurable physical effects.

I do take issue with the article's frame, though—the notion that the United States in the 1950s (as modeled by the characters on the TV show Leave It to Beaver) was, or modern-day Japan is, somehow "more polite" than modern-day American culture.

Here's the thing: You can't always measure politeness in a relative way. What is polite to one culture may be impolite to another (consider belching, which is improper in some dining rooms but an appropriate expression of enjoyment in others). This doesn't make one culture more impolite than the other—the two merely have different norms.

Japan has a culture very different from ours, and, yes, the beautiful, courtly deferential behavior a tourist enjoys in nice hotels and restaurants can be a delightful change. But scraping and bowing doesn't define good manners. American plainspokenness can be considered a virtue, and plenty of accepted Japanese behavior (blithely reading soft-core porn while riding the subway, just for instance) is unacceptable by American standards of politeness.

If we could go back to 1950s America, we would surely find that suburban children behaved in a generally more deferential way toward elders, and that women addressed their husbands in a generally more docile manner. But we'd also find broadly institutionalized racism and sexism among people considered paragons of "politeness." People like the Cleavers would not have been surprised to hear their neighbors say that black Americans and white Americans should not live in the same neighborhood, or that a woman's place is in the home, or that homosexuals should be imprisoned. By that measure, modern American suburbanites are far more polite than suburbanites of the 1950s: if they think these things, they are much likelier to keep those thoughts to themselves.

And think of the smell! If Mr. Cleaver and Mrs. Cleaver bathed once or twice a week, I'm sure they considered that quite sufficient. When you look at personal hygiene, our requirements of the people we share society with have become much stricter very recently.

Yes, modern society can be jarring, and loud, and unpleasant, but I'll take it and its personal freedoms (which etiquette rules help define for us) over the world of Leave It to Beaver.

Obviously, it's a meme that bugs me: "Things were so polite back then, in the mythical past." Don't believe it. We Americans haven't gotten less polite. We simply have different (and, I would say, better) standards to uphold.

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