[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: Society Rudely Sinks Into a Cesspool of Boorishness

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Mon Nov 14 23:20:41 UTC 2005

Society Rudely Sinks Into a Cesspool of Boorishness
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.11.7
[A good trashing. Conservatives have been moaning about the decline of manners 
for centuries now and never distinguish decline from change. This is not an 
example of deep cultural change.]

Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six
Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door
By Lynne Truss
206 pages. Gotham Books. $20.

    Books of the Times | 'Talk to the Hand'

    With "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," Lynne Truss tapped into a mother lode of
    irritation about bad grammar. Her new target is bad behavior. Ms.
    Truss goes on the rampage against rudeness with "Talk to the Hand," a
    promising-looking volume that turns out to be a thin and crabby
    diatribe. The author may have been good for only one book-length

    Ms. Truss remains cartoonishly indignant, ever ready to swat the new
    breed of lout with her old-fashioned bumbershoot. Evidence of this
    lout is not difficult for her to find. The author is so mad, in both
    the daft and angry senses of the word, that she can be enraged by a
    "Pick Your Own Strawberries" sign. "No, I won't bloody pick my own
    bloody strawberries!" she wants to shout. "You bloody pick them for
    me!" Why the outrage? Because of the creeping transfer of work from
    businesses to their customers and the breakdown of many other
    heretofore-accepted boundaries. When dividing lines disappear,
    confusion ensues, and in this Ms. Truss finds the roots of rudeness.
    Her idea of a civilized society is one in which corporations don't use
    voicemail, telephone sales pitches don't intrude on dinnertime and the
    boundary-wrecking influence of television is kept to a minimum. "One
    hesitates to blame television for all this because that's such an
    obvious thing to do," she writes. "But, come on. Just because it's
    obvious doesn't mean it's not true."

    And just because it's true doesn't mean it hasn't been said before.
    Frequently. This slender book draws on more authoritative treatises,
    from Robert Hughes's "Culture of Complaint" to Robert D. Putnam's
    "Bowling Alone," to validate its ideas of crumbling social standards.
    It also uses first-hand evidence that is conspicuously slight, like
    Ms. Truss's own anecdotes from the badminton court (where she finds
    herself apologizing too much). Ms. Truss takes much more wisdom from
    her own cute-curmudgeonly example than most readers will.

    "Talk to the Hand" dwells on one overarching point: that new
    technology has mangled etiquette in much the same way that verbal
    logorrhea on the Internet damaged syntax and punctuation. As cell
    phones and e-mail blur the lines between public and private discourse
    ("the subject of annoying mobile phone users comes up more quickly
    than you can say 'I'm on the train,' " she writes), people develop a
    strange sense of isolation. They wear pajamas on airplanes. They air
    private thoughts in public places. They sustain the feeling that they
    are alone and at home, even when, demonstrably, they are not.

    This has led to an "age of social autism, in which people just can't
    see the value of imagining their impact on others, and in which
    responsibility is always conveniently laid at other people's doors."
    So away go good manners, which are fundamentally rooted in empathy for
    the feelings of others. And in comes a free-floating sense of angry
    self-justification. The driver who cuts another off in traffic might
    once have behaved apologetically, Ms. Truss surmises. Now he is more
    apt to complete this maneuver with an obscene gesture at whoever got
    in his way.

    Much of this is simply common sense and anecdotal observation. But Ms.
    Truss feels the need to codify it, if only to make her new book
    resemble her earlier one. (It is no accident that each has a catchy
    four-syllable title.) So "Talk to the Hand" is arbitrarily divided
    into six segments. Each of them supposedly provides a reason for
    refusing to leave one's house and keeping one's distance from the rude
    new world.

    Too often, these reasons are trumped-up and rambling. And the book's
    rants are unfocused. Only occasionally are they illuminating, as when
    Ms. Truss tries to define the frustration of not knowing what
    politeness, deference and consideration mean anymore. Surely she is
    onto something when she assesses the new etiquette questions posed by
    intrusive gadgetry: How present does one feel when a companion's phone
    rings? More or less present than the person who placed the call?

    "Surely we all agree that the question 'Should I do this?' ought to
    have an automatic subsidiary question, 'Should I do this here?' " she
    writes trenchantly. But this authoritative voice too often dissolves
    into a little-me tone, in which Ms. Truss imagines herself as both
    very famous and adorably fit-to-be-tied.

    Sometimes, she says, with a "please don't tell anybody" that's coy for
    a would-be best seller, she just wants to raise her little fists
    against the forces of rudeness, or thump the table about a world that
    makes us feel "isolated, solipsistic, grandiose, exhausted,
    inconsiderate and anti-social." Clearly this fury has replaced her
    grammar fetish, or she would not be writing things like "they are a
    member of the weaker sex."

    "Talk to the Hand" sounds unmistakably English. The locutions ("it is
    bondage with bells on") make that clear. So does the book's emphasis
    on a remarkable public service advertising campaign that somehow links
    a please-don't-litter message with oral sex. And when Ms. Truss ticks
    off some root causes of rudeness, one of them is "the absence of war."
    It is inconsiderate, at the very least, to leave that line intact in
    an American edition.

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