Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: A Very Belated Review

As you probably also know by now, the Boston Globe’s etiquette columnist Miss Conduct, also known as Robin Abrahams, is a good friend of the blog. I did not, however, get an advance copy of her new book by promising to review it; instead, I had to win my galley fair and square via superior history of science knowledge. So I feel slightly less bad about the fact that the book has been out for months now and I’m only just getting around to reviewing it. My excuse is, um, I only just got around to finishing it? I generally have two books going, one by the bed and one in the pocketbook, and Robin’s book had the misfortune of being the bed book during a period when I wasn’t reading much in bed. Once it migrated to the pocketbook it went really, really fast.

Because people, this book is funny. Sure, it’s nominally an etiquette book, so you’d think (if you weren’t a Miss Manners, or for that matter a Miss Conduct, fan) that it might be really starchy and dry. But, as anyone who reads Robin’s blog might have guessed, this is hardly a “which fork goes where” kind of volume. It’s about etiquette in a more meta sense — about why etiquette is necessary, what it does for us, and how you can make everyone around you as comfortable as possible without actually memorizing a lot of rules about which one’s the shrimp fork and how people should be addressed on wedding invitations. It’s really less about what you might think of as “etiquette” and more about humane behavior, common courtesy, and treating people with dignity. Plus jokes. (Robin has experience in improv and stand-up comedy, and she uses humor to great effect to get her points across — I finished the book on a plane and disturbed my seatmate with my constant giggling.)

To that end, there are chapters on some of the main sources of interpersonal discord and tension: food, money, religion, sex and relationships, children, health, pets. Of particular interest for this blog is the health chapter, which deals expertly with issues surrounding illness, disability, and fat (not, Robin mentions, because fat people are unhealthy, but because they are often treated as though they are). The section on fat is a small one, only a couple of pages, but it’s very nicely done:

There’s an increasing amount of research suggesting that weight might not be under a person’s control, and that the dangers of obesity may be overstated. There’s an overwhelming amount of research showing that diets don’t work. But from the point of view of courtesy, it’s irrelevant whether fat people can “help it.” Tanning is clearly bad for your health and entirely a matter of choice, but we don’t mock and shame the tanned, or yell, “Hey, leatherface!” at them from a car window.

Here’s another bit I really love, which nicely highlights the way that Robin uses her psychology researcher expertise to inform her ideas about interpersonal interaction and etiquette. From the section on how to be a gracious able-bodied/well person:

Acknowledging that [being able-bodied is a temporary condition] can be very, very hard. Prejudice against the sick or disabled is wrong but understandable: most people are terrified of pain, illness, disability, and death, and our profound lack of control over all of the above. We want to believe that it can’t happen to us. One of the ways we do this is by subscribing to what social psychologists call “just world theory” — the belief that the world is just, that people get what they deserve. Just-world theory is comforting — it lets you believe that you won’t get cancer because you don’t smoke, that you won’t get raped because you don’t wear short skirts, that you won’t go bankrupt because you work hard and save. Comforting — and wrong, both factually and morally. It’s natural to look at someone who has suffered misfortune and immediately try to figure out why the misfortune happened and why, therefore, it could never happen to you. But remind yourself, after your monkey mind does that little self-serving exercise, that random bad things happen to people. It’ll make you kinder to others and also much kinder to yourself when the bad things eventually come.

If I were writing the book I’d preface this with a long discussion of the social model of disability and how “disabled” really means “disabled in the context of a society that treats certain bodies as normative” — I would probably not get into evolutionary reasoning about how we react to people when we perceive something wrong with them without a long treatise on what “wrong” means. But Robin’s job is not to explain to people why it’s wrong to feel prejudice — it’s to tell them why they’re feeling it, what to do about it, and how to behave in spite of it. The paragraph on “just world theory,” I think, makes it clear that she can do that well.

I don’t agree with everything Robin writes — and as a side note, isn’t that a weird little compulsive caveat? People use it a lot when they link to us — I think even Robin has — and I always think “who agrees with everything someone else says?” I mean, I understand that it’s a kind of social indemnity, but for fuck’s sake, SM’s been my bestie for half our lives and I still don’t agree with everything she says. Anyway, but I’ll defend to the death her right to say it because it is so fucking entertaining. And in fact, I disagree with very little. My one main criticism is that there’s a bit much evolutionary psychology, a carryover from Robin’s day job as a psych researcher — but just about when I start getting really sick of it, she pulls out this gem:

People who write about evolutionary psychology as though we are trapped in the Pleistocene, and like to use the word “hardwired” a lot, conveniently forget one fact: the main thing we humans evolved to do is to learn and adapt. That’s our major strength as a species: we evolved the capacity to overcome our evolutionary heritage! There’s a party trick for you.

More importantly, even if you don’t agree with Miss Conduct on particulars — if you’d throw a different sort of party, draw the line somewhere else, phrase something differently, whatever — you’re still likely to get something out of her general approach to social interaction. The book is equal parts common-sense wisdom, scientific citations, and humor, so even if the advice is a “duh” or a “huh?” for you (and personally, I consider myself reasonably skilled at interpersonal shit and I still found plenty of food for thought), you can still get a giggle or learn about an interesting study. (I’ve made many references, since finishing the book, to the one about how people like articulate well-groomed folks better than grungy mumblers, but like articulate well-groomed people who spill something on themselves best of all.)

I really recommend this one, and I’m not just saying that because Robin’s a friend. I’ve never even met her in real life! I’m saying it because I like etiquette columns and I still never expected to have this much fun with an etiquette book — and also because in general I think that all of us, even the most compassionate, can benefit from seeing someone break down clearly what it means to be considerate and kind. Go get it. And if you’re intrigued, Robin’s also going to be on the Today Show tomorrow, July 21, in the 10-11 segment, wearing a hotly debated outfit!

33 thoughts on “Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: A Very Belated Review

  1. Wow, FJ, thanks for the great review! (And now I don’t have to come up with a blog post this morning, because I can just link here, which is quite the little luxury on this particular morning.)

    Though I do have to laugh … you think I have too much evopsych in THIS book, wait until you hear my plans for the NEXT one!

  2. I will buy it anyway, or try to win it in a contest. If someone’s going to do evo psych I’m glad it’s you… nobody else seems responsible enough to be trusted with it.

  3. Wow, MP, that’s a REALLY interesting blog post–and the response by Neave was revealing to say the least.

    (BTW I was watching a British improv show called “Mock the Week” recently and one of the categories was “Advertising Slogans that Should Exist but Don’t” or some such, and one comic came up with “The Daily Mail: Racist in public, so you don’t have to be!”)

  4. It is not very unusual for me to lovelovelove something MissPrism writes, but this

    I think it’s a shame that what could be an exciting and rigorous new discipline has become Justify Your Tired Old Cliche-Omics.

    so thoroughly sums up my attitude towards evo psych that I have to be extra-special in awe of you. (And it should go without saying, but that’s not the type of evo psych one sees in Robin’s book… I’m just a bit allergic to the whole discipline at this point.)

  5. Also, commenters assuming that MissPrism has Never Read Science are cracking me up. I mean, you are just a widdle woman, you couldn’t possibly know what you’re talking about after all.

  6. It’s good timing you posted about the “just world theory” cause there was a Pearls Before Swine comic, that did a great job of making fun of people who believe in the “just world theory”

    http://tinyurl.com/l7sh97

  7. @Fillyjonk in re: “commenters assuming that MissPrism has Never Read Science”:

    They’re especially amusing since it says right there on the blog page that she’s a biologist.

  8. Ah, another book to ad to my list. I read MissConduct’s column regularly, so this should be interesting…

  9. but for fuck’s sake, SM’s been my bestie for half our lives and I still don’t agree with everything she says.

    WHAT

    I wholeheartedly second the recommendation of Robin’s book! I borrowed it from FJ a couple weeks ago and read it very quickly because it was so compulsively readable. I actually think it occupies a similar shelf in my mental bookstore as Kate and Marianne’s book: Stuff You Probably Think You Know, But Need Someone Smart and Funny To Lay It All Out for You Again.

  10. WHAT

    You don’t like A Confederacy of Dunces or Faerie Queene. Granted that’s all I can think of right now.

  11. I wholeheartedly second the recommendation of Robin’s book!

    I third it! And I DID get an advance copy, but still have written about it anywhere (well, except Powell’s, briefly), because I suck.

  12. Well it’s not like I’ve reviewed your book either, Kate! I did announce its publication–and recommended it in the bibliography of mine–but I’ve yet to actually write something about it.

  13. FJ, could I ask you about your use of the word “normative”? I see this a lot lately in places where I think “normal” is what’s called for, but since I may be behind the curve on this usage, I don’t want to assume anything. What did you mean there? Thanks!

  14. P.S. I wish I could edit my comment, but I’ll have to double-post. What I mean is, I know there are various senses of “normative,” but the way I learned to use it was only in the sense of “prescriptive.”

  15. I suppose if I hadn’t been writing in the middle of the night I would have realized that bodies that are treated as normal are normative, so you don’t have to say “treated as normative.” But I was.

  16. It wasn’t a very good answer, I’m afraid, but I’m hoping someone will pick up the slack because I’m criminally tired. (It’s not because of staying up writing this review! It’s actually because of something I need to ask Miss Conduct about: neighborhood dog that barks so strenuously I’m worried it’s going to injure itself, at inconvenient hours.)

  17. FJ, talk to your neighbors, or leave them a note or something. My usual advice is to FEIGN concern for the dog, but you actually ARE concerned, so there you go. (I would be worried about the dog, too, but a lot of people don’t care.)

  18. Is it better to include something in the note about what I would prefer they do instead? Because I’m not 100% sure what one does with a dog who’s determined to bark itself sick if you leave it outside — I would just not leave it outside in the first place, but I don’t know if that’s universally a bad idea (in parts of my area there are known dognapping problems but not here), and I do know how small houses are around here, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying to them “I really wish you would let your dog bark INSIDE your house instead” if it’s not a dog-owning truism that you don’t leave them outside overnight.

  19. It’s not necessarily a dog-owning truism, but a lot of more geeked-out dog owners are definitely against leaving dogs outside overnight. I’m not a big fan of the practice. But I also know telling people what to do with their dogs goes over about as well as telling them what to do with their kids. So personally, I actually would focus on the etiquette issue, rather than the dog health issue here. Basically, “I’m a dog lover, and I’m sure your dog is awesome, but when you leave him outside all night, he keeps the whole neighborhood awake, and that’s just not okay.” And I would probably try to let them know as gently as possible that you intend to call police and/or animal control if it keeps happening. Then I would do that. That dog is obviously not fucking happy about being out there all night, and having authorities check on him might not be the worst idea.

    I defer to Miss Conduct if she has a better idea, though.

  20. I’m not very confrontational in real life (unless I’m outraged and/or someone is trying to make me feel like I don’t belong in my own goddamned world) but I go all JFGKRHJLWHAT when people are doing stupid loud inconsiderate things that stop me (and others) sleeping. It’s the height of rudeness. People need energy to function!

    I wonder if they sleep through the dog’s barking or if it keeps them up too? Either way, FJ, I am so with Kate — they absolutely DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT to let their dog bark outside all night if it’s keeping their neighbours up, and it’s up to them to deal with it as they see fit, but they do need to deal with it.

  21. But I also know telling people what to do with their dogs goes over about as well as telling them what to do with their kids.

    Yeah, that’s why I only wanted to tell them what to do if I could back it up… but the flip side is saying “I wish you’d do something.” Which is a bit vague but, yeah, also doesn’t seem as lecturey.

  22. Well, I think you can back it up, purely from an etiquette/disturbing the peace standpoint — and if necessary, let animal control decide if there’s a dog-health reason to get them to take the poor thing inside.

  23. It is increasingly unacceptable to leave dogs outside especially in the city. Responsible dog people don’t do it. . Obviously the dogs will bark. But they can also be stolen by breeders, general weirdos, or people who think the dog is being neglected….which it is. PLUS dogs left in isolation are more prone to aggression so its possibly a public health issue.

    FJ it is not your responsibility to worry about whether or not the dog fits in a small house. The owners have encroached on your personal space and you have a right to say something.

    Write an anonymous note, explain the problem, and say that you’ll call the police and animal control if it continues. That way you’re not putting yourself in danger if the person is confrontational.

    Enclosed in the envelope I would include articles from groups like Dogs Deserve Better. I pasted a link they have about the problems with leaving dogs outside but they have other articles that address this problem.

    http://www.dogsdeservebetter.com/outsidedogs.html

  24. Can you just leave a note when it is your neighbors themselves that are keeping you up at night? I somehow don’t think the “concern for your health” issue is gonna work this time though. Alas.

  25. Sure you can leave a “I’m concerned for your health” note if it’s the neighbours themselves! Something like, “gosh, it sure would be a shame if an “accident” happened while you were being loud at night. Sure would suck to find your car keyed/house egged/trees TP’d the morning after a big party. Just sayin’.”

    Or would that not be good etiquette?

  26. Great post. Just an interesting side note on something quoted from the book, though: “Just-world theory is comforting — it lets you believe that you won’t get cancer because you don’t smoke, that you won’t get raped because you don’t wear short skirts, that you won’t go bankrupt because you work hard and save. Comforting — and wrong, both factually and morally. It’s natural to look at someone who has suffered misfortune and immediately try to figure out why the misfortune happened and why, therefore, it could never happen to you. But remind yourself, after your monkey mind does that little self-serving exercise, that random bad things happen to people.”

    Never saw rape as a random thing that happens, I must admit. Unlike the other things on the list, it is something that is done to you, deliberately, by another person. I just found it interesting that this slipped onto the list of apparently random badnesses. I don’t assume by any means that rape was intentionally presented as the same kind of ‘random’ as bankruptcy or cancer, but in a way that makes it even more interesting.

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