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!