Recently, I took my kids out for ice cream, which was a lovely, innocent, all-American sort of affair—that is, at least, until a group of high school kids plopped down behind us and started blasting multiple F-bombs into the air.
Happily, my kids were too busy inhaling piles of mint chocolate chip to notice, leaving me to shoot a series of withering, completely ineffective looks at the oblivious perpetrators. A friend of mine wasn’t so lucky, however: Her grade-schooler recently learned the F-word on the school bus. The way things are going, I suspect my toddler will soon pick it up in the church nursery, along with, perhaps, a brand-new tattoo.
How times have changed. Larry King once told a tale of his own seminal F-bomb experience, which took place in the 1960’s: “Seeing someone say ‘F*@!,’ is nothing now, but when I was 30 years old and went to my first Friars roast in New York and I heard Maurice Chevalier say, ‘F*@!,’ I thought I’d die.”
This all came to mind as I read Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*@!.” Alkon, whose syndicated column, “The Advice Goddess,” appears in about 100 papers nationwide, is not your stereotypical prissy-pants, straight-laced manners lady. By several accounts, she’s fairly nutty, blazing a trail of vigilante etiquette justice through her Venice, California neighborhood, occasionally traipsing around in an evening gown in the middle of the day.
Alkon does not care about which fork you use. Nor is she bothered, as should be clear from the book’s title, by some occasional salty language. That said, she regularly decries the explosion of rudeness she sees in today’s society, calling it the equivalent of theft—a repeated series, as she described in one column, “of many small muggings every day.”
Public Shaming Is Back
In response, Alkon loves to shame rude people, using creative, sometimes terrifying strategies along the way. One method, which she calls “webslapping,” involves secretly videoing a boorish activity—say, public urination—and then posting and publicizing it online. She is also fond of mailing giant piles of garbage back to litterers, leaving accusing notes on the windshields of illegitimate handicapped-space parkers, and confronting loud cell-phone talkers, albeit politely, in the local coffee shop.
Alkon is big on evolutionary psychology, correlating the growth of bad manners with the global growth of anonymous, stranger-filled urban living. “We’re experiencing more rudeness than ever,” she writes, “because we recently lost the constraints on our behavior that were in place for millions of years of human history.” Those constraints, she argues, used to come from smaller, more intimate communities where bad behavior could be policed by the simple fear of running into someone you know.
Whether it’s a man clipping his toenails at the local Starbucks (or, as I once witnessed, on the seat of a busy Chicago commuter train) or a lady changing her baby’s very dirty diaper on the floor at Victoria’s Secret (as the world witnessed with the ever-colorful antics of early-vintage Britney Spears) the way to stop blatant rudeness, Alkon argues, is to stand up to it—something, ironically, many people are too polite to do. “Allowing disrespect,” she writes in a section on people using cell phones at the table, “tells people you’re okay with it.”
This is all true, at least to a point. The world would probably be a better place if more people, as Alkon suggests, were to use the “You probably don’t know this” rule with minor manners infractions. “You probably don’t know this,” one could say to the young man on the airplane, happily sharing his love for Nickelback—or, even more terrifying, the “Frozen” soundtrack—with three consecutive economy-class rows, “but the music is really coming through your headphones.” Likewise, to the noisy cell phone talker at the next table: “You probably don’t know this, but your conversation is carrying through the restaurant.” This strategy, as Alkon points out, avoids direct accusations of wrongdoing, allows the offender to gracefully duck out with dignity, and frequently works.
Pride In Bad Manners
Unfortunately, you can’t effectively use the “You probably don’t know this” line with, say, a garden-variety public urinator—and, in that particular case, you certainly wouldn’t want to get close enough, right in the line of fire, to deliver your gentle message. Alkon, of course, would simply “webslap” the guy and call it a day. But what about today’s most valiant etiquette offenders: America’s growing legions of over-sharers, who, it often seems, take their bad manners as a point of pride?
Take the growing and enthusiastic #FreeTheNipple movement, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—a crusade for “topless rights for all”—and which also makes my brain so weary I fear I cannot type another word. Alas, like the world’s nipples, I shall fight on.
Championed by celebrities like Rihanna, Bruce Willis’s daughter, Scout, and, predictably, Lena Dunham, #FreeTheNipple ostensibly launched to fight the public shaming of breastfeeding mothers, which sounds reasonable enough. In reality, the campaign has morphed into an opportunity for people like Scout Willis to prance around Manhattan topless, post the pictures on Instagram, and try to get more famous. It has also provided the opportunity for two Chicago women to design the “Ta-Ta Top,” which is a bikini top that makes it look like you’re actually naked. (My new business idea, by the way, is a pair of flesh-colored shorts that looks like you’re actually mooning everyone. Don’t steal this idea! #FreeTheDerriere!)
Yes, yes, of course, there are different cultural norms around the globe when it comes to topless women. But the #FreeTheNipple campaign, like various other American forays into exhibitionism and oversharing, isn’t about that. It’s about getting attention—no matter the feelings or sensitivities of the people around us. “Manners,” as Emily Post once wrote, “are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.” If you’re serious about treating other people with respect, this is a good thing to remember. When life becomes one big game of “all about me,” it’s hard, apparently, to execute.