12:45 p.m., May 1, 2009----For Judith “Miss Manners” Martin, the importance of etiquette is not so much knowing which fork to use but the way it serves as a civilizing influence governing how we treat one another.
Martin made her remarks as to an audience of nearly 170 guests as part of her “Miss Manners Stimulus Package” talk at the University of Delaware Library Associates annual dinner held Monday, April 27, at Arsht Hall on the Wilmington campus. UD Library Associates is the friends group of the University of Delaware Library.
“When people write me to complain abut someone using the wrong fork,” Martin said, “I tell them, 'The rest of the world is falling apart and you want to blame someone who is trying to get some nourishment.'”
Martin, whose column “Miss Manners” appears in more than 200 newspapers worldwide, said when she got started in the etiquette business nearly 30 years ago, she more or less had to revive the word, which had fallen into disuse.
“It was considered some kind of antique joke,” Martin said. “People told me, 'We don't need etiquette, we don't have manners,'” Martin said. “I told them, 'You got that right.'”
This renaissance of the idea of a personal responsibility that included being considerate of others followed a period in which the prevailing parental wisdom was simply to let children “just be themselves,” Martin said.
“When I first went into the etiquette business, or, when I first answered this noble calling, America had been in one of its 'noble savages' phases,” Martin said. “The idea was that we are all born good and that civilization corrupts us, so the kindest thing we can do for our children is to shelter them and protect them from becoming civilized.”
People who advocate this theory of original innocence, Martin noted, must never have encountered a human baby.
“Babies are screaming and hollering and cranky and wet,” Martin said. “We are not born adorable. It's nature's way of keeping us from being smothered by our parents.”
Despite good intentions, Martin noted, the theory of parents not being in charge and of children being encouraged to do what they wanted in order to feel good about themselves didn't have the desired results.
“It turned out that neither the parents nor the children were very happy,” Martin said. “Having been brought up on the parental advice of 'just be yourself' is pretty useless because, if you wanted to be someone else, how would you go about it?”
Having been brought up not to worry about what other people think, these noble savages, now teens and young adults, did not understand why they seemed to be offending people all the time, Martin said.
“The whole point is that this notion of an etiquette-free society had been taught to a generation, and they were not happy,” Manners said. “Not only were they not getting what they wanted, they were outraged at the way other people were treating them.”
Real etiquette, Martin noted, is a basic component of civilization in that it teaches individuals to restrain some of those natural impulses that might offend others, with the hope that others would do likewise in return.
“I'm sorry about that,” Martin said. “If I knew a system where you could go around and be yourself and still be respected by others, I would be able to make a fortune.”
Now that etiquette was back, Martin said she started getting letters from people inquiring what kind of clothes should be worn in fancy restaurants and how to have their special event, with the caveat of getting someone else to pick up the tab.
“They would tell me, in great detail, about their dream wedding, or in which restaurant they were hosting their big birthday party,” Martin said. “It was 90 percent about themselves, sometimes 98 percent. They even wanted me to tell them the most polite way to tell their guest what to bring and what they would have to pay for this and that.”
Martin also mentioned a letter she received from a woman who was upset because she was planning on celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with a big party, and then her husband did the unforgivable -- he died.
“She said, all the people I know had their 25th anniversary parties,” Martin said. “I wanted my 25th anniversary party. It's not my fault my husband died.”
Martin said she believes one of the root causes of the current economic quagmire is the fact that people began to have a notion that it is acceptable to get money out of relatives and strangers through everything from gift registries to school fundraisers for their children.
“Isn't there a better way to get money out of people and relatives and basic strangers? The shame has totally disappeared,” Martin said. “What we have done is institutionalize the idea of fleecing each other.”
Besides greed, Martin said that we are also faced with a variety of etiquette issues including heath and privacy problems.
“The reason I'm concentrating on greed right now is because it is the most urgent one we have,” Martin said. “Today, it speaks most deeply about how we regard other people.
As for the Miss Manners stimulus package, Martin said it involves the idea of wisely reviving two ancient and significant customs -- hospitality and the exchange of presents -- and to begin to erase the attitudes that have led us to where we are today.
“It would behoove us all to go back to the other practices we used to have,” Martin said. “This is very important. Real etiquette is about how we behave and how we treat each other.”
UDLA gifts and 2010 event speakers
Wilson J.C. Braun Jr., president of the UD Library Associates, presented a check for $40,000 to the University of Delaware Library. The check, which was presented to President Patrick Harker at the beginning of the group's annual dinner, represents the second installment of the 2008-09 total gift contribution of $70,000 from the UD Library Associates.
“Your support as University of Delaware Library Associates has been critical to the University's growth, and to the library's growth, as an institution dedicated to research and scholarship,” Harker said. “I thank you for your ongoing commitment to the expansion and maintenance of the rare materials in Special Collections. They are world-class and, as such, they attract international attention and visitors to Delaware.”
The University of Delaware Library, Harker said, is a tremendous resource to the state, the region, the nation and to the global academic community.
“Our international stature will only grow, as the collection's expanding online presence enhances their accessibility to scholars around the world. I thank Wilson Braun for his leadership as president of the University of Delaware Library Associates, and again, I thank you all for your generous support of the University of Delaware Library,” Harker said.
Susan Brynteson, vice provost and May Morris Director of Libraries, also thanked Braun and the UD Library Associates for their support.
“I want to thank you on behalf of the future generations of library users of original resources who may never be able to thank you personally,” Brynteson said.
Brynteson also announced that Rick Steves, noted travel writer and host of the long-running PBS favorite Rick Steves' Europe, will be the guest speaker for the 2010 UD Library Associates annual dinner to be held March 25 in Arsht Hall, with the hospitality hour starting at 6 p.m.
John Bryne, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy, will speak at the annual Faculty Lecture of the UD Library Associates at 4:30 p.m., May 4, 2010, in Morris Library on the South Green of UD's Newark campus, Brynteson said.
For more information on the University of Delaware Library Associates, visit the group's Web site.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Greg Drew