Mind Your Manners, Says Edith Wharton

This week we turn the column over to Edith Wharton, (1862-1937), the great woman of letters and author of the Gilded Age novels “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth” and “The Custom of the Country.” She was the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She was also named a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her valiant assistance to her beloved France during the World War I.

Mrs. Wharton:

I have been invited this late August evening to speak to the American people about the decline in their public manners, which has reached crisis stage.

I would have preferred a radio address by what is called nationwide hookup but I am told my voice, which is reminiscent of that of Eleanor Roosevelt, carries inferences of another age, which might undercut the pertinence and urgency of my message.

I freely admit that there are several ways to describe me, and fabulous old battle-ax is one. But I know some things about human society, and can well imagine the abrading effect of a widespread collapse of public courtesy.

You have all become very rude. Not from ignorance, as Americans were in the past, but from indifference and amid affluence.

In your daily dealings you have grown slovenly, indifferent and cold. A great nation cannot continue in this way. Nations run in part on manners; they are the lubricant that allows the great machine to hum.

Among the harassments I see you inflict on each other:

It is discourteous to walk down a busy sidewalk with your eyes trained on a cellphone, barreling forward with disregard for others who must carefully make way and negotiate their bodies around yours so as not to harm you. You must think you are more important than the other citizens of the sidewalk. Who told you this? Who lied to you in this way?

Eyes on a phone and pods in your ears—have you no sense of community? You have detached from the reality around you, which is a subtle rebuff of your fellow citizens. You enter your own world. When Leonardo and Dr. Einstein entered their own worlds they encountered richness, a fierce originality that ultimately benefited all. Is that what you encounter?

You must have a sense of community! Take part, be part, see and hear. Share responsibility. Stop assuming everyone will work their way around you. That is the summoning of a calamity you will deserve.

You must come to understand that other people can hear you on the cellphone in confined public spaces such as the elevator. You must come to understand:Other people have a right not to hear your sound.They have a right not to hear your grating voice, your huffy exchanges that convey the banality of your interests, all of which, on a bad day, when spirits are low, can make those around you want to ruffle in their purse for a pistol with which to shoot themselves in the head.

It might be better if you were instead “there”—to make brief eye contact and nod, as if you are human beings on earth together. At the very least, understand you should delay the call until the elevator doors open.

Last week I was in a nail spa, as they’re called, idiotically. A woman in her 30s was screeching into her phone, which was on speakerphone mode. After a few moments I informed her she was disturbing others. She literally said: “I am closing a deal! I don’t care!”

And you wonder why socialism is making a comeback.

You have apparently forgotten that “Excuse me,” is a request, not a command. “Excuse me” is an abbreviated question: “Would you excuse me, please? Thank you.” All in a soft voice. It is not a command to be barked as you push down the aisle at Walgreens.

There is the matter of “No problem.” You perform a small courtesy, I thank you, you reply “No problem.” Which implies: If it were a problem, lady, I wouldn’t do it. “If it were at all challenging I would never be courteous.” Why would you admit this to a fellow citizen? Why demoralize her in this way?

Similarly with “No worries.” A young person emails and asks me to do something, perhaps attend an event. I reply carefully, with gratitude and honest regret, that I am unable. The response? Two words: “No worries.” I’m tempted to answer, “You don’t worry me, dearie.” Of course I don’t; it would be like slapping the maid. But “no worries” claims a certain precedence—“I am in charge and instruct you not to feel anxiety about frustrating my wishes.” Child, you’re not in charge. Try, “Thanks, I understand, I hope another time.”

First-name culture is fully established. It is vulgar and inhuman. It shows disrespect for person and privacy, and the mature experience it as assaultive. A first name is what you are called by your intimates, by friends and lovers. It does not belong in a stranger’s mouth. I may grant you permission to use it, that is my right. But you cannot seize permission—that is not your right.

I receive solicitations from people I’ve never met, “Dear Edie.” I honestly wonder: Do I know you? And then realize that’s what they want me to wonder, because if I think I might know them I’m more likely to respond. It’s not democratization, it’s marketing.

They take something from you when they take your name. And once they’ve taken that they will be taking more.

On the phone with the bank, regarding a recent transaction:

Bank worker: “Yes, Edith, how can we help you today?”

Me: “Ah. I am certain you are a very nice person and if I knew you I would quickly ask you to call me by my first name, but since we’re not old friends yet I would appreciate—”

Him (sullen, impatient, flat): “I’m-sorry-about-that-how-would-you- like-me-to-address-you?”

Me: “As your enemy. As the implacable foe of all you represent. Does that work?”

What the new world doesn’t understand is that when you address us as Miss, Mrs., Ms. or Mr., we usually say, “Feel free to use my first name.” Because we are democratic, egalitarian, and fear the guillotine. But we’re pleased when someone asks permission, and respond with the grateful effulgence of the losing side.

There is more to say but I must close.

I am not calling for a new refinement. That is beyond my capacity and your ability. It is possible you’re entrenched, as I said of the Vanderbilts, in a sort of Thermopylae of bad taste from which no earthly force can dislodge you.

Great nations have fallen over less.

I am merely suggesting a less selfish and vulgar way of being. Surely you can consider that.

If a political figure should come by whose slate consisted of “America, reclaim your manners” he would “break through” and win in a landslide. Because everyone in this country suffers—literally suffers—from the erosion of the essential public courtesies that allow us to move forward in the world happily, and with some hope.

Thank you. I am grateful to have you as a reader.

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