Do you subscribe to the ''Me Generation'' doctrine of informal, au naturel behavior? Is etiquette, to you, a stuffy Victorian manner better left to the idle rich?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Try explaining that to your hostess when you spoon up a mouthful from your finger bowl, or plunge into the hearts of romaine on your neighbor's salad plate.
The whole social spectrum is littered with casualties of the ''civil'' war which brought infractions of etiquette to an all-time high during the past decade. Rude behavior - intentional as well as not - is rampant, say those schooled enough to know. But then, it doesn't take a degree in couth to recognize the abuse gentility has taken from the effects of fast-food dining or the sharklike manners encountered in everyday social situations.
The collective shudder of the victims of rudeness appears to have sparked a counterrevolution in good behavior.
''I'm desperately campaigning for good manners because I can't tolerate institutional rudeness. . . . You can hardly get through an ordinary day without hearing someone yell at you, clerks in stores turning their backs on you,'' says Judith Martin, a Washington Post reporter whose syndicated ''Miss Manners'' combines an arched eyebrow of hautiness with a tongue-in-cheek approach.
''Being completely natural, of course, is not polite,'' she advises. ''Two-year-olds eat naturally, and that's not polite.''
She suggests that if people were more concerned about everyday good manners - which are courtesies for the benefit of others - the movement might have a ripple effect through society (with armed conflict being the ultimate rudeness squelched).
''It certainly would be a radical change if people worried about others,'' she sniffs. ''It's not trivial.''
Her ''desperate'' campaign has a loyal following that has made her $20, three-pound volume, ''Miss Manners's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior,'' a national best seller. The book is a collection of practical questions from readers, answered with contemporary civility by Ms. Martin, who suggests a reporter has committed the ultimate faux pas by asking if readers really write the humorous questions she gets.
Other manners mavens, whose advice was about as long on popularity during the '60s and '70s as the crew cut, are jumping (with grace, of course) on America's bandwagon of self-improvement. Capitalizing on their ''correct'' answers to everything from disposing of an olive pit to handling a saucy sales clerk, they are appearing on talk shows and offering courses to everyone from kindergartners to corporate executives (many courses have waiting lists). Besides Miss Manners's book, two new teen etiquette books were published within weeks of each other this fall.
Today's etiquette doesn't have the militaristic starch of the Emily Post era. Instead, manners experts view etiquette simply as a code that allows a person the comfort of knowing what's expected of him socially rather than having to guess. The code is not set in stone, even the most purse-lipped experts agree. With the correct tutoring in social graces, you can still eat your eight-course meals at home with a single stainless steel fork while you keep from embarrassing yourself on that big business lunch at a swank restaurant.
''It may sound awfully snobbish but it's realistic. . . . Someone may say, 'Who cares how you get your food in your mouth?' but there are a whole bunch of people out there who do care,'' says Ann Sargent, director of special events at Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel, which played host to a children's course in etiquette this fall.
It's not snobbish at all to Jon Ellison, who thinks proper manners are just plain good business sense. ''When one mistake can cost you the rapport of a company . . . (I want my staff) to know what's expected rather than what they think is expected,'' says the sales manager for two Grand Rapids, Mich., radio stations. He wants his staff to have a competitive edge and is watching the development of a proposed ''protocol'' course being designed at a nearby corporation in connection with Marjabelle Stewart, a longtime manners expert.
"Let's say you were going to be interviewed for a job at a prestigious law firm,'' hypothesizes Gordon Sinclair, a Chicago restaurateur. If you go to an elegant restaurant and don't know what to do, he says, ''You're probably going to be uncomfortable and self-conscious, and that could disempower you.'' Mr. Sinclair started thinking about offering nationwide workshops after two $30 courses he offered in restaurant etiquette sold out recently.