"Mind your manners" may be one of the oldest parental directives, right up there with "Eat your vegetables." Perhaps cave men and cave moms didn't bother to teach Junior the genteel way to gnaw a mastodon bone, but through the ages, societies everywhere have established rules of conduct to maintain order and politesse.
"There is no such thing as a nation without etiquette," insists Judith Martin in her wry and informative "Star-Spangled Manners." As the syndicated columnist Miss Manners, she speaks with decades of experience when she calls manners "the language of behavior."
But whose manners do we mind? And who makes these rules of behavior, anyhow?
For Americans, whose country began with a blank etiquette slate, the answer is simple and surprising: the Founding Fathers drew up the first social rules. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin became "architects of the new etiquette." In addition to establishing protocol for state rituals and ceremonies, they showed keen interest in the manners of everyday life, including dress, hospitality, and conversation.
It was the Declaration of Independence, Martin says, with those five famous little words, "All men are created equal," that formed the basis for all purely American etiquette. Down with hierarchical European etiquette and pomp! Up with egalitarian respect and simplicity!
Jefferson, in an anti-elitist move, also spelled out the rules in a famous memorandum known as Pêle Mêle Etiquette. Among other things, he decreed that all dignitaries, domestic or foreign, regardless of rank or title, were to be treated "perfectly equal."
But populism and egalitarianism have their limits. At Andrew Jackson's first inauguration, jovial celebrants turned raucous, trashing the White House. And at Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural, soldiers and police were summoned to quash a stampede to the buffet table that ended in looting.
The famed "melting pot" ranks as a second major factor shaping American etiquette. As immigrants arrived laden with customs from the Old Country - "cultural baggage," Martin calls it - they absorbed bits and pieces of other people's heritage, gradually reshaping behavior standards for everyone.
Even slavery played an influential role. Southern graciousness, Martin says, traces its roots not to Britain but to Africa. Some house slaves, known as Mammy, came from cultured classes in Africa, causing Charles Dickens and others to observe that Southern ladies spoke like their black nurses.
Today, Jefferson's experiment in egalitarianism lives on. Populism's latest incarnation can be found in the workplace, where first names prevail and it's supposedly OK to tell the boss exactly what you think. Yet in this Pêle-Mêle setting, Martin sees only folly in the pretense that coworkers are families and friends. Similarly, Casual Friday offers another kind of charade - that clothes don't have any symbolic content. Describing this sartorial confusion, Martin asks, "What do you wear to symbolize authority, competence, and relaxation all at once?" Pell-mell, indeed.
From the nation's earliest history, Martin observes, Americans have drawn "universal sneers" for the crudeness of their behavior, a criticism that continues today. We may be loud-mouthed rubes in blue jeans, but that hasn't stopped our etiquette from becoming "the most influential force of its kind in the world."
As chief of the etiquette police, Martin frets that Americans still aren't minding their manners very well. A Gentle Reader can almost see the disapproving arch of her brow and the tight purse of her lips as she tut-tuts about everything from road rage to guest towels to honorifics.
Yet she is right, and often funny. She also sees hope on the social horizon. "After a period of denial, we are again obsessed with etiquette," she notes approvingly.
As social history, "Star-Spangled Manners" offers a fascinating account of how we have arrived at the standards of etiquette we follow - or disregard - today. As a road map for where we need to go and how to get there, it is less successful. One proposed remedy for deficient manners sounds simplistic and vague: "All it would take to solve our own problem is a commitment to obey our own etiquette code, which is minimally restrictive, to adjust it where deemed necessary by achieving consensus and practicing patience during transitions, to teach it to our children, and to marginalize people who defy it." Presto! Problem solved.
A word of caution: Gentle Reader, do not tackle this book when you are tired. Martin's sentences, particularly in the opening chapter, can be labyrinthine (one stretches to 101 words) - with a tangle of clauses and phrases set off by dashes and parentheses.
Still, those who pay attention will be rewarded often with keen insights. And who can fail to be impressed by Martin's tireless, quarter-century-long quest to convince a casual, egalitarian nation that etiquette's true goal is to make human relations easier? She - and our mothers - are right. Those three little words, "Mind your manners," will never go out of style.
• Marilyn Gardner writes about family issues for the Monitor.