Rating: 3.75/5Dining room bookshelf, second row down and all the way to the left: this is where my copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette lives, a brick of a book at 896 pages, bought at a time when I was pissed off about a perceived social slight and wanted the full force of Emily Post behind me for proof, vindication and justification of my irritable tetchiness (ironic, no?). That I even found relatable material to my uber-specific gripe is a testament to how near-infinite the instances are in which we need to be mindful of tact, decorum and good graces. Indeed, the social contract is a wily one, a tenuous, cross-cultural, inter-class, constantly negotiated agreement between the nicest and most boorish of us that asks if we can’t find a way to live in the world without being total assholes to each other. Like Emily Post before him, essayist Henry Alford takes a long, often close-to-home look at modern manners in Would It KILL YOU to Stop DOING THAT? In it, he decides to forgo the “sigh in contemplative resignation” that accompanies the witnessing of poor social skills and thoughtless gestures in action, replacing that mild woe with enlivened resolve, metaphorically “grab[bing] a pair of rubber gloves and a bottle of Windex.” He may not get us all the way to a streak-free shine, but through a little research, a lot of anecdotes and an arm-clutching tone of arrestingly intimate new-BFF-ness, Alford wipes away a fair amount of smudging and soiling so that we can at least see what it is we’re dealing with.
Best to dispense here with the hen-clucking notion of manners defined by, “Dear me, however shall I greet the Monsignor at the charity luncheon?” Though this information may well be found in one of Post’s thumb-indexed tabs, Alford rather trains his eye on his own everyday experiences, pulling in axioms and advice from folkways mavens such as “Project Runway”’s inestimable Tim Gunn, a Japanese etiquette coach, an ex-inmate drug runner, a coterie of personal friends and the grande dame herself, Miss Manners. This consultant list is no less diverse than the topics Alford investigates. How do you let someone know some rogue material has escaped their nose and is now visible to all the world? (Excuse yourself and return with two tissues, one which you use and one which you extend to the afflicted party) – Is lip-kissing ever an acceptable salutation? (Tim Gunn says no. He says “no” eight times in a row, just so you get how much of a no that is) – What’s the best, most non-creepy way to start conversations with strangers? (Remark upon the common setting or circumstance; be “game and generous”).
While some chapters of Would It KILL YOU are devoted to traditional etiquette discourse in a Q&A-inspired format, Alford also takes inventory of his own behavior. A phenomenon that is distinctly contemporary, he details his habit for “reverse etiquette,” a method deployed to teach people manners by performing it for them. Alford’s guerilla tactics mount from controlled contrition (saying, “Oh, I’m sorry” when someone bumps into him) to borderline shit-starting (following up with, “I’m saying what you should be saying”) to wackadoodle philosophical (concluding with, “My idea is that if I say I’m sorry, at least then the words have been released into the universe”). It’s kind of a politesse campaign waged through anti-manners or manners gone mutant, a putative battle wherein comment roughs up complacency. Another chapter follows Alford’s careful anthropological immersion into the VeggieTrader.com community, a Craigslist type site that facilitates plant trading among local green thumbs. Herein lies anxieties about verbal grandstanding, email tone, the hows and whens of face-to-face meetings, the awkwardness of distinguishing between transaction and relationship. As our technology has enabled us to participate in so many subcultures, both IRL and virtual, so too must we concern ourselves with the rules and customs of membership… even if it’s just a matter of trading zucchini for strawberry plants.
With Alford as our witty and waggish gentleman-about-town, Would It KILL YOU is less a reference book than a charmingly self-aware compendium of loosely related treatises. Of course, our fearless narrator is a certain kind of man – highly literate, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, privileged – so the content and context of his narrative naturally follow suit. Never snobbish, Alford nevertheless clearly has a leg up on most of us with his quick intellect and advanced vocabulary. For example, recounting a story in which he attempts to explain to some middle-aged English tourists the NYC appeal behind a “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCK” T-shirt in a souvenir shop’s store window, it helps to be somewhat of a cinephile if not grammar expert when he clarifies that although the quote is from Blue Velvet, “… in general [New Yorkers’] interest in fuck declension is Mamet-derived.”
Did the Mamet thing just make you giggle? If yes, then Would It KILL YOU is very much in your zone. More than a few stories eschew resolution for the glee of description, sometimes the lesson is drowned out by the snicker. And yet, I feel better prepared somehow for dealing with my Facebook feed tomorrow. For his trouble, Henry Alford is due a note of gratitude, and now we’ll all know better than to send an email saying simply, maddeningly, “thx.”