I completely agree with Melinda about the shameful incivility
that's on the Internet. People who make spiteful and ignorant comments about a person who has just died are the lowest of the low. I also bet Peggy Noonan is on target with her suspicion
that Americans are despondent over having lost control of the country to vulgarians and crooks. I'm plenty despondent over both those developments.
But what's even more depressing is the idea that we might be the best of the world's lot.
The New York Times Book Review ran an essay
this past Sunday noting that Americans are incredibly polite and intolerant of public rudeness, much, much better than Brits, whom most of us think of as far more observant of life's niceties.
The author, an Englishman named Geoff Dyer, was even able to defend our tendency to talk too loudly. I've laughed for years at a description I read once of an American woman who had a voice that could be heard over the wide, wide plains. The description comes to mind because I've often feared it might apply to me.
Dyer defends our loud voices as an outgrowth of our having no fear about our words being overheard. "Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else."
That last bit was a little snippy, wasn't it? Or am I being too sensitive? I've often been accused of that, which makes me a pretty good judge of politeness. I suppose we do think of America as better than anyplace else. But we're sheepish about it. The politeness and over-thanking the author notices when we're abroad is one of the ways we try to make up for being from the best place. We do
want to be liked.
He writes that the texture of British life has coarsened in a way that American life has not. "For example. I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. Eighty percent of the time, the next people to play indicate that your time is up by unzipping their racket covers and strolling on court, without saying a word, without a smile, without acknowledging your existence except as an impediment. In America that would be not just unacceptable but inconceivable
Righto. Not only that, such behavior might lead to fisticuffs, which wouldn't be us at our most polite.
I especially liked the part of the essay that mentioned our charm. Have you ever heard Americans referred to as charming? Boisterous. Guileless. Childlike. Bumptious. Greedy. Surface. But charming? No.
It gets better.
Dyer writes, "And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm. The French put a rather charmless emphasis on charm, are consciously or unconsciously persuaded that it is either part of a display of sophistication or -- and it may amount to the same thing -- a tool in the service of seduction."
Isn't that fun? Taking shots at the French makes it even nicer. They are snooty, which is not polite.
I just love being polite and charming and from the best place. Don't you?
Tagged: American manners
, American politeness
, British incivility
, British manner
, Christine Wicker
, Geoff Dyer
, Melinda Henneberger
, New York Times Book Review
, Peggy Noonan
, ugly American