Thursday, November 1, 2012

Graceful Words of Wisdom From an Expert on Etiquette


As fate would have it, Letitia Baldrige died on the same day that Hurricane Sandy made a bullseye of our corner of the globe. She might have had some thoughts on how people should behave during and after the storm. She had them for other crises, so why not this one?
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Ms. Baldrige, who was 86, was best known as a leading authority on etiquette, a subject that often lends itself to parody and even ridicule. But etiquette for her meant a good deal more than knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner or whether it is proper to haul out the straw fedora before Memorial Day. Her core concern was good manners, which she saw as nothing more than common sense, with a dash of kindness stirred in.

On that basis, I turned to her at times for rulings on acceptable behavior in a rapidly changing, digitalized, gizmo-centric world where thank you is reduced to tnx and please to pls. She was not stuffy, just reasonable.

One such moment dealt with disaster, specifically on the Staten Island Ferry. This was in 1998, and it was a theoretical exercise. A true horror, the crash of the ferry Andrew J. Barberi, which killed 11 people and injured dozens of others, did not occur until five years later.

In early 1998, about half a year after fares were eliminated on the ferry, some Staten Islanders suspected they were being taken for a ride, even if it was now free. Service had begun to fray, they complained. To make matters worse, the then-popular film “Titanic” inspired a magazine article on how the ferries did not have enough lifeboats and rafts should any of them sink. While no weepy Leonardo-and-Kate moment seemed likely in New York Harbor, the news did not sit well with regular ferry passengers.

That led to a question about disaster etiquette, one that could easily have applied to rescue efforts during Hurricane Sandy: Does the old tradition of women and children first still hold? Or is “get outta my way” the prevailing ethos?

“Children always must be saved first,” Ms. Baldrige said firmly. But women? Not so fast. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, she expected no special consideration. “Whoever is strong and healthy can help the ones who aren’t,” she said.

Fair enough.

Sometime later, the use and abuse of first names arose. There was a blossoming trend, in full flourish today, of identifying a proposed law by a first name, usually that of a victim who was a woman or a child, like Megan or Jenna or Elisa. It gave the legislation an emotional wallop, and made challengers look like ogres.

Ms. Baldrige was not comfortable with this. But she verged on apoplexy when it came to people — pretty much everyone by now — who phone or e-mail total strangers and instantly address them by their first names as if they were old buddies. (Public-relations practitioners, take heed.) To her, a false concept of democratic equality was in play.

“It is bad, bad, bad,” she told me. In case you missed her point, it’s really bad. “It destroys deference,” she said. “It destroys authority. It destroys respect.”

She was no more taken with technological features like caller ID, which enabled you to tell even before picking up the phone who was on the other end. Do you start, as many do, with an all-knowing, “How’s it going, pal?” Or do you play out a time-tested ritual and let the other person identify himself first?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ms. Baldrige preferred a traditional approach. “Be very nondescript,” she advised. “Less is more. The less information we give out, the better.”

She felt in general that technology was changing us faster than was healthy: “For every step forward in electronic communications we’ve taken two steps back in humanity. People know how to use a computer and answering machines but have forgotten how to connect with one another. Our society is unraveling. We’re too self-obsessed.”

That was said to a reporter for The New York Times in 1992 — long before smartphones, iPods and other devices, wondrous though they may be, turned many people into social zombies, unable to sustain a conversation for more than 30 seconds without refocusing on the screen.

Too bad Ms. Baldrige died before there was a chance to ask her about the enduring effects of these innovations, or about offenders like smartphone users who stop at the top of subway stairs, blocking everyone else while they check their messages.

But we do know, to get back to the Staten Island Ferry, what she thought of some riders who, even as the fare was being eliminated, grumbled about the service they were already certain would deteriorate.

They were handed a gift. And the correct thing to do on such an occasion, she said, is to offer two simple words: thank you. Certainly not tnx. Just thank you.

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