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Through September 5, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying 60 paintings on loan from private collections in Washington, D.C. Among the portraits is that of Judith Martin, better known as advice columnist "Miss Manners." (Darryl Bush / San Francisco Chronicle / Corbis)

Q and A with Miss Manners

The columnist talks about how her portraiture collection reflects culture’s stance on etiquette

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Through September 5, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying 60 paintings on loan from private collections in Washington, D.C. Among the portraits is that of Judith Martin, better known as advice columnist “Miss Manners.” The first lady of etiquette spoke with the magazine’s Arcynta Ali Childs.

You began your career as a reporter for the Washington Post, covering the White House, social events and later as a theater and film critic. How did you become “Miss Manners?”
First I began my career as a copy girl and the White House coverage, for example, was in the then-Women’s section. So it was social coverage. It wasn’t news, although we often got rather startling news out of it. I declared myself Miss Manners. It’s like Napoleon, there’s no one authorized to crown you. So you have to crown yourself.

Was there any particular reason? Did you see a need?
I was moving from the Style section, where I’d been since its inception—and as I said the Women’s section before that—to the Weekend section to be a critic. So this was what I thought I would do, just on the side, for Style, while I was going to movies in the morning and theater at night.

What is etiquette? And why is it so important?
It’s important because we can’t stand the way that other people treat us. Although we want the right to be able to behave in any way we want. Somehow a compromise is in order, if you want to live in communities. If you live on a mountaintop by yourself, it’s not necessary. I make a distinction between manners and etiquette—manners as the principles, which are eternal and universal, etiquette as the particular rules which are arbitrary and different in different times, different situations, different cultures.

Where did you learn the etiquette rules you live by?
Once upon a time, everyone learned these rules growing up from their parents and other people. It was—and, in my opinion, still is—an essential part of child rearing. There was no special training; you just learned to get along in the society.

Does “Miss Manners” ever get stumped on an etiquette question or issue? If so, where would you turn?
No I don’t. I want to add that I always had an interest in historic manners and manners of different societies at different times, which familiarized me with the traditions in addition to the normal upbringing of its time.

Is it ever acceptable to be rude?
No. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to let people walk all over you. Etiquette does not render you defenseless. If it did; even I wouldn’t subscribe to it. But rudeness in retaliation for rudeness just doubles the amount of rudeness in the world.

In your columns, you refer to yourself in the third person, why is that?
You have to have some authority if you’re going to tell people something they don’t want to hear. So I distance myself and sound authoritative in order to get my point across.

You’ve likely offended some readers with your honesty. How does that differ from being rude?
“Honesty” in social life is often used as a cover for rudeness. But there is quite a difference between being candid in what you’re talking about, and people voicing their insulting opinions under the name of honesty.

What etiquette breach do you most dislike?
The major etiquette problem in American nowadays is blatant greed. It’s people who are scheming to get money and possessions from other people, and who believe they are entitled to do so. Whether it is the gift registry—or people who claim to be entertaining and are telling their guests to bring food, to bring drink and sometimes even to pay—the ancient practices of exchanging presents and of giving hospitality are being undermined by this rampant greed.

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About Arcynta Ali Childs
Arcynta Ali Childs

Arcynta Ali Childs was awarded journalism fellowships from the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the National Press Foundation, the Poynter Institute and the Village Voice. She also has worked at Ms. Magazine, O and Smithsonian.

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