Q and A with Miss Manners

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

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)
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In this age of speed and electronic correspondence, do you think we are becoming a less polite society?
Yes and no. There are many ways in which we’re become much more polite than Americans were historically. Blatant bigotry is no longer tolerated by this society. It exists, but people get into trouble for practicing it. The obligation to be considerate of others has spread to include groups that were excluded at many times.

But there are many changes in society and I always try to keep it a secret that etiquette changes. But, of course, it does in order to keep up with society and the reason I don’t like spreading this around is because then people think that they can just change it arbitrarily themselves, which they can’t. And it’s always in their own favor without regard to the needs of others. We suffered from one of those periodic times which occurred in the mid-20th century, but it had also occurred in previous centuries, where people think manners are a nuisance and you should just behave, what they think of as naturally. Of course, we have no idea what natural human behavior is. And therefore the manners are not taught in normal child rearing. We are, I hope, in recovery from that time, but it’s taking a long time. You mentioned speed and technology, those all add to our abilities, they can be used politely or rudely.

Do you think the level of anonymity made possible by the Internet has contributed to the rise of rude behavior?
Yes, anonymity always does. For instance, some people who think they’re anonymous when driving their car behave in an extraordinarily rude manner that you wouldn’t normally expect from them. They seem to forget that cars have windows and we can see who they are, so they suspend the necessity of keeping the good will of others.

As a reporter, you’re used to doing the examining, asking the questions, then “painting the picture,” so to speak. What as it like being on the other side?
Strange, very strange. I have not gotten used to it.

What do you see when you look at your portrait?
I see the skill of the painter, whom I very much admire.

How does portraiture speak to etiquette?
Portraiture has a history of displaying what people want displayed because they usually commissioned their own portraits. As I’m sure you know, through the ages, there have been symbols of wealth and power. My portrait, commissioned by my husband, shows me as a working writer. Not symbols of riches, just books. And, in the background, you can see a reference to the city of Venice, which I love.

In a December 2010 survey, Travel + Leisure magazine rated Washington, D.C. as the fifth rudest city in America. As a Washington, D.C. native, etiquette authority and frequent traveler, what are your thoughts?
I’m often told that when I travel. And I have to say to these people, whom are you talking about? I was born in Washington, and I’m not rude. You’re talking about people that you sent here. You’re talking about people you voted for and you sent to Washington. So if you have complaints, and when people do, they often say to me, well what can we do about it? I said the answer there is something called an election. That’s something you can do about it.

The idea has gotten around that people who are virtuous are unable to restrain themselves by the decencies of etiquette and unable to deal with people who disagree with them. And therefore, the people who are the most contentious often win elections. But the voters forget, first of all, that we have a cooperative form of government. They have to get along if they’re going to get anything done. And second of all, that they themselves don’t like it. They think thatit’s amusing during the races, but then they don’t like it afterwards. So don’t vote for it. These are not native-born Washingtonians.

You travel to Venice quite a bit. What attracts you to the city?
First of all, it’s the most beautiful city in the world. But second of all, the people are incredibly nice, polite. You don’t see what you see in most of the rest of the world—that kind of tension of people who are afraid they’ll be taken advantage of, or afraid they’ll miss something. People seem happy there. Venetians will tell me, well they can’t make a get away. It’s a small town. They encounter people they know in the streets everyday. If there were an altercation, they can’t zoom off in their cars the way we could. And maybe that’s part of it, but whatever it is, it’s an extremely pleasant society.

Have the etiquette questions you answer in your column changed much over the years?
They’ve changed as philosophies change—the philosophy of the society. They’ve changed as the technology changes; and every once in a while we get rid of an old problem. And that’s a cause of triumph. But then, of course, new ones come along.

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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