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

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.

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.

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