February 9, 2006

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Essential Manners for Couples: From Snoring and Sex to Finances and Fighting Fair — What Works, What Doesn’t and Why, by Peter Post (Emily Post Institute, 2005, 271 pages)

The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself with Style and Grace, by Margaret Shepherd with Sharon Hogan (Broadway, 2005, 228 pages)

Don’t be a jerk.

If you had to boil down the advice in manners books, it would be that — “Don’t be a jerk.” It could be broadened to include “What were you thinking? Say you’re sorry.” And also, “Be nice to your little brother.”

Damn, our parents were right.

The Art of Civilized Conversation is not so much a Strunk and White for speaking as it is a book of manners. What to say (and not to say) when you talk to your boss, to your boss’s wife, to someone in the hospital, to new people, to people who compliment you. It advises you as to what to say in any situation where you would momentarily panic and think “What do I say?” And that advice comes down to don’t be a jerk. Don’t be insincere, don’t lie, don’t hurt someone’s feelings, don’t gossip, don’t burden strangers with your woes, don’t talk down to people, don’t be rude, don’t, essentially, be a jerk.

It sounds easy but the practice of reading suggested conversation starters or phrases to avoid can get you thinking about how you act in unfamiliar situations and how, even at the most miserable chicken-dinner fundraiser event, you can modify your behavior so, if nothing else, your misery isn’t apparent to others. Without actually having any blank spaces to fill in or multiple choice questions, the book is something of a workbook that allows you improve your awkward-conversation skills via repetition and simple description. Should you be looking down the barrel of a job search, a season of social events or a spate of upcoming family get-togethers this book is a quick, painless way to arm yourself.

Of course, your manners with the odd tablemate at some random function aren’t nearly as course-of-life-determining as your manners with your family, especially with your spouse. Peter Post, the current keeper of the Emily Post flame, offers up a quick tour through the etiquette pitfalls of the eternal (if you’re lucky) partnership that is marriage.

And if you thought “don’t be a jerk” was good advice outside the home…

I admit that I picked up Post’s book because of something Joan Didion talks about in her most recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Her attempt to learn more about the grief she experienced after the death of her husband reminded me, in its sappiness-eschewing tone, of my own desire to learn more about marriage shortly after I tied the knot. Didion talks about finding that most grief books are either perky how-tos or sappily inspirational and how one of the most useful things she read was a section in an old Emily Post etiquette book on grief. Through its discussion of what should be done for mourners and how to handle the formalities of loss, the advice was more direct and insightful than much of what was in the grief-related self-help books.

Marriage, not nearly so somber a subject, is given equally goofy treatment in the book world (most “marriage” books are of the “how to get married” variety). Perhaps, I thought, an etiquette book would have a more intelligent discussion on the subject.

And actually, “don’t be a jerk” is a pretty good piece of advice for any married person. Post’s book could pretty much be divided into two sections: “don’t be a jerk at home to your spouse” and “don’t be a jerk out in the world and therefore make your spouse look like a jerk.” He spends a lot of time explaining how once two people are married they essentially become one person in the eyes of society. (And if the female half of that person is a sullen party-pooper or the male half of that person is a domineering ass, the other half of that person will feel the social pressures the same as if he or she had those negative qualities him- or herself.) His advice for how to act as a couple is neither alien nor antiquated. It’s mostly all the stuff your mom always told you to do — send thank-you cards, bring something (gifts, wine, Ho-Hos and Pepsi) when visiting someone, don’t hog the conversation, be polite.

The between-the-married-people part of the book is equally do-unto-others. Respect each other’s jobs (especially if one person’s job is raising the kids and taking care of the house); be aware of each other’s pet peeves; discuss things with each other. Don’t let stuff outside the marriage (work, finances, in-laws, friends, hobbies) get in the way of stuff inside the marriage (thinking before you act, spending time together, respecting each other’s desires and plans, being faithful). The book is not particularly heavy on any one section and topics like managing career and family could clearly use more detail. But the book offers a handy social guide to marriage that far eclipses any other marriage-related advice book I’ve seen. As it turns out, the same things your parents said to you and your siblings (“be nice; take care of each other”) are more or less the basic tenets of a good marriage. Of course there’s nothing in the good manners code that says we have to let them know that. The Art of Civilized Conversation B- Essential Manners for Couples B+

—Amy Diaz

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