Miss Manners Q&A

As an expert on etiquette, Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, says she is troubled by the ‘abrasiveness’ of society. She will be in St. Louis on Nov. 15 to speak at the Jewish Book Festival and introduce her new book, Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding. She bemoans that weddings have gotten more extravagant and costly, to the point that the ceremony has been eclipsed by a festival of parties, dinners and the reception.

LN: How did you become an expert on etiquette?

JM: I often wonder that myself. I noticed that there was a level of abrasiveness in society that I certainly found annoying and it never occurred to me other people would too. I was writing a column about this on the side to amuse myself when I was working as a drama critic and reporter at the Washington Post. It was always an interest of mine, in connection with an interest in history, and it eventually blossomed into what it is today.

LN: Are you ever asked questions that you don’t know how to answer?

JM: No, but people sometimes send questions that are really legal issues, and I leave myself to the etiquette questions, which involve all of human behavior. The stereotypical view of etiquette is that it’s all about weddings and dinners, but fortunately I have readers who understand it’s really about all social interaction.

LN: Was the wedding of your daughter Jacobina (who co-authored the book) the inspiration for the book?

JM: She was married in April 2009, and I was already set to do the book. However, when my daughter was planning her wedding with me she started reading what we are pleased to call ‘wedding porn.’ That includes the vast amount of commercial propaganda that is put out about weddings. It’s done with commercial interests in mind, and it suggests a lot of buying and spending. It puts people into debt and makes them very anxious. The shocking thing to me was that it was invoking the noble name of etiquette and then suggesting highly improper things. The book was a chance to fight back, and I enlisted my daughter’s aid. She had a great many insights.

LN: Has wedding etiquette changed since you were married?

JM: Indeed it has, almost entirely for the worse. It has become show-businessy and vulgar in the amount of display. It’s become detached from the act of getting married. When I got married everything in my life changed: name, residence, everything. Now nothing changes. People are more likely to be living together already, and they often don’t change their names, so I asked my daughter Why do they make such a big thing now over the wedding? She said that’s exactly why: If they didn’t make a huge thing over the wedding, nothing would change.

I got married in my parents’ house with our relatives and friends around us, and it was very charming. It wasn’t that different from my children’s weddings, except they were a little larger so it was done at our club rather than the house. Neither my children nor I took any part in suggesting that people would give gifts, much less what they should be. But my children got lovely gifts that people chose without just checking off a shopping list.

LN: It’s interesting that you would be opposed to gift registries, because they’re so common.

JM: They’re common in both senses of the word. It is appalling to tell people, Here’s what you have to buy me. Not to mention it’s much less satisfying in the end. I have been married for 50 years and I look around my house and remember who bought me different things. Will you remember in the future who gave you a place setting that you put on a shopping list? Registries let guests avoid having to think about what might please people, which of course is the whole point of presents.

LN: How can a woman avoid being a ‘bridezilla’?

JM: The way brides fall into that trap is that they have probably never done any formal entertaining at all, and the propaganda tells them to put on a huge festival involving a lot of people, to spend great sums of money that they probably don’t have and that it has to be perfect. No wonder they go crazy! Don’t read the propaganda. Just think about the occasion: You are getting married, so you want your relatives and friends around you and want them to have a pleasant time. That’s what it is really all about.

LN: What advice would you give to a bride as she’s planning for her wedding?

JM: Have a little perspective: Your manners are not suspended for the occasion. We do not recognize an etiquette-free zone for people getting married.

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