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Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? - Book review

Aunt Dandelion writes:

The publishers of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners by Henry Alford sent me a copy of the book and requested that I review it. The subject is manners and why they matter, so it seemed appropriate to review in this column.

The first thing you have to understand about Henry Alford is that he has cast himself (no doubt wittingly) as the enfant terrible of etiquette. The book is peppered with mostly humorous turns of phrase, occasional crude language and outlandish metaphors that would make a maiden aunt blush. Aunt Dandelion is made of sterner stuff than that, but still I could not dismiss the overriding impression of a writer who has put on his hipster pants in order to write about etiquette using four-letter words.

There is a certain self-consciousness in the witticisms, a quality of "look how clever I am" now and again. This is a pitfall into which all comedians stumble; just as high-wire acrobats occasionally slip and fall into the net below. As the audience, we may well forgive a little wobble in those who dare to walk a tenuous line. However, we prefer not to see the performer fall during the show. We want him to practice hard enough ahead of time to put on a flawless act. Alford’s book might have been the better for the application of a more judicious editing hand. Some of the chapters seem a little disjointed, as when a stand-up comedian jumps from subject to subject to keep the audience laughing, while other chapters flow admirably and offer useful advice.

Keeping in mind the ironical nature of Alford’s approach, the book can be a fun read and imparts a fresh perspective on manners in our modern society. In chapter one, Alford recounts a visit to Japan, where he wished to learn some of the highly formalized rules of this culture. We discover, through him, some Japanese customs that are charming (such as the entire staff of a department store lining up to bow to the day’s first customers) and some that are more mysterious (such as a supermarket taboo against breaking a bunch of bananas in order to purchase a smaller quantity). In the final chapter Alford brings us full circle as he walks foreign visitors around New York City and exposes them to the customs of that city, so we can experience the oddness of a section of our own society as seen through the eyes of l'étranger. The particular New York customs Alford chooses to highlight are more quirks and not exactly manners in their generally accepted form, so here again we have the hipster at play.

But the point is made, and quite well researched and illustrated throughout the book, that manners tend to be situational, cultural, and peculiar to their time and place. Alford posits useful suggestions for a wide number of personal and social situations, and also delves into the deeper philosophical issues of why we have manners at all. He quotes Emily Post, Dante and Samuel Johnson, and interviews Miss Manners and Tim Gunn in his search for some universal principles of etiquette.

Alford makes wise distinctions among the concepts of manners, mores, etiquette and protocol. He also tries his own hand at giving advice in these matters to acquaintances as well as mentally answering queries posted in newspaper columns, with varying success. I applaud his attempts to dissect tricky social situations – including ones he created himself – and try to find the oil that etiquette can spread on those troubled waters. However, his answers are sometimes marred by slips back into the jejune, which is a reason why this should not be the only book on etiquette that a serious student owns.

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? was worth reading and provided some good laughs, especially the story told on page 174 to the top of 176. Aunt Dandelion can definitely empathize with the author's frustration at conversationally inept party guests and agrees with his choice of using humor when deflecting the pompous.

Enter the realm of Henry Alford who dares. You may enjoy it – but remember, there be dragons. You have been warned.

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