‘Miss Manners’ says email not for every thank you


The biggest social gaffe facing our society today is the greed epidemic. So says Judith Martin, known to millions of people as the etiquette guru Miss Manners.

“This greed phenomenon has taken off with gift registries and giving friends a list of what to buy you for your birthday party and even what food to bring, too.”


Martin was at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival to discuss her latest book No Vulgar Hotel which is her love story to her favorite city, Venice. Her experiences of living in foreign lands since she was a young girl led to her popular role of advising would-be-properly-behaved citizens on society’s rules.

“I was visiting the Cairo Museum in Egypt as a young child where I saw a letter from a father to his son detailing very specific rules of what to do,” Martin told attendees of the sold-out dessert reception at the Ritz-Carlton. “I thought this was a bit odd and asked my parents about it. They told me that if you want to study a society, study its rules.”

That’s how Martin began her interest in the etiquette of different cultures. She said that various forms of etiquette go all the way back to Biblical times. “The Bible and the Talmud are full of etiquette. The Renaissance era was very big with etiquette rules.”

Martin began reading books about various cultures and their rules and after college became a copy editor at the Washington Post. The paper was getting a lot of calls from people asking such questions as “What should I wear to this event?” In between her regular work as a drama and film critic and raising two small children, her answers to these questions became a column that took off.

“I define etiquette as all human social behavior,” Martin said. “People don’t like being treated rudely. Even gangs on the street put an emphasis on not disrespecting one another.” She said that good manners are the bargain we make to live in a community. In order to live in peaceful surroundings we need to have a certain amount of restraint.

Martin’s popular book, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, has been “freshly updated” to include the influence technology has had on etiquette.

“E-mail does not replace other forms of communication,” she said. “It’s one thing to use e-mail to thank someone for giving you a ride or to invite a friend to go to a movie. But it’s not okay to send an e-mail to thank someone for giving you a set of silver for your wedding.” Martin said that e-mail is half-way between the phone call which is immediate but interrupting and a letter which is not immediate and does not interrupt. It has its place.

She also correlates the decline in customer service with the advent of casual Fridays. “There is a clear demarcation between professional business clothes and casual attire like flip-flops and bare midriffs,” Martin said. “If you wear business clothes you take on a role to look and act professionally. It becomes important for you to do a good job.”

While she doesn’t answer every single letter that comes to Miss Manners, she does read every one of them and has enjoyed learning about all different aspects of the world through these letters. Martin said that we have made enormous advances in etiquette through the years. “People used to freely air their bigoted thoughts about women, blacks, gays and Jews,” she said. “While we still have exceptions to that behavior, it’s certainly not like it used to be.”

Martin also offered advice on what to do when you find yourself in a conversation that turns to gossip which Jewish law tells us is wrong. “Try to change the subject if you’re in a group,” she suggested. “Or if it’s just a one-on-one discussion, respond ‘Oh, but she says such nice things about you.'”