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Henry Alford, Author of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?, Tells Us How to Behave

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Fri, Jan 27, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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On his website, writer Henry Alford (The New York Times, Vanity Fair) touts some of the raves for his new book about manners, Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners. Isn't bragging considered bad manners?

Our interview with Alford, who will be appearing at Book Soup at 6 p.m. this Saturday:

So what made you write a book about modern manners?

I'd always operated from the belief that life is a public bathroom and that we are all perpetually inheriting the toilet seat. My good manners were fueled by a fear of humiliation: "Henry is a sprayer." But then I realized: Can't I do a little better? And can't I help the other sprayers?

I sound much peppier and likable in emails than I could ever pull off in person -- is that being dishonest?

No! No, comma, exclamation point! Samuel Johnson called good manners "fictitious benevolence" -- your peppiness is fictitiously benevolent. I thank you. The world thanks you. Frankly, I wish that being fictitiously benevolent offline were as easy as simply adding exclamation points. It would reduce the instances of seeming autism by about 75 percent. The prevailing ethos today is, "Do what makes you or others comfortable." But frankly, "comfortable" is not such a pretty picture. My comfortable is underpants and a box of frozen waffles. Want to see it?

What do you think about people who ask "How are you?" as they are walking by you? Is that considered bad manners?

I don't think that's rude, unless they know that your house just collapsed into a sinkhole. Their movement is your cue to give a short answer. I think it's rude if they ask "How are you?" and then stand there and don't listen. Which describes the better part of my interactions with humans.

And what do you think about people who screen all their calls? (Psssst -- I screen all my calls.)

You go, Libby. I'm your ya-ya sisterhoodpants on that one. I'm not going to chastise you, dear. Now that we can instantaneously bank and shop and live our lives online, people have too-high and too-urgent expectations about real-time, offline interactions. Talking to an actual person can feel very handcrank. But that's how life is: handcranky. By screening calls, you're just fronting your handcrank. Show me the crank.

What's your own worst bad-mannered habit?

Because I love to travel and hear about exotic lands, I'm always asking people who have a foreign accent, "Where are you from?" But if those folks are living in the States, they don't tend to love that question. They'd rather be perceived as American. "Nigerian" is probably No. 47 on a list of descriptors they'd prefer, far after "American" or "amateur cellist of exceptional promise."

I write in the book about a game I play called Touch the Waiter: You and the people at your table see how many times you can touch your food server without him figuring out that you're doing so. You do it to an "I'm Reginald I'll be your server"-type waiter. This game has not brought me a lot of love from book critics.

As a society, have we peaked at civility?

Well, we're not burping and spitting and defecating in public, as we did in the Middle Ages. Facebook "Like" button to that. But I'd like to see more generosity of spirit. "Manners" doesn't have to mean "what you shouldn't do," it can also mean "what you might also do." And somebody better go after "thx," "No problem" and telling a cancer patient she really ought to be macrobiotic.

Henry Alford at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Sat., Jan. 28, 6 p.m.; free, book is $24.99. (310) 659-3110

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