“There’s something almost un-American about etiquette. . . . For a lot of Americans the idea that there are rules out there about the proper way to behave, rules more elaborate than just common sense, seems pretentious, European, like one more thing we fought the British to be free of.”
—Nancy Updike, This American Life, March 4, 2011
I do not quite recall when the bad manners (and worse English) routinely displayed on National Public Radio became one of our inalienable rights, but Miss Updike is clearly right. Most Americans do think that the rules of etiquette are as un-American as correct grammar or fair play. The proviso for common sense is meaningless. One man’s common sense is another man’s insolence. Last night we went out to dinner and could barely have a conversation with our guests, because a table of well-dressed thirtysomethings, egged on by a metrosexual waiter, were hooting and shrieking inanities that should have been put into a secret diary and kept under lock and key.
It is common decency, not common sense, that underlies any system of etiquette. It had never occurred to the loud young women in the restaurant that they did not have the whole place to themselves, because, for people of their generation, no one exists but themselves. Their personal code can be summed up as “Get out of the way, world—I’m...