Miss Manners is a liar

by Carl V Phillips

Yes, I have a backlog of several important scientific analyses to do here.  But sometimes, you just find something is just too funny to pass up…

H/T to Treece for finding this column about vaping by advice columnist Judith Martin who write under the pretentious “Miss Manners”.  Can an advice column even be considered a lie?  Or is she merely a bitch, to quote Treece’s tweet?  After all, newspaper columnists on any topic are rarely (though not never, of course) scholar-level analysts of their topic.  Still, when someone claims to offer expert advice, but then makes claims that are beyond that expertise or are personal pique disguised as expert analysis, that is a kind of lie.

The column in question was in response to the following very reasonable query about the not-yet-established etiquette rules about vaping in public.  (Note: given the eloquence of the question, I assume the questioner used the word “vape” and some bad editor changed it to the bizarre “e-smoke”.  Almost the entire profession of copy editors are a great example of people who often claim expertise that they do not have.)

Where is it impolite to e-smoke? Does modern etiquette differ from historical smoking etiquette, when it was common and socially acceptable to smoke? In particular, is it improper to e-smoke when giving a large speech?  I am quite fond of my electronic cigarette. It has a white light and cannot be mistaken for a real cigarette. It is odorless, but I exhale a visible gray vapor, which can be confusing to people who haven’t discussed it with me yet.

… I already use it during informal business functions (essentially any business function where it is acceptable to wear jeans). Does it hurt one’s public image if I e-smoke when I do speaking engagements? … Would it hurt my image if I were to e-smoke while giving an engaging and riveting talk? I’m already seen as a bit of a provocateur, but I don’t want to cross the line into gauche….

The reply begins with (and, for any reader who is too busy to bother to finish reading something that is obviously written by a moron, also ends with):

While sharing your interest in history, Miss Manners apparently reads more of it than you do. The smoky society you describe existed only in the middle decades of the 20th century; before that, it was not tolerated. In the preceding decades and centuries, smokers, also known then as gentlemen, did not smoke in the presence of nonsmokers, then known as ladies, without their express permission, which could be politely withheld. For the most part, the smokers did not even venture to inquire, but withdrew to smoking rooms and put on smoking jackets, so as to isolate the effects. When ladies began to smoke openly, the rules were regrettably abandoned. Even so, an occasional professor might have clutched his pipe, but it was not the rule.

Ok, let me see if I got this. Smoking did not occur in university classrooms before the 20th century because of the plethora of “ladies” in the room? Everyone who smoked before the middle 20th century had a smoking room and owned a smoking jacket?  Yes, apparently Miss Manners’s oh-so-extensive reading of history seems to consist mainly of Jane Austen novels.  (And her knowledge of English seems to not include first person pronouns, as is the case with a one-year-old learning to speak and reasoning “everyone calls me Miss Manners, so I should refer to myself as Miss Manners”.)

Needless to say, smoking customs have varied substantially across space and time, and things changed in the 20th century (rather early in it, actually) because of the growing popularity of cheap cigarettes.  She goes on to make a few more equally clueless and unintentionally funny pronouncements about the history of smoking, but I will move on.

Yes, I know that the qualifications for being an advice columnist consist mainly of knowing where to place each fork when hosting a dinner for Hapsburg royalty.  But come on!  If she were truly the expert in etiquette that she claims to be, she would realize that arbitrary social conventions from the past were whatever they were.  A half century ago in the US (and in many places still today) when smoking in many public places was not considered to be bad manners, it was not bad manners.  That does not change based on what people think about it now, even if it was causing some harm.  That is the whole nature of manners, after all.  Surely anyone even a little bit expert on the topic understand this concept.

Moreover, if you are only qualified to answer questions that are relevant to 16th century European nobility and other people who own smoking jackets, do not presume to offer history lessons about the other 99.999% of humanity.  Nor should you try to offer advice about normal people’s legitimate concerns.

Oh, but she does.

You ask about your public image. To those who recognize electronic cigarettes, you would appear to be someone struggling to give up smoking and therefore relying on a crutch. We have come to the point where that is considered pathetic, at best.

While I do not receive salary to offer advice about etiquette, I will go out on a limb here and suggest that characterizing the quarter of the population who are not happy to be be bereft of smoking/tobacco/nicotine as “pathetic” qualifies as bad manners.  Perhaps her extensive readings of the history of smoking managed to miss a few minor details, like the fact that many people find quitting to be extremely unpleasant.  I am sure I do not need to explain to my readership how moronic it is to characterize someone who has quit smoking using e-cigarettes as “struggling to give up smoking”.

So far, the self-appointed manners expert has attacked her reader’s personal choice as a “crutch” but has not offered any useful advice about manners.  Does she get to that?  No, she finishes with:

But not everyone does distinguish the real from the imitation, particularly at a distance from a speaking platform. Such people would not consider you pathetic, you may be relieved to hear: They would consider you evil. The now-accepted rule against smoking near nonsmokers is perhaps the most dangerous one to break. People will excuse heinous crimes before condoning that.  But here is the crushing part: Everyone will be thinking “He’s smoking,” rather than paying attention to your riveting words.

Yes, according to Miss Manners, smoking in public puts you in the Jerry Sandusky category.  I realize that some of the ANTZ liars that we write about here probably do actually hate smokers more than they hate child molesters, but even if someone is personally biased as to think smokers are evil, how is this observation useful?  Writing things like that apparently leaves readers thinking “she’s a clueless bitch” rather than reading her riveting advice about manners.

Oh, except there is no such advice offered, and that is unfortunate, because it is an area worth exploring.  Manners is not about the inherent worth of an action (and thus whether or not it is “pathetic”), nor about presentation skills (and thus not whether it might or might not affect that).  There is room for differing views about whether it is impolite to do something that offends people’s irrational or hateful prejudices, but an honest expert would point out the tension.  Instead, Miss Manners Maven offers an assessment that is solidly at the extreme of that debate and is basically analogous to, “if you are gay, it is bad manners to tell a story about your domestic situation when giving a talk, because there are many people who think your lifestyle is evil and your unwillingness to convert to being straight is pathetic, and so your story will distract from your talk.”  After all, many people consider being gay to be worse than, say, murdering a gay person, and it would be oh-so-impolite to let such people know that you think they should go f— themselves.

I will conclude with the assertion that as an observer of the human condition, and frequent speaker, I believe I can offer much better manners advice than Miss Martin does, and so will answer the question:  Vaping when giving a presentation is somewhat more obtrusive than drinking coffee during the talk, but rather less obtrusive than snacking.  When presidents and people in similar positions give televised or large-room talks, they avoid any such distraction unless they absolutely need to take a sip of water.  Most professors, however, would not hesitate to go through a large coffee during a talk, just as professors and news-readers used to smoke while presenting.  On the other hand, it is generally considered impolite to engage in the somewhat more obtrusive activities of eating, taking medicine, or tending to bodily discomforts while giving a talk, and if someone knows that he will need to do that, he will actively apologize for it.

Falling in between those, vaping is not physically much more obtrusive from sipping coffee, but does not disappear into the background because it is still unusual.  Stepping that far beyond what it typical is not generally considered gauche, except by a few people who care deeply about the placement of forks.  But it does mean that if you vape in front of an audience, you will be known as “that guy who vapes when giving a talk”, just as someone might become known as “that guy with a ponytail”, or “that guy who always wears a suit when most everyone dresses casual”.  The questioner self-identified as a provocateur and seems to want to be known for vaping, so that seems to be ok.  (I personally vape during talks sometimes, but that it because I am talking about vaping, so it is a bit different.  Still, it gets noticed — e.g., see one of the comments here.)

A rather more important question for THR advocates, however, is not arbitrary manners but manners as tactics.  If you have a lot of credibility or goodwill with those around you and you let them see you vaping, it is definitely good for the cause.  This applies when you are just hanging out at a pub, or when the floor is yours at a talk.  But if you are in a situation where the happiness of polite society depends on everyone trying to minimize their impact on those around them, then it is not a good idea.  Examples of this include most times when you are surrounded by people who are not interacting, such as when waiting in a queue, or when in the audience in the same room where that talk is taking place.  In many such situations, the rules of manners say that most anything that gets you noticed is impolite, and the reality is that it ends up reflects badly on whatever accoutrement is contributing to that notice, whether it be an electronic device, children, or an e-cigarette.  Needless to say, it is bad tactics to be impolite in a way that causes that to happen.

6 responses to “Miss Manners is a liar

  1. So, Carl, when will you be taking up your post as Agony Uncle for the NY Times? :) You certainly seem to have a better grasp of social niceties than “Miss Manners”!


    Miss TreeceVapes wishes to express her utmost gratitude to you for addressing this unfortunate incident, about which she was compelled to Tweet. To be sure, her decision to call Judith a bitch was not made in haste. Miss TreeceVapes considered it for 5 complete seconds, which meets–indeed, exceeds!–the recommendation in “Miss Manners’ Guide to Twitter Etiquette for the Impolite, Pathetic, and Evil” (2 seconds before resorting to name-calling and a mere second prior to cursing in public).

    Miss TreeceVapes regrets that Twitter’s inherent brevity so often precludes elaboration. As an occasional copy editor who considers herself an expert on everything, Miss TreeceVapes longs for the quainter days of olde, wherein members of society had room to call each other both a liar and a bitch within the confines of a single sentence.

    Alas, those days are gone. Perhaps, society will return to such civility in the future. Miss TreeceVapes certainly hopes so! In the meantime, those happy memories serve only to heighten her appreciation of this most eloquent, amusing, and illuminating post about that lying bitch.

  3. Miss TreeceVapes:

    LOL — You F Rocks (to coin an old phrase) and so does the Doc!! <3


    • Carl V Phillips

      Good one. Definitely worth reading for readers of this blog. I recall that Truthout (a progressive/lefty newsletter/aggregator) ran a much longer smear of Brad and the fact that he presented at ALEC (may have been the same article in its full version). It was before I started this blog or I would have written about it. It pretty much ended my interest in reading that rag. Too bad it is not so easy to just give up reading the national newspaper, huh?

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