The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

November 19, 2012

Linda Cannon: Witty book offers history of manners

JOPLIN, Mo. — Two subjects I've always enjoyed are anthropology and etiquette, so "An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy: How Manners Shaped the World" by Bethanne Patrick sounded like just the ticket. The foreword is even written by Judith Martin (better known as Miss Manners; more on that later).

 The eight chapters are "Shake Hands, Tip Hats" (all about greetings), "Say the Magic Words" (please and thank you and good-byes), "Elbows Off the Table" (dinner table behavior, obviously, as well as drink etiquette), "Rank's Privileges" (hierarchical behaviors), "All in the Family" (birth, childhood, relatives, etc.), "The Game of Life" (sports and education), "On the Road Again" (travel, naturally) and "Getting and Spending" (all about money!).

With no rhyme or reason, I'll just mention a few of the listings I found of particular noteworthiness.

For example, Icelanders are extremely particular about names. Babies must be given names from an approved list or get approval from the Icelandic Naming Committee. A recent proposal of "Magnus" was rejected, but "Magnœs" (with an accented "u") was acceptable. It's a grammar thing.

Iceland is also one of the last cultures to use a parent's first name to build the last name, so Jon's son's last name would be Jonsson while his daughter would be Jonsdottir. Going by the maternal side is also quite common, so in that case the last name would be Sigridson or Sigridsdottir. Got it? Now, since there are apparently not a lot of names in use, Icelanders tend to call one another by their full names to avoid confusion. "Hello, Einar Olafsson!" "Well, hello, Einar Sigursson!" I'm afraid that might be a bit too much for me to remember!

 It may just be because I'm getting over a bout of bronchitis, but I found it a bit exhausting to read about Swiss etiquette, particularly the greetings of the German speaking Swiss.

They apparently take this sort of thing very seriously and to great lengths. While normally "Guten tag, Frau" would do, for the German speaking Swiss, you're considered rude if you do not include the woman's full name at the end! Oh, dear, more names to have to remember.

Not to mention the different types of greetings that are considered appropriate to time and place: occasion greetings (birthday, graduation, wedding, whatever), work greetings, time greetings (according to season, day or particular hour!). And it doesn't get any easier. While some of the older greeting forms are fading, young people are developing their own forms, like "Hip-Hopper" and "Skater" types. Sigh.

If I ever had thought of doing business internationally, I believe I have now given it up. The Japanese are very particular about business-card etiquette and theirs contrasts rather sharply with ours. Egyptians value relationships very highly, so they tend to interrupt everything with incoming calls, outgoing calls, office mates dropping by, yada yada yada. I'm afraid I would find that very wearing.

In large parts of the Middle East, I wouldn't have to worry about it, because I would not be asked to meetings with men. Doing business in Russia? Bring a book or laptop, because you may be waiting for hours. Latin America? Ditto. In China, don't even think of trying to negotiate those waters without local help. India and Japan have cultures that don't particular relish saying "No," so you may think you're getting a "Yes" when, in fact, you're not. Again, some local help may be needed. Doing business with Germans? Keep it business-like, have your facts well in hand and don't try to be funny. I might be able to manage that one. Maybe.

 Now, as I mentioned before, etiquette is something I very much enjoy reading about. This book is about the "whys" and not so much the "hows." For those, I refer you to the aforementioned Miss Manners. I am happy to report that Joplin Public Library owns six of her extremely informative and witty titles that will tell you everything you need to know about the "hows" of etiquette.  

 So, interested in anthropology? See the reviewed title. Want to know how? Check out Miss Manners!

Linda Cannon is the collection development/circulation librarian at Joplin Public Library.

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