Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior
by Judith Martin
(W.W. Norton & Company)

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It would be a dreadful mistake to continue associating the entire concept of etiquette with antiquated social practices like high tea and ballroom dancing. Miss Manners (AKA Judith Martin, renowned etiquette columnist) makes it perfectly clear that the subject is as spry and relevant as ever.

Freshly updated for the first time since 1982, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior is an encyclopedia-sized oracle dispensing advice on a colorful range of tricky situations. The format goes like so: after a witty, insightful introduction to the topic at hand—say, how to hold a simple conversation—Miss Manners answers letters from bewildered citizens, dispensing advice that's both practical and entertaining. The letters themselves tend to be hilarious; one reader, for example, asks whether or not, at a formal dinner occasion, he was right to laugh at a woman who face-planted into a bowl of guacamole and fell out of her top in one fell swoop.

Miss Manners also addresses a remarkable number of subjects one might not expect to fall under the jurisdiction of an etiquette guide. How to treat the public use of cellular phone and laptops, and what kinds of extra toiletries to offer somebody during a one-night stand are just a couple of the most pleasant surprises.

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Miss Manners has a brilliant grasp of the human complexity inherent in the subtle art of etiquette; here, she muses on the misconception that etiquette is merely a matter of making other people feel comfortable: "If you are rude to your ex-husband's new wife at your daughter's wedding, you will make her feel smug. Comfortable. If you are charming and polite, you will make her feel uncomfortable. Which do you want to do?"

Miss Manners' etiquette is not an outmoded social code, but a commentary on the dynamic nature of human behavior. Context is always taken into account, and principles of civility are explored which attempt to wrangle with the fluidity and chaos of human impulses. While she does intend, ultimately, to equip that chaos with a few more inhibitions, one feels thoroughly (and politely) convinced of her case after only a few paragraphs of delightful reading.

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