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Talk to the Hand

December 12, 2005

“Of all forms of rudeness, the hardest for a lot of people to understand is the offense against everybody.”

This is one of my favorite ideas from an enjoyable new book, “Talk to the Hand,” by Lynne Truss (author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”). The topic of the book is clarified in the subtitle: “The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door.”

The title comes from the expression “Talk to the hand, ’cause the face ain’t listening.” (To use this phrase, hold up your hand to the speaker, then turn your face, or most of the rest of you, away.)

Six chapters cover the six good reasons. Chapter One is titled “Was that so hard to say?” and discusses “please” and “thank you,” among other things.

I liked Chapter Two, called “Why am I doing this?” My favorite line: “Choice from menus is a burden dressed up as a privilege.” Often, when my phone call is answered by a recorded message telling me to listen carefully as the options changed, I hit “0” to short-circuit the whole thing and get a live person. Often, it works.

The sixth good reason is the decline of public spiritedness. As the author says, “We have come a long way from Benjamin Rush, in 1786, writing, “Let the pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” These days, of course, the child is taught to believe quite the opposite: that public property … belongs to him.”

A nice thing about public property is that it does, in fact, belong to you. It just happens to belong to everyone else, too. This is an issue that we face continually at the library — how to take care of shared property.

No matter where we draw the line regarding payment for damaged books, payment of late fees, payment for photocopies and printing, time limitations on the computers, noise level in the library, cell phone use, crying babies, use of the library telephone, use of the meeting room, posting of notices, etc. &c., we will nevertheless make someone unhappy.

We try to be fair. Fairness is a kind of good manners. It shows respect for all parties. But fairness does not necessarily require a compromise. When you drop a public library book in a puddle, you should pay.

While discussing the opposite of respect, author Truss examines the proverb: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” She makes the excellent point that to show deference is not to debase oneself, which seems to be the modern misunderstanding.

What is rude is a matter of convention, and so sometimes it’s tempting to look at manners, good or bad, as a matter of style.

A week ago, we were treated to a fascinating juxtaposition of letters (and style) in the Mountain Mail. You might recall a letter from local pastor Mike Orrill beside a letter from elsewhere. Both were about Christian topics.

However, one letter modestly invited people to an annual Presbyterian charity event, expressed gratitude for the help received over the years, and wished everyone well. The other was angry, fallacious, and self-righteous. What a fine lesson in the difference between letting your light shine (thanks, Mike) and beaming it in someone’s face.

Come to think of it, good manners is a matter of style and philosophy, both. They require concern for and awareness of others.

“Talk to the Hand” will amuse you, even if the topic infuriates you.

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