The Newark Star-Ledger
Sunday, January 08, 2012, 7:23 AM
In his wry and witty new book, “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners” (Twelve, 244 pp., $24.99), the investigative humorist Henry Alford travels from Japan to the awkward New York party scene, exploring the meaning of modern etiquette in an era of constantly chirping BlackBerries and semi-literate e-mails.Alford sets out to convert the masses to observing good manners, one rude person at a time. He trains his sly guns on catty e-mails and Facebook-friending quandaries, but below the humor is a quest for basic decency in these overstimulated, stressed-out times. Comic chaos breaks out when Alford sets himself up as an etiquette counselor without credentials, then later gives tours to foreigners, instructing them on truly brutal New York manners.
Alford, 49, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a café in Manhattan.
Q. What was the “a-ha” moment that made you write about manners?
A. The book started five blocks from here at the Gourmet Garage on 7th Avenue. The girl at the register dropped my apple on the floor, said nothing and put it in my bag. I was irritated. I said, “I’m sorry.” She said nothing. I said, “No, I didn’t mean for you to drop my apple like that.” I went home, I cogitated and I thought, “I’m going to keep doing this because it makes me feel all warm inside.” I wrote an op-ed piece about it, then got a book deal out of it. Every book has a creation myth, but this is not a myth.
Q. Doesn’t reverse politeness, when you correct another person’s bad manners, take too much energy?
A. It does take too much energy. You get nothing. I’m slightly ashamed of it. I still do it all the time. It’s a defense mechanism and possibly a form of therapy. It’s largely about me because people don’t usually get the joke.
Q. Why is there such a dearth of good conversation at parties nowadays and an unwillingness by most people to communicate in social settings?
A. Whenever I try to chat someone up at a party, I am always made to feel like I am hitting on them. I think people’s reluctance to talk at parties happens because we are just not a culture that understands that the point of going to a gathering is to talk to people you don’t know.
Q. Do you think that your intense interest in manners is related to age?
A. I hope not. I bristle at the idea, only because it seems like a form of conservatism. Maybe I am being naive, but I think the issue of decorum and decency is as important to an 18-year-old as it is a 50-year-old man. I think that manners can be a kind of generosity.
Q. In one hysterical chapter, you set yourself up as an etiquette counselor, even though you aren’t licensed to practice. Why did you do this?
A. I think that (“Miss Manners” columnist) Judith Martin does an admirable job, but I don’t think writing a manners column is that difficult. There is no accountability. Columnists rattle off their advice, we never hear how the situation ends, then onto next week’s column. I felt if I was going to make these assertions about manners columnists, I had to walk the walk. I tried to give manners advice where there was actual accountability.
Q. What was your advice scenario to your friend Tom?
A. My friend Tom had a one-night stand with a man named Jess who was still in the closet. Tom continued to chase Jess. The etiquette issue here was to not do anything that would cause emotional havoc for this closeted guy. Tom was totally deluded. He wanted to go to the restaurant where the guy worked. My victory was to make sure Tom warned Jess he was coming to his workplace.