»  The Wall Street Journal

November 5th-6th, 2005

  Civility Under Siege


Talk to the Hand
by Lynne Truss
Gotham; 206 pp. $20

A stock character in the science-fiction stories of the 1950s was the lone telepath who went through life hearing the endless babble of other people's thoughts. Sometimes the telepath could shut off the din by an act of will. In those stories where he could not, I always found myself wondering: Wouldn't he go crazy from all those trivial, unwanted intimacies pouring into his head every waking minute? Well, with the coming of the cellphone, I think I may soon find out. Whether or not hell is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously suggested, the cellphone has opened a door to what must surely be one of hell's annexes, filled with just one side of other people's conversations. In a certain frame of mind, the cellphone horror begins to seem emblematic of all of modern life, where self-expression counts for everything and manners nothing. A suitable theme for a book, perhaps? Lynne Truss thinks so, and here is her book.

Ms. Truss is the author of last year's bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Louis Menand gave that book a devastating review in The New Yorker, noting tartly that, even allowing for variant British usages (Ms. Truss is British), Eats, Shoots & Leaves was full of punctuational bloopers — beginning with one in the dedication. The book was a great success anyway, and Ms. Truss has understandably hastened to offer a follow-up along the same lines. She mentions Mr. Menand's review in this new book, but avers, with a cheerfulness she can very well afford, that "I have never read the article."

Talk to the Hand falls into the same general area as the former book. Here, as there, the author wishes to sound off humorously about the shortcomings of modern life, as experienced by a middle-aged person. (Ms. Truss tells us she entered her English secondary school in 1966. That would make her 50 or 51.) Her topic is manners. The book's subtitle is: "The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today (or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door)." Her main point is, of course, that nobody seems to have any manners any more, just as her main point in the former book was that no one any longer knows where to put commas and apostrophes.

Ms. Truss has taken her title from an expression often heard on The Jerry Springer Show, of which she seems to be a keen viewer. She tells us that angry participants in that show are wont to say to the person trying to reason with them: "Talk to the hand, coz the face ain't listening," while holding out an upraised hand at arm's length, palm out.

Being middle-aged myself, I am receptive to Ms. Truss's message. I was also, as she was, raised in England, so that I am not as disconcerted by her very English approach and diction as, I think, an average American reader might be. Following the American success of her previous book, whose stateside publisher deliberately preserved all the Anglicisms from the original, the author has made some efforts to position herself in mid-Atlantic, with references to The Simpsons and the New York Times. Her sensibility, however, remains very English. She is nice enough to define the difference between a "berk" and a "wanker" in her introduction. (Both know their stuff, but the berk yields to the Zeitgeist from misplaced amiability while the wanker is too self-obsessed to join in taking a stand.) But she leaves her American reader in the dark about the "tosser" (an ignorant fellow) and any number of other Anglo-slang terms.

I thus came to the book with certain advantages, yet still I found it hard to like. Listening to other people gripe about, for example, the cloddish insensitivity of cellphone users is not half as much fun as griping yourself — as I have done above. This kind of material makes a good newspaper opinion column, or even an eight-page magazine article, but becomes wearying at book length.

Though in sympathy with most of Ms. Truss's gripes, I found myself picking arguments with her out of sheer gripe overload. Should I really deplore "the enforced perkiness of American service workers, for whom a positive attitude and excessive civility are non-negotiable"? I rather like the old Yiddish proverb: "Better a false 'Good morning' than a sincere 'Go to hell'," and don't believe that civility can ever be "excessive," unless delivered with derisive intent.

The book also suffers from the difficulty of finding anything original to say about commonplace annoyances like automated phone-directing systems and public cursing. Clever scriptwriters for movie and TV comedies have been mining these seams for years, and there is not much ore left. The best a writer can hope for is to think up a new, catchy name for some well-known phenomenon. Ms. Truss pulls this off once or twice. The perils faced by a man offering traditional courtesies to a strange woman, for example, she names "Gallantry Russian Roulette":

One time in six, their courtesy makes someone's day. Four times out of six, they get a lecture in gender politics. And one in six, they get their heads blown off. "Are you holding that door open because I'm a woman?" they are asked, aggressively. And the clever ones respond: "No, I'm doing it because I am a gentleman."

I never thought of that particular response, and have filed it away for future use.

It will also be plain to any American reader who does not already know it, that the decline in manners this past forty years has gone much further in England than here. The reason is not hard to fathom, and the author covers it pretty well in her chapter on deference and respect. "The English dearly love a Lord," goes the old saw, and it is true that the Englishman is by nature a Tory, with an ingrained respect for rank and precedence. The American, by contrast, is a natural Whig, strongly inclined to the view that he is just as good as any other man.

The general collapse of deference to authority, which happened as much over here as over there, and which began of course at some point in the 1960s, was consequently much more devastating to the English than to us. Once the Englishman's traditional sense of "place" had been mocked and legislated out of existence, he was adrift in a sea of social relativity. With no more perceived obligation to be polite to his social superiors, he saw no reason to be polite to anyone. Ms. Truss is helpful here, offering a useful reference list of reasons to show special consideration to others: "they are older, you are in their house, they are less fortunate than you, they are doing you a favour, …"

She implicitly admits, though, that it is all a lost cause. I think she is right, and my own advice to English folk like herself, who are tired of it all, is to move to the U.S. — if possible, to the south-eastern states of the old Confederacy, whose inhabitants practice far and away the best manners in the English-speaking world.