Good Manners for Nice People who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon
Great title, right? GREAT title. I love etiquette books, as evidenced by my many reviews of such books. When I see a book on etiquette, or manners, I tend to snap it up. This one, however, has taught me about more than just manners; it has reminded me of the fact that the people who write these books we devour and then write about are real people. In fact, I think that much of what I read in this book has helped me to write a kinder review of it, if that makes any sense (and might surprise any of you who followed my Twitter ranting last night).
This book starts out really well. In fact, I think this is the most challenging review I’ve ever written because it is nine really solid chapters, two amazing chapters, and one utterly awful shit show of a chapter. Instead of the usual layout of a couple of scenarios and then some advice, Ms. Aklon treats manners and etiquette the way I think, in many respects, they should be treated: not as rules to follow, but as ways to think and act that can a) make life for others more pleasant and b) help you assert yourself so that your own life can be more pleasant. She offers a lot of fun little suggestions – some I plan to employ – told with anecdotes of how she’s acted (or reacted) when faced with people with poor manners or a lack of empathy.
Then I read the dating chapter. If you read this whole book but skipped this chapter, you’d probably look at me sideways when I say that the suggestions offered up in this chapter are sexist and even a little transphobic. But they are. The author starts the chapter off by warning the reader that some of what she’s about to say is going to sound a lot like what our grandmothers tell us … but that we should listen, because our grandmothers are right. Ultimately, it just meant that Ms. Aklon’s advice was about to get really conservative really quickly.
The dating chapter reduces men and women to Mars vs. Venus. The entire argument appears to me to be that men want hot women, and that women want a good provider (no mention of gay people, lesbians, or bisexuals). So men need to shell out money and women need to look good. I mean, she adds in more words and briefly suggests that it’s all a bit unfortunate, but when you boil it down, what remains is a lot of stereotyping and sexism.
That would be frustrating enough, but there is a section that really turned my stomach. In this section Ms. Aklon uses an example of woman turning a man down to tell the story of how not to treat others. Before I go further, please keep in mind that before this chapter, and after – basically throughout the entire rest of the book – Ms. Aklon’s advice seems to me to hinge on the idea that no one else has a right to your time. They don’t have a right to invade your space on a train, or make you listen to their music on a flight. They don’t have a right to litter in front of your house (taking away your time by forcing you to clean it up). So much of her advice depends on the idea that we all have the right to our own time and space.
Okay? You with me?
The example Ms. Aklon uses is one I know (you can read the full original post here; in fact I suggest you do, and then keep in mind how Ms. Aklon chooses which parts to include to illustrate her point). It made the rounds on feminist blogs a few months ago, and when I first read it I had a physical reaction because I could relate to what the woman went through. The story one example of the experience the woman has with street (train) harassment. This woman always wears a (fake) wedding ring and reads a book on the train so that people (men – it is always men) will leave her alone. In this example, which includes multiple men who will not leave her alone, the woman takes every opportunity to let the men know she is not interested, to leave her alone, and to back off, to the point where she basically fears for her safety. It’s horrifying; sadly most women I know who live in an urban environment have experienced some version of this story.
So, why does Ms. Aklon use this example? Surely it must be to point out to men how terrifying they can be when they ignore the signs women show them (the book, the not engaging, the short responses), right? Surely she felt the need to reproduce this familiar tale in her book because it is a very clear lesson of how men should not act around women, right?
Nope. She finds the woman’s actions to be outrageous. Not the man who tells her to suck his dick, or who says if he had a gun he would kill her. No, in Ms. Aklon’s telling of the story, it is the woman who acted incorrectly because she did not want to interact with men who she (rightly) worried could act in this way.
The author does not seem to understand that by saying “again, she couldn’t just extend herself just a little by … making some excuse?” she is actively contributing to the culture that make men think they have the right to women’s time. If you aren’t street harassed multiple times each day then you just do not have a clue. Every time we ‘extend ourselves’ the asshole talking to us takes it as a sign that we want to engage them in further conversation. We literally cannot win. Either we’re stone cold bitches or we’re sending mixed signals.
The author also makes a transphobic comment when talking about dating sites, explaining that one reader (she has an advice blog) said he was tricked about someone’s gender. Her response was that ‘being a woman isn’t just a state of mind.’ Now, because the author provided no context, the only thing I can assume is that the person on the dating site was transgender and decided (rightly) that the status of their genitalia was not up for discussion on the first date. And the author’s response was to make a comment that implies transgender women are not women.
Despite that section, the rest of the book mostly returns to its former awesomeness. The chapter on friends who are seriously ill is, frankly, lovely. But as I said at the top of this review, reading this book made me think about the authors who write the books we read. Before I got to the dating chapter in this book, I decided to follow Ms. Aklon on Twitter. I was looking forward to some great little snarky etiquette tips peppered in with my breaking news tweets and cute cat pictures. But last night was the state of the union address, which Ms. Aklon chose to live tweet. And suddenly I was reminded that the author is a person, and people are inconsistent. And even though she may not choose to express empathy via her twitter feed, she at least argues for others to have empathy – and compassion – in (all but one chapter of) her book. And that is something.