Syndicated etiquette columnist Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, may be about to ruffle feathers in certain circles, including cosmetic surgeons and dentists, hair colorists and all who favor enslaving themselves to the pursuit of finding eternal youth.
But Martin, once again, opts to uphold her principles in the face of prevailing fashions and speak out in favor of good manners.
In her latest book, Miss Manners: On Unabashed Aging, Martin cuts through the sometimes well-intentioned and frequently insidious way we disrespect our elders and disparage the process of aging itself.
Here is how she suggests we handle four fraught situations:
On Being Offered a Seat
So, dear reader, here’s a test for you: let’s say you’re a very fit 65 or even 70. You take great pride in going to the gym, running marathons and watch your diet like a hawk. Your doctor tells you that your biological age is far younger than your chronological age. Your friends celebrate how youthful you look. Now, put yourself on a very crowded bus. Someone in his 20s or 30s gets up to offer you a seat.
Your response is:
- “I’m not old and feeble!”
- “Thank you.”
- “No, thank you.”
According to Martin, either B or C is correct. These days, among certain older people who pride themselves on their youthfulness, being offered a seat on a public transportation is interpreted as a “sneering commentary on one’s mental and physical fitness,” rather than a courtesy from a younger person who simply hopes to make an older person’s journey more pleasant. “The smallest signs of respect or consideration are often taken as insults and rudely rejected,” Martin declares.
When one reader complained about being offered seats on buses because he considered himself to be very fit, Martin replied: “It is for people like you to stop feeling so ashamed of growing older that you are insulted at being treated courteously.”
Martin disapproves of the neo-Puritanical ethic among some boomers that holds that no one grows older and it’s a crime to do so.
Using This Phrase and Wanting Others to, Too: ‘You Look GREAT’
Martin disapproves of the neo-Puritanical ethic among some boomers that holds that no one grows older and it’s a crime to do so. Older people are the instigators, Martin says. By insisting that people view them as youthful when they are not, they are encouraging the very thing they object to.
Take the oft-heard exchange among people of a certain age, an enthusiastically trumpeted: “You look GREAT!” Though it may seem innocuous at first glance (and might even be pleasant to hear, if only it were said in a normal tone of voice), when Martin applies her laser-keen logic to the phrase, we see a troubling underlying message: “…in addition to reinforcing the illusion of youth for one another, people who say this to each other stoop to chastising considerate people whom they suspect of not playing along,” she observes.
Martin also finds frightening the tremendous number of people resorting to elective surgery to undo the superficial effects of age. “Society declines to see beauty in age,” she notes. “The consequence is the rarely successful and often laughable spectacle of people trying to pass themselves off as what they are not.”
Don’t Call Me Mister
Even a respectful honorific from a younger person could unleash a barrage of rude replies. Calling someone Mister or Ma’am could result in an offended “You make me feel old!” This puts the burden on polite younger people to refrain from replying what they are likely thinking (“What are you talking about? You ARE old.”).
Martin notes that such a correction might undo years of parental effort to instill good manners in the next generations, and it is not going to convince them that they have mistaken a younger person for an old one. More likely, younger people might think the old are “delusional and crotchety,” Martin says.
Pretending to be Young
Martin objects to congratulating long-lived people with phrases such as “So you’re 98-years-young!” or “You’re young at heart.” This makes others feel obliged to uphold the fiction that the old are young, she explains. “They are just going along with what they have reason to believe their elders enjoy, but it is being done with such a stunning lack of subtlety that it comes across as something of a put-down.”
Though this is meant to be flattering, in fact it is patronizing, she maintains. By calling people younger than they are, even in a half-joking, half-complimentary manner, Martin writes that it is as if the young had thought (not without provocation), “All right, you don’t like it when we look up to you. So suppose we try looking down on you? You don’t want to be treated as grown-ups, so we will treat you as children.”
Such verbal contortions can upset those who are trying to pass themselves off as younger than they are. “They are still alert enough to realize that these exaggerations or evidence of their appearing old enough to require such flattery and desperate enough to swallow it,” she notes.
In sum, rather than feeling that there is something embarrassing about aging and that any recognition of it can be motivated by pity, Miss Manners hopes that the older generation will develop some self-respect.
Hopefully, that will be the topic of Miss Manners’ next book.