clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

ASK A RUDE QUESTION, GET A RUDE ANSWER

When Miss Manners reassures those who are besieged by busybodies that politeness does not require them to satisfy idle curiosity, she feels a twinge of disloyalty to her profession.

Not to the exalted profession of etiquette, of course. As protector of privacy, etiquette does not hold people hostage so that they can be interrogated. To free the innocent from the intimidation of bullies, who falsely imply that it is rude not to respond to rude inquiries, etiquette provides a range of responses. (These start with absent-minded evasion - "How much do you make?" "Yes, I really love my job" - and move on up to frosty refusal - "Oh, that's just private business of my own, I can't imagine that it would interest you.")But Miss Manners is also a journalist, a profession that not everybody immediately associates with politeness. She may escape its unpopularity, on the charmingly mistaken grounds of being a sweet old thing who wouldn't know real news if it bit her, but her dear colleagues are not in high repute these days. Not that they ever were, but back when journalism had no pretensions to respectability, they didn't arouse such irritation.

This distresses Miss Manners, who knows journalism to be a highly etiquette-dependent, if not always etiquette-practicing, profession. No one is obliged to talk to a journalist, as one sometimes is to a policeman, judge or tax auditor. What would happen to journalism, if everyone were to refuse to answer nosy questions? The insinuation that "no comment" is the desperate admission of the guilty would soon lose its punch.

What would happen to The Public's Right to Know?

It bewilders Miss Manners, as it does the rest of her profession, when that stirring phrase is also classified as a desperate excuse. As the public's representative on the spot, the journalist should not be condemned as any more curious than the public itself. To take the trouble to get the public the information it wants, the nosy old things, and then be chastised for it, doesn't seem fair. Nor is the old mirror trick fair - blaming the reporter for the state of society being reported.

Still another misunderstanding arises from failure to distinguish the professional manners of news gathering, in regard to ferreting out information, with social manners, which insist that this be done delicately, if at all. The journalistic community itself makes that mistake when it periodically jumps on one of its own for asking and pursuing rigorous questions at press conferences. Using press conferences to flatter officials, or to preen for the bosses back home, is violation of professional manners - not asking difficult questions, the very purpose for which the conference is intended.

One more rationalization before Miss Manners, having established her bias, does her job of condemning rudeness in journalism: The publicity-madness of the public is a contributing factor. Today, almost any reporter (so as not to say media personality) is in the position of the handsome young prince in Thomas Mann's "Royal Highness," who has never in his life arrived at a train station not covered in bunting, nor seen anyone approaching him who did not wear a foolish smile.

This is not good for the journalistic soul.

With that odd phrase, Miss Manners' defense stops. What offends the public - journalists who barge into public events and private lives, creating a ruckus and embarrassing people with opinions or accusations disguised as questions - is rude by all standards, including the professional. No one is exempted from having to show respect for inadvertently con-spicu-ous citizens, and even - would you believe - for their (deliberately conspicuous) political representatives.

The argument that journalistic rudeness ultimately serves the public is a false one, because these techniques rarely produce information. Those who disrupt events, disassociating themselves symbolically by flouting the standards of dress and decorum of others present, cannot expect to find out what they would in the fly-on-the-wall position.

If you ask a rude question, you're going to get a rude answer, and rude answers are not informative ones. Miss Manners has never learned anything from a reply to such crass inquiries as, "How do you feel about your children being killed?" although she sometimes has from the polite inquiry, "Is there a lesson for society in all this?" No one seems moved to open up after being asked, "What are you trying to cover up?" but a polite invitation to "give your side of the story" yields amazing results.

Overexposure to thrillers and courtroom dramas has persuaded the society that truth and justice are only achieved through unpleasantness. Journalists, who have only to ask one polite question to have people pour out their hearts to them, should know better.

Dear Miss Manners: I visit someone occasionally at her home, and we normally sit down for breakfast. She will bring to the table a small bowl of pills that she will take. I wonder if I should begin to eat. Is her taking of her pills tantamount to the host picking up her fork?

Gentle Reader: Well, let's see. Vitamin pills constitute nourishment, and can therefore be interpreted as beginning breakfast. Aspirin, however, may be interpreted as an effect from previous social activities, which you may or may not wish to discuss.

Breakfast, Miss Manners is pleased to be able to report, is the one meal that guests may begin before their hosts - including before their hosts are awake.