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Etiquette laws? Try a little shame

In making it illegal to use cellular telephones at the movies, in concert halls, at museums and galleries, in the theater and at other public performances, the New York City Council is following a very old American tradition.

As Miss Manners recalls, the Puritans also believed in using the authority and force of the law to punish common and trivial forms of rudeness. Gossiping, swearing, flirting, defying one's parents and making fun of others were illegal under their rule.

You can see how well that worked. Except for playing video games, these "vices" pretty much cover how Americans now spend their time.

It also helps to explain why those who drew up the new country's government were wary of legislating against rudeness. It is not that they considered etiquette unimportant; on the contrary, Gen. Washington, Dr. Franklin and Mr. Jefferson all had thriving sidelines as etiquetteers. How citizens in an egalitarian society should treat one another was of enormous interest to them throughout their lives.

But they were also freedom fighters and therefore opposed to unnecessary restrictions on matters that civilized people could be presumed to settle for themselves. So — unlikely as it may seem — is their modest colleague, Miss Manners.

However, the rest of the population, sharing this enthusiasm for freedom but misunderstanding the trade-offs necessary to ensure it, has worked itself up to denouncing the gentle rule of etiquette. If the awesome law didn't mind annoying its fellow citizens, the public was not going to be restrained from this pleasure by silly old etiquette.

Did they imagine that their fellow citizens would give up and resign themselves to being annoyed? Not likely.

You want law? OK, these fellow citizens have been snarling back, we'll give you law.

The cellular telephone legislation is the latest example of that reaction. Like other such attempts, the end result is less freedom than if the matter had remained under the rule of etiquette. And although the rationale for using law is that etiquette is unenforceable, even supporters of this new legislation admit that it is just as unenforceable.

So how do you get people to shut up at public performances?

It is not easy, Miss Manners admits, but etiquette did accomplish this once.

The history of audience behavior was characterized by rowdiness, not restraint. The young Mozart groused about it to his father. Only in the 19th century did the idea arise that it would be more considerate of other audience members, as well as of performers, if everyone stopped yapping.

American impresarios blamed low-class toughs for the problem and removed some of the cheap seats to discourage their presence. French impresarios blamed high-class toffs and put in more cheap seats to encourage a nonaristocratic presence. Then, as now, written and oral pleas for orderliness were delivered.

What finally worked, at least for the better part of a century, was that great weapon of supposedly defenseless etiquette — shame. Conductors and soloists started shaming audiences by stopping their performances to scold or walk out. Audiences took this up and began shaming miscreants among themselves.

Among some audiences, glares outshine the spotlights, and vigilantes took the position that one cough was enough to justify forced exile. It may have been strict, but it worked better than legal action. A telephone ringing in a concert hall is indisputably disruptive, but not as disruptive as the police trooping in to arrest the offender.

Dear Miss Manners: When an invitation to a party is received, is it proper or improper to call other people and ask them if they received an invitation?

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners is charitable enough to presume that your intention is to offer a ride, rather than to brag that you are on a guest list that they might not be, or to insult the host by talking over whether it would be worth attending. Nevertheless, the effect would be the same, so the answer is that it is improper.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at — if you promise to use the black or blue-black ink you'll save by writing those thank you, condolence and congratulations letters you owe. © Judith Martin