Nobody has any manners anymore, and the government wants to do something about it. Soon we can take our cues from the Bard or a bureaucrat. Polonius was the fatherly old bore in "Hamlet," given to speechifying to his son about morals and manners. Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, thinks American tourists should be similarly instructed on how to behave abroad.
She's working with several U.S. companies on a "World Citizens Guide," with tips about how Americans ought to act. The tips are for behavior in Paris, France, or Timbuktu, but it's presumably OK to apply them in Paris, Ky., or Texarkana, too. The pamphlet may be distributed with new passports, designed to transform the image of the ugly American into an American with a smiley face, but the first "ambassadors of nice" will be executives with big corporations.
The undersecretary was in Texas television news before she joined George W. Bush in Washington, a refugee from the happy talk of the anchor desk. In the language of the nanny instructing naughty children, this guide to good manners instructs us to learn to smile genuinely because the smile, which is only a frown turned upside down, is a universal equalizer. You can let a smile be your umbrella.
Shakespeare's Polonius actually said it first and better: "Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar." The guide makes verbs of nouns: "Dialogue, don't monologue." Polonius was more eloquent: "Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment." The guide warns against arguing about politics (it might aggravate the trade deficit). Polonius warned: "Beware of entrance to a quarrel." The guide: "Dress for respect." Polonius: "The apparel proclaims the man."
Good manners abroad, like good manners anywhere, are good, of course. But the government just can't help being the nanny. Good manners start at home, and you can't take with you what you haven't packed. A lot of us -- and not just "girls behaving badly" -- had rather be rude. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that Americans are considerably ruder today than when Europeans first criticized the "ugly American" tourist decades ago. Peggy Newfield of Personal Best in Atlanta, who teaches etiquette to young people who missed out having a mannerly mama and who never read Emily Post, blames boomers who don't know any better.
Miss Manners herself -- the columnist and author Judith Martin -- observes that the rules of etiquette governing public behavior run in cycles, and mid-21st century Americans, like the French after the French revolution, prefer to act naturally, "whatever that is," and express themselves freely. "After the insults start flying, and then people can't stand it . . . they say, 'Why don't we have some manners around here?' We're in that period now." She noted, in an interview with Humanities, a magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, that the Founding Fathers explicitly looked at the manners of their time as "royal" and weren't an appropriate protocol for a republic.
Regional mores strongly influence what we consider to be correct, whether formal or folksy. Europeans, always puzzled by their cousins in the New World, can't understand how the dignity of the White House can accommodate a president they see as a cowboy. But there's precedent. Think "Old Hickory" (Andrew Jackson), "Rough Rider" (Teddy Roosevelt) or even "Railsplitter" (Abraham Lincoln).
The frontier mentality quickly broke down artificial manners; co-operation and protection required making friends fast. Southerners by contrast lived like the English gentry in big houses, or cheerfully took their cues from those who did, and believe to this day that good manners reflect good morals. What was vulgar was out of sight, but in public be careful to say the right thing, use the right fork and always show gallantry to the ladies.
"There is too much mobility in the population of a democracy for any definite group to be able to establish a core of behavior and see that it is observed," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville of his famous visit to America in the mid-19th century. "So everyone behaves more or less after his own fashion, and a certain incoherence of manners always prevails, because they conform to the feelings and ideas of each individual rather than to an ideal example provided for everyone to imitate."
So Karen Hughes' do-right guide is likely to make only a limited impact. The guide is Polonius with a tin ear, exhorting us to "Think big. Act small. Be humble." The Bard said it best, as he always does: "This above all: to thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man."
And don't forget to turn off the cell phone.