Suzanne Fields

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.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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