Common Courtesy Summary
by Judith Martin

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Common Courtesy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Judith Martin’s subtitle gives a clue to her quasi-historical approach to the muddle of modern etiquette. Her first chapter reproduces a memorandum regarding manners that President Thomas Jefferson sent to his cabinet. He recognized that a problem unique to the United States had arisen, for earlier codes of etiquette were based on social rank. American democracy had erased not only hereditary rank but also conferred titles. Clearly, a new regimen was needed.

Martin continues by distinguishing among etiquette, manners, and morals, showing that American difficulties deepen in merging these concepts. She sorts them out historically and then moves into what she identifies as the twentieth century’s main problem: the failure to distinguish between personal and business relationships. Because Americans have largely abandoned traditional family structures, no one is quite sure of his place and is therefore also not sure of his proper relationship to the people within his purview. As a result of Jeffersonian democracy and personal insecurity, one resorts to treating everyone the same. Thus, one erroneously expects the same relationship at a luncheon with Aunt Bessie or with a competitor’s representative.

Martin’s final chapter, “A Radical Proposal to Permit the Pursuit of Happiness,” suggests the means by which Americans can grope their way out of the quagmire and find solid ground on which to devise old-fashioned manners suitable to today’s changed life-styles. She believes that American business must acknowledge employees as human beings with families in order that an etiquette based on personal qualities can develop.