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Judith Martin, Ms. Manners, entertains lunch guests.

Ms.Manners amuses and instructs

If we are her "gentle readers," she is our relentless gadfly.

Judith Martin, more widely known as Ms. Manners, is an author and etiquette authority whose syndicated columns and books have gained her a celebrated notoriety. Couched among the politesse and the lifted pinkie, Martin dispenses some pretty good advice for navigating the social – or antisocial – waters of modern America.

Martin was in town to meet with her syndication team at Kansas City's Universal Uclick, part of Andrews McMeel Universal, and was the guest speaker at UMKC's Cockefair Chair luncheon August 9 at Mission Hills Country Club.

As Cockefair Board Chair Alan McDermott said in his introduction, Judith Martin's intention is to "instruct and provoke." The first book she wrote as her alter ego, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, was well received and was updated recently for a newer audience. Her columns are carried in more than 200 newspapers worldwide. In the column, she replies to readers' etiquette questions, clarifying the qualities associated with refinement and civility.

A question of conduct

In between dainty bites of gazpacho, fresh fruit salad, chilled salmon and dessert demi-morsels, Martin told the sell-out crowd about the proper conduct at weddings, religious ceremonies, gatherings with exes in attendance, child rearing, funerals – those numerous and sometimes worrisome occasions fraught with faux pas potential. Martin’s tone is acerbic but never cruel, as when she bemoans the attitude common among modern parents that child rearing is an imposition.

"I have been nagging the public since the 1970s," she began. "It’s a lot of fun…well, for me anyway.

"There are misconceptions I feel I must dispel. Like the good old days when people’s behavior was perfect. When was that? We have endured periods where some of our citizenry were terribly mistreated. Then we went through an honesty phase, believing that we should speak our minds. I think it gave people permission to take truth too far. And natural behavior – I’m not sure we really want that."

Guest Arthur Parks said, "I wish Ms. Manners ran a hotline to take my desperate calls when I'm confronted with boorish behavior. She is witty and wise." 

Washington, DC a hostile environment

A native and life-long resident of Washington, D.C., Martin has had a front-row seat for the calamity that is modern political discourse.

"People say they want good behavior. Start by behaving yourself. If you don't like the boors in Washington, stop sending them there. Vote them out. It is not necessary for politicians to agree on everything – in fact that's undesirable. But they have to cooperate or we suffer. Etiquette makes it possible for people to air their differences. Pay close attention. Consider the campaign to be a dress rehearsal for the office."

Pursuit of youth, sacrifice of suave

Ms. Manners then moved on to the youth culture and how it has been the undoing of some long-held customs of propriety. She believes it is a sign of respect for children to use familial titles, but those very people prefer "Buster and Bubbles" to Grandpa and Grandma. Family friends reject the use of surnames – "you make me sound so old."

"Perhaps it's because I am old at heart," Martin suggested. "I don't pretend that 60 is the new middle age. The life span would have to be 120 or so, and that's not the case."

She is just as firm with readers who are inclined to be overly polite as she is to those who threaten retaliation or rudeness in kind.

"Etiquette does not render you defenseless."

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It is not necessary for politicians to agree on everything – in fact that's undesirable. But they have to cooperate or we suffer.

Judith Martin 
Ms. Manners