A Short History of Rudeness
The perceived breakdown of civility has in recent years become a national obsession, and our modern climate of boorishness has cultivated a host of etiquette watchdogs, like Miss Manners and Martha Stewart, who defend us against an onslaught of nastiness. Touching on aspects of both our public and private lives, including work, family, and sex, literary and social critic Mark Caldwell examines how the rules of behavior inevitably change and explains why, no matter how hard we try, we can never return to a golden era of civilized manners and mores.

A Short History of Rudeness Details

TitleA Short History of Rudeness
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJul 7th, 2000
PublisherPicador
ISBN-139780312263898
Rating
GenreHistory, Nonfiction, Sociology, Microhistory, Cultural

A Short History of Rudeness Review

  • Lobstergirl
    January 1, 1970
    This is one of those annoying books whose title pretends to a much tighter focus than it has. Rather than educating us on rudeness, it ranges far and wide, touching such microtopics as the high costs of funerals, the sex life of the fruit fly, the business practice of TQM (Total Quality Management), Martha Stewart's product lines, email flaming, and Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo of South Park. Authors of these types of books are doing what I would term dilettanting (verb borrowed from Karen Lewi This is one of those annoying books whose title pretends to a much tighter focus than it has. Rather than educating us on rudeness, it ranges far and wide, touching such microtopics as the high costs of funerals, the sex life of the fruit fly, the business practice of TQM (Total Quality Management), Martha Stewart's product lines, email flaming, and Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo of South Park. Authors of these types of books are doing what I would term dilettanting (verb borrowed from Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, who used it to describe the self-important dabblers in education policy who have no practical experience and don't know WTF they're talking about. I don't normally approve of turning nouns into verbs willy-nilly, but I think Lewis struck gold with that one). They are rarely actual historians, but random people who write books thinking they have the right to foist pointless meandering bullshit on the universe and are rewarded with excruciatingly fulsome blurbs from random newspaper critics.
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  • Claire H
    January 1, 1970
    This was a book that, for a fleeting moment, I was going to give five stars, and then, for a while, four stars, until finally it managed to drag me down to regretfully awarding it barely three. Purely speculatively, it feels as though the whole book springs from the excitement and interest of the first chapter, which starts with outlining Colonel Mann's Town Topics and the remarkable blackmail and extortion racket that it fronted. This affords a fascinating double-edged example of using the most This was a book that, for a fleeting moment, I was going to give five stars, and then, for a while, four stars, until finally it managed to drag me down to regretfully awarding it barely three. Purely speculatively, it feels as though the whole book springs from the excitement and interest of the first chapter, which starts with outlining Colonel Mann's Town Topics and the remarkable blackmail and extortion racket that it fronted. This affords a fascinating double-edged example of using the most scurrilous and immoral methods to enforce rectitude and morality amongst the supposedly superior classes, and I half wonder if this intriguing little history inspired the idea of writing more on the subject, but once this ace is played - and it is played almost at the very start - the rest of the hand is rather less winning.An issue that becomes more apparent with each passing page is that the title is plainly wrong. I can't tell if it's a misleading relic of earlier drafts or a deliberately misrepresentative ploy purely for the sales. Whatever the case, the supposed prominence of rudeness is disappointingly absent. Instead the focus in on the complex interplay of morals, manners, class, and, to a lesser extent, gender and race, in a range of different social spheres, at different times, and in different geographical locations.The structure is sensible. It splits into two parts. The first half treats public life, the second half private, and the domains it covers are wide-ranging and interesting, comprehending everything from marriage, sex, and child rearing to corporations, cars, and computers. However, whilst the narrative in the beginning bears some clear resemblance to parts of the title, as the chapters go on, the overall purpose seems to be increasingly bogged down and lost in a forest of competing ideas, references, allusions, surmises, examples, and anecdotes. Added to this, whilst it describes itself as a short history, and does indeed look back to the 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and so on quite frequently, it jumps around in the timelines even within subject chapters, making it difficult to follow a pattern of progress. Overall, if the goal were to weave multiple intricate threads into a single, smooth, coherent braid of reasoning, instead we end up with more of a prickly, circular bird's nest.Another curiosity of the book is that it doesn't really seem sure about its audience. There are hints that it's meant for scholars - references to academics and research, use of some very low frequency lexis, a general air of highbrow erudition - and then it is strangely contrasted with a heavy reliance on examples drawn from the media, an elementary approach to the subject overall, and some surprising gaps in the literature. For instance, there is no mention of the field of politeness research which, even by this book's publication date in 1999, included several pretty seminal pieces that were a decade or more old, by researchers such as Robin Lakoff (1989), Geoffrey Leech (1983), and Penelope Brown & Stephen Levinson (1978/1987). Even the first work into impoliteness was materialising, such as that by Jonathan Culpeper (1996), though admittedly this was very new. It seems to dither awkwardly somewhere between would-be thesis and extended newspaper column, sometimes favouring one or the other before abruptly lurching back the other way.In a similar vein, at times there seems to be more attention to style than substance, and the extensive vocabulary that Caldwell deploys, whilst it often fits, sometimes feels more forced, especially when there are plenty of perfectly suitable, better-known alternatives available. Finally, the whole thing also seems a lengthy exploration of a fairly simple point, which could boiled right down to "manners are a complicated, completely subjective social construct mired in morals and class, that differ widely across space and time."In short, after chapter one grabbed me, the rest seemed to be at pains to gradually pry each one of my fingers back off the book and get me to return it to the shelf.
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  • Lynda
    January 1, 1970
    This book examines how the rules of behavior inevitably change and explains why, no matter how hard we try, we can never return to a golden era of civilized manners and mores.
  • Kimberly
    January 1, 1970
    I started suffering within the first chapter then read a few GR reviews which indicated that this book does not get better. Life is too short to read books not liked. Abandoned.
  • Rachel Terry
    January 1, 1970
    The introduction to this book is quite interesting and encouraging; the reader wants more. The actual book, however, is not cohesive and leaves the reader empty and confused. The book is divided into two sections: Public Life & Private Life. But the division seems random, as do the topics covered. Caldwell's vocabulary is beyond impressive and some of the research is fascinating, but what does it all mean?
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  • Cody Sexton
    January 1, 1970
    Beware the moralists of manners, the self-appointed defenders of civility who offer to regulate every day behavior with the authority of a lawgiver. Behind it, however well it may be meant, lurks the urge to control, to punish, to make ourselves part of the “good” class and to brand anyone who fails to conform as a brute.Values are always somebody’s values and modern politesse has more to do with schmoozing and perceived social status than fretting over which fork to use at dinner.These type of Beware the moralists of manners, the self-appointed defenders of civility who offer to regulate every day behavior with the authority of a lawgiver. Behind it, however well it may be meant, lurks the urge to control, to punish, to make ourselves part of the “good” class and to brand anyone who fails to conform as a brute.Values are always somebody’s values and modern politesse has more to do with schmoozing and perceived social status than fretting over which fork to use at dinner.These type of rules have nothing to do with good or bad behavior - they are essentially just "class indicators.”But there is a big difference, in my opinion, between these “class” indicators and rudeness, a very important difference.Just because someone is lacking in manners doesn't mean that they've been rude. For example, someone who buys you a wedding gift that isn’t on your registry, may be violating some rule of etiquette, but rude is showing up to the wedding empty-handed and making a loud announcement that since you're likely to be divorced within a year the attendant didn't bother to buy you anything at all.So in this vein the book isn't really about rudeness as much as it's about class, or rather class systems that are still at play in America and how different classes of people interact with one another and the rules that govern those interactions. Debates about manners have always acted as a good excuse for indulging our eternal obsession with class, while pretending to be talking about something else.Etymologically, “etiquette” means “ticket” and people have always tried to use etiquette as a forged passport to worlds they didn’t belong in. But there is no social mobility any longer. We experience the sensation of social movement only because the system of classes itself is unstable, perpetually realigning itself beneath us.Class of some kind is the very mold in which civility is cast and etiquette represents the very essence of caste, since the prestige of a superior always involves the respect of an inferior.Bosses, for example, can be seen as rulers; workers, however deftly soothed, are inferiors. Bosses may behave considerately, but when they do, workers owe them deferential gratitude. We call this manners or etiquette, but what is it really?We need to look no further than ourselves for the cause of confusion over manners. For we ourselves haven’t fully decided whether civility is true liberation or genteel slavery.People also seem to think that the deepest essence of rudeness is somehow epitomized in their latest brush with it, and brusquely dismiss competing definitions of what rudeness even consists of.Chuck Klosterman writing in, I Wear the Black Hat, summarizes our situation succinctly, “Most of what we classify as “niceness” is effortlessly fake. When I walk into a convenience store and give the kid behind the counter two dollars for a $1.50 bottle of Gatorade, I say thanks when he gives me my change. But what am I thankful for? He’s just doing his job, and the money he returns is mine. The kid behind the counter likewise says thanks to me, but I have done nothing to warrant his gratitude; I wanted something in the store and paid him exactly what it cost. It’s not like he brewed the Gatorade or invented the brand. I didn’t select his particular store for any reason beyond proximity, and he doesn’t own the building or the franchise. From either perspective, the relationship is no different from that of a human and a vending machine. We only say “thank you” to be seen as nice. We secretly know that being seen as nice is the same as being nice in actuality. If you present yourself as a nice person, that becomes the prism for how your other actions are judged. The deeper motives that drive you can only be questioned by those who know you exceptionally well, and (most of the time) not even by them. If you act nice, you’re nice. That’s the whole equation. Nobody cares why you say thank you. Nobody is supposed to care; weirdly, this is something we’re never supposed to question. It’s impractical to incessantly interrogate the veracity of every stranger who seems like a blandly nice citizen. It’s rude. Until proven otherwise, we just accept goodness at face value.”Good manners are related to morals, just not in the way we generally think. The link is far more deceptive, sinuous, and complicated than is usually admitted by those who yearn to restore some hypothetical lost bond between civility and ethics.In short, I like the idea behind the book much more than it’s execution. The pace was slow and the writing was dry and lifeless. More attention was paid to style than substance, and the extensive vocabulary that Caldwell deploys, whilst it often fits, sometimes feels forced, especially when there are plenty of perfectly suitable, better known alternatives available. In this way it would seem he didn’t really know whom his target audience was or in fact should be. I’m not actually sure either. It did pick up a little towards the end but the rest seemed to be at pains to gradually get me to return it to the shelf.
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  • Sara
    January 1, 1970
    This book isn't really about rudeness as much as it's about manners throughout American history. There is a difference, in my opinion. Just because someone is lacking in manners (let's say someone buys you a wedding gift that's not on your registry, for example) doesn't mean they've been rude. (Rude, in my opinion, is showing up to the wedding empty-handed and making a loud announcement that since you're likely to be divorced within a year anyway, the attendant didn't bother to buy you a gift at This book isn't really about rudeness as much as it's about manners throughout American history. There is a difference, in my opinion. Just because someone is lacking in manners (let's say someone buys you a wedding gift that's not on your registry, for example) doesn't mean they've been rude. (Rude, in my opinion, is showing up to the wedding empty-handed and making a loud announcement that since you're likely to be divorced within a year anyway, the attendant didn't bother to buy you a gift at all.) The book wasn't bad, but the title doesn't really give a good picture of what the book is really about.It's also fairly outdated...for example, the author talks about how people type lots of profanity at each other over the internet. On usenet. Hee! That's so old-timey.
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  • Tess
    January 1, 1970
    This book is worth a read because it adds some perspective to the whole "kids these days" outlook. Really, people have always been "rude," but the author's main point is that manners are so intrinsically important that they crop up in the most unlikely places, so we shouldn't worry too much. He does ramble a lot and goes into detail about a lot of things that deviate far from the book's stated purpose, but in general I really enjoyed reading this book.
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  • Liesl
    January 1, 1970
    If you ever thought that the rules of ettiquette were clear-cut or fair, read this, you'll change your mind.
  • Sarah Sammis
    January 1, 1970
    I put A Short History of Rudeness by Mark Caldwell on my wishlist shortly after it came out. It's been on the list so long that I can't remember the reason behind adding the book or even what my initial impression of it was. When I spotted the book, a reissue, at my library I snatched it up.A Short History of Rudeness from the outset looks like it will be a slightly off color romp through a history of Americans acting poorly. While that's certainly there, it's mostly a scholarly look at the evol I put A Short History of Rudeness by Mark Caldwell on my wishlist shortly after it came out. It's been on the list so long that I can't remember the reason behind adding the book or even what my initial impression of it was. When I spotted the book, a reissue, at my library I snatched it up.A Short History of Rudeness from the outset looks like it will be a slightly off color romp through a history of Americans acting poorly. While that's certainly there, it's mostly a scholarly look at the evolution of manners and morals in western society with an emphasis on recent American history.The book's chapters focus on a specific taboo or point of etiquette with examples from points of history with citations of historical commentary along with modern day analysis of the same event across a broader social rubric. In other words, it's a very academic book. Had I not been in the middle of a small mountain of other reading commitments I would have read it very carefully and taken copious notes. As it was, I scanned through for names I recognized and focused my attention on those choice bits.So go into the book expecting to spend some time with it if you really want it to soak in. Or scan the index and look for your favorite famous names from history and go from there.
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  • Bill
    January 1, 1970
    This book is more a history of conflicting mores than of manners and rudeness. The misinterpretation then can be seen as rudeness by either party. I especially like the chapter on the workplace where management pretends we all are equal but everyone knows we are not. I think everyone has been there. The book was written in the 1990's so it is a bit out of date. Too bad the author did not write it during this past presidential election which has to be the worse display of bad manners and rudeness This book is more a history of conflicting mores than of manners and rudeness. The misinterpretation then can be seen as rudeness by either party. I especially like the chapter on the workplace where management pretends we all are equal but everyone knows we are not. I think everyone has been there. The book was written in the 1990's so it is a bit out of date. Too bad the author did not write it during this past presidential election which has to be the worse display of bad manners and rudeness and vile people I have ever witnessed.
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  • Batsheva
    January 1, 1970
    A quick and generally entertaining read. Received no revelations on the nature of rudeness, though. I enjoyed the historical anecdotes, and then realized that this book was written in the 1990's, making itself an historical document. In some ways, the references for the "Modern America" are as dated as those of the 1890's. Nostalgic trip back to the era of Bill Clinton, Barney, Mulder and Scully and other random things I remember from the 1990's.
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  • Kate
    January 1, 1970
    The shorter version of this book is: "Are manners subjective and constantly evolving? Yes."Rather than being about rudeness in particular, the general state of etiquette (mainly in the 20th century) is surveyed in chapters looking at various aspects of life, such as business and parenting. There was not much here that held my interest or stuck with me after I put it down.
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  • Mckinley
    January 1, 1970
    This had an odd tone, not quite academic and yet not general reading either. It ranges beyond manners and the author was unwilling to discuss morals and values as a component. The time-frame jumps all over but focuses on the US. Overall, I found it a long-winded with saying much. (in terms of rudeness isn't that what makes a bore?)
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  • Leilani
    January 1, 1970
    This book is not about the history of rudeness, and frankly, even after reading it I can't figure out exactly what it was supposed to be about. It jumbles together topics such as sex, child-rearing and race, but doesn't really get to any point...it only loosely ties "manners" to each subject.
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  • Beka
    January 1, 1970
    Well, the short history wasn't very short, and it really leaned more towards peoples attitudes towards manners and morals than the actual ones held by people throughout the decades. It was interesting in parts.
  • April Rogers
    January 1, 1970
    The title sounded interesting but it ended up being very dry, outdated and rambled terribly. No matter what the chapter title was it always turned into business etiquette. I’ve never read something that caused such lethargy before.
  • Cat.
    January 1, 1970
    Rather interesting, but required a lot more energy than I was ready to give. I gave up at about page 140. He really just seems to keep repeating the idea that manners are things we make up, not universal behaviors. Duh.
  • Sasha Strader
    January 1, 1970
    A very dry telling of INCIDENTS of rudeness. I was rather hoping more for a sociological analyzing of how and why rudeness has come to be what it is in America currently. Some of the incidents are interesting, but not what I had hoped to find.
  • Sarah
    January 1, 1970
    I adored this book because it was a concise quick read that actually challenged the social, class, and racial underpinnings of the behavior patterns known as manners and really made the reader think.
  • Aimee
    January 1, 1970
    I was expecting something less erudite and more interesting...
  • Jaime
    January 1, 1970
    The idea behind this book was far more interesting than its pages ended up being. It was a bit murky and didn't live up to its title.
  • Spook Harrison
    January 1, 1970
    Comprehensive overview of the constant evolution of what constitutes good manners, how that relates to morality, and broken up in good sized chunks for discussion. Very good, and well-researched.
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