Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People

Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People

by P. J. O'Rourke

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An “extremely funny” take on the decline of civility, from the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of How the Hell Did This Happen? (The Plain Dealer).
In Modern Manners, cultural guru P. J. O’Rourke provides the essential accessory for the truly contemporary man or woman—a rulebook for living in a world without rules.
Traditionally, good manners were a means of becoming as bland and invisible as everyone else, thus avoiding calling attention to one’s own awkwardness and stupidity. Today, with everyone wanting to appear special, stupidity is at a premium, and manners—as outrageous and bizarre as possible—are a wonderful way to distinguish ourselves, or at least have a fine time trying.
This irreverent and hilarious guide to anti-etiquette offers pointed advice on topics from sex and entertaining to reading habits and death. With the most up-to-date forms of vulgarity, churlishness, and presumption, the latest fashions in discourtesy and barbarous display, O’Rourke is our guide to the art of incivility.
Modern Manners is O’Rourke doing what he has always done: making hilarious, insightful, often vicious fun of the world and all its inhabitants.” —People
“A reader who rushes through [Modern Manners] from cover to cover—like I did—will feel like a child who has gorged on chocolate cake: happy, but a bit disappointed that it’s all gone. The reason O’Rourke’s book is so successful, however, is not just his great sense of humor. O’Rourke’s writing has a cutting edge behind it, which makes a reader’s laughter just a bit thought-provoking, and just a bit rueful . . . Very funny.” —Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802199065
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/01/2007
Series: O'Rourke, P. J.
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 303,948
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

P. J. O’Rourke has written nineteen books, including Modern Manners, Parliament of Whores, and All the Trouble in the World. He has written for such publications as Car and Driver, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Parade, Harper’s Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He is currently editor-in-chief of American Consequences.

Read an Excerpt


What Are Manners?

In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal and so ill bred, as audible laughter.

— Lord Chesterfield

Manners are a way to express altruism in daily life. Either that or manners are a way to screw people over without their knowing it. Anyway, manners are what your mother always wanted you to have. Whether your mother is a noble idealist or a scheming bitch is something that must be decided by you.


Good manners are a combination of intelligence, education, taste, and style mixed together so that you don't need any of those things. Good manners have a number of distinctive qualities: First, they can be learned by rote. This is a good thing; otherwise most rich men's daughters could not be displayed in public. Secondly, manners do not vary from culture to culture or place to place. The same polite behavior that makes you a welcome guest in the drawing rooms of Kensington is equally appropriate among the Mud People of the fierce Orokaiva tribe of Papua New Guinea — if you have a gun. This is the advantage of Western-style manners. Citizens of westernized countries still have most of the guns.

Another distinctive quality of manners is that they have nothing to do with what you do, only how you do it. For example, Karl Marx was always polite in the British Museum. He was courteous to the staff, never read with his hat on, and didn't make lip farts when he came across passages in Hegel with which he disagreed. Despite the fact that his political exhortations have caused the deaths of millions, he is today more revered than not. On the other hand, John W. Hinckley, Jr., was only rude once, to a retired Hollywood movie actor, and Hinckley will be in a mental institution for the rest of his life.


Manners exist because they are useful. In fact, good manners are so useful that with them you can replace most of the things lacking in modern life.

Good manners can replace religious beliefs. In the Episcopal Church they already have. Etiquette (and quiet, well-cut clothing) is devoutly worshipped by Episcopalians.

Good manners can replace morals. It may be years before anyone knows if what you are doing is right. But if what you are doing is nice, it will be immediately evident. Senator Edward Kennedy, for instance, may or may not be a moral person, but he is certainly a polite one. When Miss Kopechne seemed to be in trouble, Senator Kennedy swam all the way to Edgartown rather than run up a stranger's phone bill calling for help. You should be the same way yourself. If you happen to be on a sinking ship with too few lifeboats, take one and slip quietly away. There's going to be a terrific fuss among the drowning passengers, and it's rude to deliberately overhear an argument which is none of your concern.

Good manners can also replace love. Most people would rather be treated courteously than loved, if they really thought about it. Consider how few knifings and shootings are the result of etiquette as compared to passion.

And good manners can replace intellect by providing a set of memorized responses to almost every situation in life. Memorized responses eliminate the need for thought. Thought is not a very worthwhile pastime anyway. Thinking allows the brain, an inert and mushy organ, to exert unfair domination over more sturdy and active body parts such as the muscles, the digestive system, and other parts of the body you can have a lot of thoughtless fun with. Thinking also leads to theories, and theoretical correctness is always the antithesis of social correctness. How much better history would have turned out if the Nazis had been socially correct instead of true to their hideous theories. They never would have shipped all those people to concentration camps in boxcars. They would have sent limousines to pick them up.

Thinking is actually rude in and of itself. Manners involve interaction with others. You cannot, for instance, think and listen to what other people are saying at the same time. And what most people have to say doesn't merit much thought; so if you are caught thinking, you really have no excuse.

As a result of thinking's innate rudeness, thinking people are not often popular. Although the Curies were extremely famous, they were rarely invited out socially. They were too thoughtful. Also, they glowed.

The fact that good manners require interaction is finally their most useful trait. Manners force us to pay attention to the needs, desires, and hopes of other people. If you have good manners you will never become narcissistic and self-obsessed. A self-obsessed person is to be pitied; there are so many interesting people in the world, and while he's not paying attention to them, they will probably rob and cheat him.


Creating a Persona: The Polite You

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog To tell your name the livelong June To an admiring bog!

— Emily Dickinson

In order to know how to act, you must first know who you are. Very few people know who they are. And small wonder, since most people aren't anybody at all.

You, for instance, are probably no one in particular. This is because of your dull family. Boring people with humdrum backgrounds were bound to raise a very ordinary you. A compelling persona is inherited. Our behavior is determined by our ancestors.

This is a grim statement and, fortunately, a false one. If our behavior were really determined by our ancestors, we'd all act like amoebas. We'd eat by osmosis and reproduce by division, meaning we'd smear food all over our bodies at dinner and have sex by throwing ourselves under a train.

In truth, it is no more necessary to go through life with the family you were born into than it is to wear diapers to your debutante ball. You can modify your family to suit your need for an interesting background and alter all your relatives so that you will inherit a fascinating personality from them. You can do this by the simple expedient of lying. Thank God, manners have nothing to do with facts.


Accompanying this chapter is a family tree you can adopt as your own. This genealogical history will give dignity to a rich person, breeding to a poor one, and, if used with wit and style, will make even a middle-class person socially acceptable.

Read the instructions carefully. Practice on sympathetic strangers. By the time you get done telling lies about who you are, you will have learned the truth about how you should act.


To produce a truly interesting you, your ancestors should be varied and colorful types. The ten most important of these types are:

1. Exotic

2. Blue-blooded

3. Famous

4. Tainted with an Awful Secret

5. Venerable

6. Artistic

7. Sinful

8. Rich

9. Bad

10. Trendy

The attached genealogical chart provides you with one of each plus three optional subtypes: Mysterious, Crazy, and Tragically Dead.

1. Princess Dog FeatherA Carib Indian, one of the few survivors of that nearly extinct tribe.

A seafaring member of your family married her on the island of Dominica and brought her back to Massachusetts. The local rumor was that she never fully abandoned her native cannibalism. Indeed, a number of neighborhood children did disappear. But the New Bedford authorities were never able to prove anything.

Exotic ancestors are mostly good for cocktail-party small-talk. But you can also use them to explain cheap jewelry or an ill-conceived hairstyle. They will also go a long way toward excusing a bad accent if you have the nerve to claim some Carib was still spoken in your childhood home.

2. Lord Charles Hogfordyounger son of Viscount Utter-shire and later Duke of Ohio.

The more democratic a society becomes, the more people swoon for a title. Otherwise the Earl of Lichfield would be dragging a pony and an old Speed Graphic through the suburbs of Liverpool, taking toddler snaps. Unfortunately, there are only two ways for an American to get a title: either marry one (if you're a woman) or be made a papal count (if you're a man and a Catholic and a total humbug). Therefore you have to invent something. Let it drop that if Cornwallis hadn't been such a wimp at Yorktown, you might have a ducal estate in downtown Akron today. But don't overplay your hand. Universal love of titles is matched by universal hatred of inherited social status. Make your noble progenitor a debt-plagued wastrel. Say he was exiled to America and George II created him Duke of Ohio in hopes that he would go to that distant place and never find his way home.

3. Senator Henry Clay

Fame is even more valuable than nobility. And its standards are lower. In fact, there are none. A very quiet and tasteful way to be famous is to have a famous relative. Then you can not only be nothing, you can do nothing, too. This is the Alice Roosevelt Longworth kind of fame.

Anyway, pick a famous ancestor who's obscure enough and dead enough so you won't be caught out. And don't brag about him. You should deprecate his character just as you should deprecate your own. Remember the wisdom of Dr. Johnson, who said, "All censure of a man's self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much he can spare." Point out that Henry Clay helped to provoke the stupid War of 1812, threw a fix into the election of John Quincy Adams, and, by his authorship of the Missouri Compromise, proved himself a poltroon on the slavery question.

4. Marcus Aurelius Jacksonborn a slave, later the wealthiest barber in Cairo, Illinois.

Nothing makes an Awful Secret like a secret Negro. A secret like this allows you to act moody, resentful, guilty, depressed — in other words, allows you to act like everyone else, except you have an excuse. It's also great for seduction, especially down South. Tearfully confess that your family has been hiding this for a hundred and fifty years. The object of your desire will reciprocate immediately. All southern families have been hiding something for a hundred and fifty years. And nothing sparks an affair like shared paranoid psychosis. Up North, confess your bloodline freely. There's nothing a northerner likes better than a black person who is completely white. Do not, however, try this trick with real blacks. They could give a shit.

Incidentally, if you happen to be black, this relative will explain your color, and you can still have all the white ancestors, too. American blacks carry a lot more patrician blood in their veins than the sheet-draped yahoos who want to chase them off school buses.

(If you travel in very sophisticated circles, you may want to turn Marcus Aurelius into Moses Schmeckle. Racism is very lower-class. Upper-class people are never racists; they're anti-Semites.)

5. Luther Burbank [your last name]grandfather on your father's side.

It's important to have someone intelligent, educated, and morally outstanding in the family. It impresses potential in-laws and gives your lawyer something to work with when he's trying to get you sentenced to a minimum-security federal tennis prison. Make Grandfather Luther a graduate of Stanford (Harvard is too obvious), and make his accomplishment just slightly silly so you can pass the information along with the right lightness of tone. Say he was a chemist and developed 106 industrial uses for lima-bean oil.

6. Olive Oradell Entwhistlegrandmother on your father's side.

Every fine family is leavened with a little bit of the artistic — emphasis on the little bit. The stock artist character is an amateur thespian and great beauty whose father would not allow her to go on the stage professionally. This is good if you're a Hollywood type. You can tell how Grandmother ran away to appear with the young Will Rogers in the Ziegfeld Follies and how Great-Grandfather followed her to New York and walked out of the audience right up onto the stage in the middle of a chorus number, grabbed her by the arm, and took her home.

But if you aspire to more elevated levels of society, make Grandmother a New England poet (intimate of the Lowells), who never published, and whose best work was destroyed by her mother for fear of scandal. A few poems survived, however, and were given to you when Grandma was on her deathbed. Use the love poems of Robert Herrick; no one has read those in a hundred years. Write them out in lavender ink on good stationery and leave the sheets in the sun for a month.

Very authentic. And almost as good for getting laid as a secret Negro.

7. Maudie O'Hanrahangrandmother on your mother's side.

The sins of yesterday are always enjoyed by the virtuous of today. So make Grandmother O'Hanrahan an old-fashioned dame de plaisir. This will give her — and, by extension, you — a heart of gold.

Tell your liberal friends about Grandma's angry views on the whole male sex — and capitalism and imperialism besides. Tell your conservative friends she never regretted her naughty youth and carried a lock of King Victor Emmanuel's pubic hair to her grave. It is the essence of courtesy to be sympathetic to the largest possible number of people.

8. Orville Dodgson Interstategrandfather on your mother's side, asphalt magnate and paving czar for whom Interstate 80 was named.

No one will ever take your abilities seriously if there hasn't been some money in your family somewhere. People are suspicious of unrewarded virtue.

If you aren't rich, say Grandpa Orville lost all his money in the depression of 1921. It's a much more fashionable depression than the one in 1929. If you are rich, emphasize what a robber baron Grandpa was. Tell how he introduced anthrax into livery stables to boost the automobile trade and how he dug up paupers' graves to get the calcium for blacktop manufacture. People are also suspicious of rewarded virtue.

9. Edyour father's younger brother.

He robbed a garage in Des Moines, lined up all the employees under a grease rack, and lowered an Oldsmobile on them.

It's nice to have someone who is really bad (as opposed to "sinful") in the family. It will make people think twice before they cross you in a business deal.

Ed is also valuable if you want to affect the left-wing opinions which are periodically fashionable among the over-educated. Turn the tables on Ed and Grandpa Luther and show how Ed was really performing an act of lumpen-proletariat revolutionary violence while Grandpa's supposed virtue only postponed the inevitable heightening of class contradictions or whatever it is that pinky-brains say these days.

10. Eileenyour mother's older sister.

She has lived in Paris for fifty years and was close friends with Faulkner, Tristan Tzara, Dorothy Parker, and anyone else from the twentieth-century hip scene whose name you'd like to drop. (In the popular imagination everyone from D. H. Lawrence to Thelonious Monk lived together in a big motel room in downtown Paris from 1920 until the war in Vietnam.) Eileen was involved in some terrible impropriety in wherever-you're-from. Mom will not speak her name. She smokes opium and has Arab boy "companions."

11. Mom and Dad

There's not much you can do with them. Try to give them an interesting past to make up for the dreary present. But remember to make the stories you tell about them the kind of stories they would be expected to deny. For instance, you can say that they abused you sexually. (A claim of sexual abuse by a parent is also sufficient to excuse everything you do for the rest of your life.)

Optional Relatives

Caution: Be sure you live far enough (both socially and geographically) from where you were born to get away with imaginary immediate family members.

12. Cousin Zenobiaillegitimate daughter (or son) of your Aunt Eileen.

This one's strictly for fun. She (or he) took your virginity when you were twelve. Now she's (he's) a spy for the Mossad but possibly a PLO double- agent. She (he) will add considerable spice to your stories about the European package tour.

13. Janeyour Moonie/est-nut/Jesus freak/et cetera sister.

Every well-off family in America has a kid like this, and it would be inconsiderate of you not to have one in your family. Tell how your father tried to have her deprogrammed and after twenty-eight hours in a motel room Jane had converted a lawyer, two private detectives, and your mom.


Excerpted from "Modern Manners"
by .
Copyright © 1989 P. J. O'Rourke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: Manners — Why Have the Things at All?,
Chapter 1 What Are Manners?,
Chapter 2 Creating a Persona: The Polite You,
Chapter 3 The Fundamentals of Contemporary Courtesy,
Chapter 5 Table Manners,
Chapter 6 Acting Up,
Chapter 7 Drinking,
Chapter 8 Taking Drugs,
Chapter 9 Conversation,
Chapter 10 Advice for Modern Women,
Chapter 11 Advice for Modern Men,
Chapter 12 Modern Dating: Its Causes and Cures,
Chapter 13 More Sex: If You Must,
Chapter 14 Where Babies Come from and Where They Should Go,
Chapter 15 After Marriage,
Chapter 16 The Recrudescence of Formal Ceremony,
Chapter 17 The Horrible Wedding,
Chapter 18 The Hip Funeral,
Chapter 19 Real Parties,
Chapter 20 Going Out,
Chapter 21 Courtesy in the Workplace,
Chapter 22 Social Correspondence,
Chapter 23 Guests, Including Pets and Old Friends from College,
Chapter 24 The Servants,
Chapter 25 Real Trouble,
Chapter 26 Men's Clothes,
Chapter 27 Women's Clothes,
Chapter 28 Clothes for Adolescents, Mental Patients, and Members of Rock and Roll Bands,
Chapter 29 Sports Manners,
Chapter 30 Travel Etiquette,

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