Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Review - Men & Manners

If you define manners as David Coggins does, as “try[ing] to make the lives of people around you easier,” it is no surprise that his recently-released book, Men and Manners is a necessary addition to the niche etiquette market. Americans, and men in particular, are notoriously self-centered and narcissistic. The idea of putting the needs of others ahead of our own may have some valance when it comes to childrearing, but in our day-to-day lives, less so. Indeed, if you have spent any time in a men’s locker room, you also know we tend to be slovenly, unkempt, and show only the faintest interest in aiming for the toilet. Honestly, I wonder sometimes how we, as a species, survive.

Coggins is not the first to ruminate on the finer points of email correspondence, what to do when you forget someone’s name, or the importance of owning more than one set of sheets, but he is well-suited to share his advice on how to be a better man. An author of a prior book on men’s style and a contributor to publications that one might see in the waiting areas of upper crust offices that are clearly his target audience, this is someone who has given some thought to donning a tuxedo and picking up the tab at dinner. 

In brisk chapters on topics like public behavior, travel, and dating, Coggins rat-a-tat-tats through the basics - don’t ghost women you’ve gone out with or wear tracksuits in public (he’s obviously not spent any time in New Jersey), or hog the overhead bin, or wear an open-toed shoe anywhere, basically, other than the beach (feet are a REAL issue for Coggins). On the other hand, do learn a little bit about wine, provide a thoughtful gift when invited to a friend’s home, make friends with the hotel concierge, tip generously, and, if in doubt, overdress rather than underdress. 

So far, so good. And added to these morsels of information are little Q & A’s and essays by what you might think of as subject matter experts. I particularly liked the tips from Ted Harrington, the owner of a stationery print shop, who discussed the increasingly lost art of writing notes on actual paper with your name on it and Jon Birger, who has written about the unintended adverse consequence of there being more women graduating from college than men, resulting in worse behavior by the latter as they understand their relative scarcity for the former as eligible dating partners. Yes ladies, Birger essentially argues you are being punished for the sin of educating yourselves - either you expand your dating pool to include non-college-degreed men or you tolerate shitty behavior. 

All of these tips are well and good, but as I cruised through Manners I kept asking myself who it was written for. Are we simply adding it to the pile of gift options for college graduates and men obtaining their MBAs, JDs, and MDs? The all-thumbs crew who would not know a dust ruffle from a decanter, the former frat bros aimlessly making their way through their 20s swiping on Tinder and zealously avoiding anything approaching responsibility and adulthood? In this way, it felt like Manners is narrowly drawn. The good news is if you live in New York City, Coggins can recommend everything from a good tailor to a liquor store with an extensive wine selection. I am just not sure how that plays in Peoria.

Do not get me wrong, I think there is value in understanding these sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious (but ignored) social rules. Not every part of Manners seems targeted at a Flatiron District rooftop party, but I could not help but wonder what chance there is we will suddenly see a surge of men wearing sport coats on airplanes or a typo-free texting future, much less a rage-less commute to work (though I do agree with Coggins, better to yield to the right when some asshole is riding your ass than lose your life because they are in a bigger hurry than you are). 

For Coggins’s claim that the aim of his book is not to transport you back to a Mad Men era of taking your hat off when you enter a room, the book does have a retrograde vibe to it. Absent is a female perspective and, as best I can tell, the perspective of anyone other than heterosexual men. Which is fine, the book is, after all, directed at male behavior, but in doing so, the worldview is necessarily colored in a certain way while also excluding the voices and opinions of people who might have some thoughts on the subject. These were missed opportunities that could have improved on what is an otherwise entertaining exploration of social graces that includes a lot of good tips for people who do try to make the lives of others easier.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

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