The Value of Polite Dissent

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


“Bad table manners have broken up more marriages than infidelity.”

Thus spoke Aunt Alicia in MGM’s adaptation of Colette’s novella, “Gigi.”

What was undeniably true during La Belle Époque, the era in which Colette’s 1944 novella takes place — and was no less true in 1958 when the MGM musical hit the big screen — may not be the case these days.

In fact, someone possessing Aunt Alicia’s excruciatingly impeccable manners would be considered a deviant — someone who is subverting norms in a world where social courtesy as Aunt Alicia would know it is all but dead.

What isn’t dead is the power of norms — etiquette by another name. Norms are the unwritten codes that inform mutual expectations of how we, humans should conduct ourselves in social settings:: the home, the office, and all the social spaces in between.

Helping us manage norms that are always in flux is Miss Manners, an advice column that appears in more than 200 newspapers worldwide, penned by Judith Martin, with a little help these days from her children Nicholas and Jacobina.

Miss Manners is our Aunt Alicia, and every once in a while she wholeheartedly endorses straight-up deviance. It’s something Colette’s Aunt Alicia would never do — not unless it was absolutely essential to land a plum role as a courtesan.

Recently, someone wrote Miss Manners, asking if it was ok to sit out a standing ovation at campaign rallies and political events. What the person was really asking for is permission to exercise an unconditional preference to act in a way that runs contrary to social expectations in political reference networks.

“Just because someone — or everyone else — stands up to clap, you are not obliged to do so,” Miss Manners counseled, disabusing readers that peer pressure is something that begins and ends in high school.

Sitting while others are standing would be considered an independent action, one that is not conditional upon social expectations; as opposed to interdependent actions that are conditional on said expectations. No surprise that interdependent actions are where social and, in this case, political, norms lurk.

Exercising independence in such situations, literally defying the gravity of social norms and deviating from the codes of what we think is expected, especially when those expectations are held by people who matter to us, isn’t an easy thing to do.

On a very basic human level, we want approval. We want acceptance. We want to fit in. Certainly, few have the slightest inclination to draw this kind of attention in these kinds of situations by choosing to go against the flow.

Yet we can’t effect change without daring to be ourselves first, which often times requires the courage to deviate from expected behavior in our reference networks — “polite dissent” as Miss Manners calls it.

Aunt Alicia, who can neither ignore the social “transgressions” of others nor avoid transgressing herself under certain conditions, would not approve. ::

Howell Malham