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The six forms of rudeness

V V | January 30, 2006

The author apologises for the high incidence of Eff in this book. It is, sadly, unavoidable in a discussion of rudeness in modern life. Variants such as Effing, mother-effing, and What the Eff? positively litter the text.

'If you don't effing like it, you know what you can effing do.'

From Lynne Truss' Author's Note in Talk To The Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life Or Six Good Reasons To Stay At Home And Bolt The Door (Profile Books, special Indian reprint price, Rs 295).

If you have travelled on a DTC bus or the Metro at peak hours, you would have heard the Punjabi/ Hindi equivalent of Effing as a prefix to almost any noun/ verb/ adjective. But it wouldn't shock you too much simply because when everything is in excess, nothing appears to be so.

Social codes, after all, depend on a sense of boundaries that cannot be violated but when a public's shock threshold rapidly rises, resulting in a cynical and jaded audience and a coarsening of standards, anything goes. So it is with our everyday speech where four-letter words no longer shock; in fact, polite language does.

Lynne Truss' Talk To The Hand is not a book about manners or etiquette; it is about the rudeness of everyday life that infects us, which is probably what made her quote Oscar Wilde in the preliminary pages of her book: 'Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.'

Truss confines herself here to six different forms of rudeness we encounter in daily life with plenty of examples to illustrate her point that something has gone terribly wrong with the way we deal with others.

The book is, therefore, 'a big, systematic moan about modern life.' No longer do we have what the sociologist Erving Goffman called 'supportive interchange' with words like 'Please,' 'Thank You,' 'Sorry,' 'Excuse Me.' Instead we have 'the Universal Eff-Off Reflex' because we don't give a hoot for the other guy.

'Talk to the hand' is the metaphor used 'coz the face ain't listening.'

Civil reciprocity expressed with little words like Please, etc, etc, which were the sine qua non of good manners or necessary passwords for 'life's transactions,' are out now. Or, at least, anachronisms with those in the fast lanes.

But the reasons for their rapid disappearance from civil discourse have also to do with two related shifts: in politics, 'the inexorable centralising of power; and in society, the flattening and broadening of social differentiations ('diminishing contrasts, increasing varieties').' Truss goes into the deep end of psychology (Freud and the super ego are brought in) to explain why these two forces have impacted adversely on everyday politeness but this is too academic an explanation. More to the point would be that life has increasingly become a series of 'traps' where the individual is left to fend for himself/ herself and so doesn't give an eff to what happens to others.

'A major part of the tensions which were earlier discharged directly in conflicts with other people must be resolved as an inner tension in the struggle of the individual with himself … In a sense, the danger zone now passes through the self of every individual.'

The nub of the problem is that the individual cannot cope with two, or more, conflicting ideas in his head and yet be able to carry on; and when he can't he resorts to The Universal Eff-Off Reflex. Of course, different people deal with the conundrums in their own individual ways, but the British (as a general rule) resort to 'reserve, irony, and understatement; our determination to avert unpleasantness, 'to make a scene.'' To illustrate this trait, she quotes George Mikes' classic work, How To Be An Alien (1946):

'If someone tells you an obviously untrue story, on the Continent you would remark, 'You are a liar, Sir, and a dirty one at that.' In England you just say, 'Oh, is that so?' Or, 'That's rather an unusual story, isn't it?''

The proper British way is, in the words of Arnold Bennett, 'always to behave as if nothing has happened, no matter what has happened.' Truss draws heavily on cotemporary English literature to illustrate her points, which is one of the pleasures of reading this book.

But, how long can this façade or politeness carry on under the pressures of daily living? Obviously, not for long, which explains why Effing has become part of everyday speech and manners. If it is any consolation, equivalent expletives are now part of many our own languages as well.

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