Miss Manners Minds Your Business / by Anne Kreamer

My review originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. When Judith Martin published her first guide to manners in 1979, the country was still settling down after a decade-plus of countercultural upheaval. Women had become members of the workforce in large numbers, and men were being permitted a more relaxed affect (no ties, longer hair) in most offices. Television series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" were successful because they amusingly used workplace snafus to illustrate our shared post-1960s struggle to parse behavioral "rules" amid the new flux, and because they depicted the truth that, with more of us earning salaries full-time, the workplace had become a new kind of quasi-family.

Miss Manners, the amusingly arch and starchy avatar that Ms. Martin initially invented while at the Washington Post, was mock-conservative but also genuinely conservative, lightly ironic but ultimately quite serious about basic good manners. For a would-be establishment desperate for some plausible modern heir to Emily Post, she was an ideal spokesperson. Or is it spokeswoman? In her latest book, "Miss Manners Minds Your Business," our authority is torn on how best to deal with gendered titles. Somewhere during the past two decades, she writes, the rules "went into the shredder, engulfed by almost universal agreement that there should be no difference between professional manners and personal manners."

In "Miss Manners Minds Your Business," it often seems that Ms. Martin, Wellesley class of 1959, wants to wish away the era of "The Office" in favor of an improved, gender-blind "Mad Men" paradigm. Channeling her inner Joan Holloway, she admonishes us to create distinct behavioral spheres and norms for work and home. She declares that at the root of our 21st-century uncertainties about proper workplace behavior are the "two big lies of the modern workplace—that the old hierarchies are gone, so that all employees are equal, and that these new 'teams' are as bound together by friendship as by the accident of employment." She dismisses as faddish nonsense the idea "that people accomplish more when they become pals. It is in direct contradiction to what every schoolteacher knows about separating friends during class."

My reaction to this, as to so many of her assertions, was: Yeah, maybe, I guess, but. While most of one's co-workers aren't going to become close pals, in ultra-mobile contemporary America, work is indeed where many of one's important friendships will be made.

Still, Ms. Martin is right that a lot of stress these days derives from the porous membrane between the professional and the private. She aptly describes the complications that ensue when each of us, digitally connected, is expected to be available 24/7 for family while at work and for work while at home. "The demarcation between public and private was clearer when there was an office door," Ms. Martin writes. "Not every minute spent at work might have been spent on work, but the assumption was there. Cubicle 'farms,' 'open offices,' and lunch rooms—not to mention long hours—at work, and telecommuting, sales jobs, and social media bloggers off-site, have made it less clear what is on, and what off, the clock."

Absolutely. Ms. Martin is at her strongest when sorting through issues faced by parents or childless employees, and she lands firmly on the side of justice when she says that "many patterns of life in this country no longer fit the realities." Companies need to step up and address the needs of working families, she writes; "society has a crucial interest in the welfare of children, and therefore in making good care available, and therefore in designing respected and economically feasible jobs for parents, adult children, and professional assistants alike." Yes!

But I regret to report, with all due respect, that Miss Manners mostly fails to grapple with the thorniest problems of the modern office. When the average person will spend no more than four years in each job, how does one best enter a new workplace again and again and yet again? When it's projected that almost 40% of the workforce will be freelance by 2020, what are the peculiar etiquette issues faced by the self-employed?

"Miss Manners Minds Your Business" is composed of correspondence from her etiquette-anxious readers, to whom the author offers counsel and, along the way, broader cultural reflection. Ms. Martin and her son Nicholas have culled about 200-odd letters, many of which concern the circumstances of open-plan office environments: smelly food, smelly colleagues, noisy neighbors. A particular Miss Manners bugaboo—required attendance at office parties—comes up again and again. But nearly all the questions could have been asked and answered anytime during the past several decades. (Indeed, they were—different questions mention pagers, "dot-coms" and the cellphones that people have started using a lot. One letter is repeated verbatim from the 2005 edition of "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior," originally published in 1979.)

"Miss Manners Minds Your Business" feels musty, and not always in the lovably, charmingly ironic way that defined the Miss Manners sensibility 35 years ago. She does address a few nettlesome email problems (no response to an electronic job application, receiving unintended correspondence, reply-all responses, a young employee instant-messaging a boss), but mostly she just rues the new conditions. She doesn't delve into the best way to handle the tsunami of everyday electronic dysfunction that exasperates all of us—people who don't bother to carefully read the emails they get, or supervisors who answer emails at midnight yet fail to tell staff that they needn't answer immediately. What are the rules for texting during meetings? She doesn't say. How does one manage in a global company? Nary a question.

One thing Ms. Martin does say is that she isn't fond of emotional outbursts at work. "What helps in emotional situations is formality and ceremony," she says peremptorily, "not, as popularly believed, talking things out, which can easily lead to disaster." "When attempting to enter the business world," she writes, we need "to learn to be someone else. It is called having a professional identity."

Beyond the hyperbole, I fundamentally disagree with her wear-a-mask-to-work approach. Of course an employee should dress and speak appropriately for the environment in which she works and, even in our TMI age, sometimes play things close to the vest. But behavioral economists who study the workplace have identified something called "emotion labor," which in a nutshell is the effort required to maintain a difference between how you feel at your most natural and how you must act when circumstances require it. If too much effort is applied to "being someone else," it can be exhausting and demoralizing.

Employees and their bosses are clueless about how to draw boundaries in a boundary-less world. Antidiscrimination and harassment laws have legitimately constrained management but also left them and their employees uncertain how to demonstrate empathy or compassion, especially during financially challenging times. "Change was desperately needed, and, contrary to rumor, etiquette is not against change," Ms. Martin writes. "It only stipulates that it be well thought out, orderly change that preserves what is good from the past while rectifying what is bad." In our changing world, we crave sensible guidance. Miss Manners does her characteristic job providing a common-sense approach that may have worked in the past, but almost nothing suggests that she understands the bedeviling nature of etiquette at work in the quite different now.