At 81, Judith Martin has been writing as Miss Manners for roughly half her life, doling out etiquette tips and zingers that, since it debuted in 1979, turned her modest Washington Post column into a nationally syndicated juggernaut. (Two new Miss Manners books are out this spring, including one on questions related to Covid-19.) But sharp-eyed readers have noticed that in recent years the column has sprouted two additional bylines: Jacobina and Nicholas Martin, her adult children. Judith Martin lives in DC, while her kids are in Chicago, where Jacobina is an improv teacher for the comedy group Second City and Nicholas works in labor relations. Martin says she has no plans to retire anytime soon, but when she does, she hopes her children will continue the column.
Martin brought Jacobina and Nicholas aboard in 2013, when Miss Manners ramped up to six installments a week and she needed helpers who would live up to her standards. “Where could I find colleagues,” she says, “who I knew were perfectly brought up?”
While they did have to learn some of the idiosyncrasies of the Miss Manners style (use “presents” instead of “gifts,” don’t use contractions), most of the tone and substance has come naturally. Rather than collaborating, each member of the Manners clan handles two full columns a week.
The addition of a younger perspective has helped Miss Manners grapple with more modern predicaments—especially in recent years when the heated political discourse has become a big topic. “Life is very abrasive [now],” says Martin. “I’m always getting letters about people fighting in grocery-store lines, fighting on the highway.”
Lately, the inquiries have turned to Covid-19. Martin and her children have found themselves fielding questions about Zoom fatigue, the ethics of hand-washing, and how to navigate postponed weddings. “It’s a fascinating time for me,” says Martin. “People are rethinking some of their automatic behavior from before.”
In fact, Martin has been so inundated with Corona queries that she decided to turn around a book on them—Miss Manners’ Guide to Contagious Etiquette came out as an e-book in May. Martin also just released Minding Miss Manners in an Era of Fake Etiquette.
Right about now, you might be wondering: Amid this crazy crisis, couldn’t we just . . . forget manners for a while? Of course not, you boor. “One would think that good social behavior is not relevant now—we’re all sheltering,” she says. “But it is. More than ever!”
Are You Rude on Zoom?
Miss Manners offers some advice for using this vital shutdown tool
What might seem like normal sounds to you can bug everyone else on the call. “Mastery of the mute button is probably the number-one skill needed in this,” says Martin.
Respect Others’ Privacy
Remember, you’re peering into people’s homes. “You’re going to come into incidental information that you’re not supposed to have,” Martin says. It’s impolite to comment on somebody’s ugly art or if a half-naked kid (or spouse) is in the background.
Don’t Be Mean (Even in Jest)
Your pals are wearing the same yoga clothes as yesterday? No jokes. “There’s tension between how you want to present yourself and the realization that you can’t do it perfectly,” says Martin.
It’s Okay to Say No
Zoom fatigue is real. If you can’t handle another virtual trivia night, simply opt out. “You don’t need an excuse,” says Martin. And if you’re on the other side and somebody begs off a Zoom gathering, be gracious.
This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Washingtonian.