The Internet has become such an inescapable part of modern life that it was only a matter of time until some watchdog of etiquette claimed the turf and started drawing boundaries and making rules. Still, credit Judith Martin, the author of the syndicated Miss Manners advice column, with considerable alertness in spotting a tiny void in the decorum field and then moving in with well-wrapped parcels of wisdom about the Net and other conveniences of late 20th century life, like the answering machine and the fax. Though one might suspect her of being a grumpy traditionalist in these matters, or even a Luddite, Martin has pleasantly mixed feelings about the new technology. E-mail, she says, is "the best means of quick communication since the pony express." Take that, telephone!
Readers will find much that is stylistically familiar in Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication (Crown; 179 pages; $15)--referring to herself in the third person, often amusing in a column but overly arch at book length, and using the locution Gentle Reader. The text is largely a response to letters Martin has allegedly received. It starts off jauntily enough with what Miss Manners likes about life on the Internet: "Cyberspace is like space on the open seas, free of some constraints that should be observed on land." Watch out, though. Already gentility is rearing its well-coiffed head: "No one can guess how old or rich or good-looking anyone is; people can be judged only by the way they represent themselves." Propriety above all.
Martin offers prolonged nattering about the subtleties of the Usenet and recaps some of the rules with which the gentle Netsurfer is familiar: no flaming (insulting) or using all capital letters (shouting). One might as well take a beeper to church (another no-no). Furthermore, the well-bred cyberuser will not drop emotional bombs--"You're fired"--on the Web.
A fulsome section on telephone and recording etiquette includes advice on ending a tedious call (hang up when you are speaking, not the bore) and disconnection (the person who placed the call should re-call). This seems obvious, as does the reminder that an answering machine means you don't have to pick up on every call.
Gentle Reader, all this material is to be found in the first 74 pages of this slender book. The rest is filler about niceties of titles, engraved invitations, birth announcements and letters of condolence. And above all, it is about thank-you notes. They may need all the help they can get to remain a viable institution; as anyone who has ever brought up a child knows, this battle is all but lost. To Miss Manners, however, preserving the thank-you note is to rescue civilization. She is deeply suspicious of the fax machine because she fears it will replace the traditional pen-and-ink, stamp-in-the-right-hand-corner artifact for expressing gratitude. To Miss Manners a fax is like a postcard. Emily Post no doubt would have agreed.
--By Martha Duffy