There is a saying that it takes 43 muscles to frown and 17 muscles to smile but it doesn’t take any to sit there with a dumb expression on your face. Dumb expressions would therefore appear the least personally taxing, though I’m not sure what science tells us about the long term complications. Smiles, meanwhile, spread, and build trust, and relate directly to customer satisfaction, whether it’s a latte you’re selling, or a Cadillac, and whether every one of those 17 muscles is enthusiastically participating, or only a subset which constitute the enchantingly named Pan Am smile – brute willingness, if nothing else.
Oh, we all think we’re equipped with special sincerity sensors, still I doubt that even matters most of the time. You don’t have to like me, or think I’m funny or clever or pretty or otherwise worthy of your attentions, but the mere act of acknowledging my momentary otherness – by smiling, or saying excuse me, or opening a door – can feel like sweet rescue from an annihilating day.
Everyone’s busy: with heartbreak, and making money, and raising kids, with wondering how tomorrow’s going to turn out, and tweeting about today. What may sound practically Victorian then – A Book About Manners – could hardly feel more vital in our purpose-driven world. Multitaskers of tomorrow: this is the only book of etiquette you will ever need! Keep it close to you! Did I mention there are otters?
Also a rabbit who worries about the new neighbors, and an introductory owl who recommends he treats the otters the same way he’d like the otters to treat him. But really, how’s that? Multitaskers of today: you’ve probably known the golden rule since you were five, though chances are you’ve rarely mistaken it for fun.
Laurie Keller’s Do Unto Otters hits all the usual marks – saying please, saying thank you, being honest – with unusual relish and flair. The next time I make eye contact won’t be the first, though it does not come naturally, and I am all of a sudden grateful for seeing this listed under the heading of Friendliness, as it is here, and not Winningness, as it tends to be in the Self Help sections which I am too mortified to ever visit. Ditto a cheerful hello: it’s amazing sometimes, for as much as this costs, we are not regularly saluting the trees.
I picked this book up with no expectation of reading it all the way through, was beguiled by its characters’ directness and dumb expressions, and finally surrendered to the sneaky momentum of marginal subplots like a ball that hypothetically bounces between properties (“Dear Mr. Rabbit,” writes the responsible otter. “Thank you for returning my ball. You must have returned a lot of balls before because you made it look so easy!”), and a neighborly bee (“Would you like me to stop stinging you now?” Otter: “Yes, please”).
There’s “excuse me” in five languages in case you are traveling – to Spain, to Germany, Japan and wherever Pig Latin is spoken. Plus sections on honesty, playing fair, sharing (books: Harry Otter), and a not always obvious inventory of considerate acts (being a good listener, respecting the elderly and helping neighbors untangle their ears). Then finally some words about teasing – “It’s worse than having a clam snap shut on your nose,” declares one of those otters, whereupon I let out a loud snort without much regard for who might have been listening, and rode that wave of hilarity right through the rabbit’s Do-Dee-Do song in the end.
“What?” said my son.
“Oh, something,” I answered, reckoning no explanation could do this justice. You kind of had to be there, and in a second he probably would.