How to Make People Feel Awkward

Adam Cohen in the New York Times:

When a young person visits, you should throw him off balance by saying, “You want a wash, I expect,” in a way that suggests he has not quite mastered personal hygiene. An older man should be told how fine it is that his wife is still “moving very briskly about.” And visitors of all ages should be encouraged to talk about their friends, after which you should say that you “wished B. was here” because you never tell “stories behind people’s backs.”

These pointers come from “Lifemanship,” one of a series of acerbic life guides written by Stephen Potter in the 1940’s and 1950’s. “Lifemanship,” which has just been reissued by Moyer Bell, wryly mocked Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and other self-help manuals of its day. Potter’s books do not focus on friendship or success, but on less exalted goals: “winning without actually cheating” (“Gamesmanship”); “creative intimidation” (“One-Upmanship”); and making “the other man feel that something has gone wrong, however slightly” (“Lifemanship”).

The absurdist “Monty Python’s Spamalot” may be the toast of Broadway, but it is Potter’s caustic brand of British humor that is especially in step with our times. His targets – wine snobs, literary poseurs and weekend athletes – are more numerous today than a half-century ago. His major themes – the drive for self-improvement, competitiveness, faking it and sheer malice – are a virtual checklist of modern culture.

More here.