Etiquetteer recommends something floral for the first day of spring, and is just waiting for Saucy Minxes to start throwing Miranda Priestly Shade about how Groundbreaking that is.
Delving into Georges Auguste Escoffier, the biography of the great European chef by two of his disciples, Eugene Herbodeau and Paul Thalamas, Etiquetteer was deeply impressed by their account of Escoffier's insistence on Perfect Propriety among his staff, and especially in his kitchens. They even cite this as one of his greatest reforms. Now we all know that hotel and restaurant kitchens are among the most stressful work environments possible. Hourly and less, tight deadlines as well as perfection are demanded - and yet how often do we think of those two things as mutually exclusive! Escoffier brought needed reforms, including worker respect.
The pre-Escoffier environment painted by the authors betrays a wood- and coal-stoked Hell filled with the clashing aromas of cooking, where overheated chefs blasted by heat, slake their perpetual thirst with liquor and pollute the surrounding air barking profanities at underlings. To prevent kitchen drinking, Escoffier devised, with a doctor, a barley drink that was available to all the kitchen staff. None of his staff could drink alcohol on the job.
"Intemperance," as the authors continue, "also provoked vulgarity . . . Escoffier was far too conscious of human dignity to allow such practices to continue." Etiquetteer doubts that he had to resort to a swear jar to get his staff to clean up their tongues, but imagines this might have taken some time. Those who needed their mouths washed out with soap would be taken aside and told "Here you are expected to be polite. Any other behaviour is contrary to our practice . . . " Etiquetteer just loves that, contrary to our practice. So dignified and so clear!
But surely, one wonders, M. Escoffier Himself couldn't possibly keep an even temper in a busy kitchen, could he? "Escoffier was a great believer in the virtue of calm," but when provoked past a certain point, he knew himself well enough to leave the room with a quiet "I am going out, I can feel myself getting angry." In a dispute between a hotel executive berating a cook to hurry a meal, and the cook who finally had enough and threw the executive's plate at him (thereby completely staining his clothes), Escoffier deplored the behavior of both, but sided with the cook, who was working at the proper speed.
Contrast this insistence on calm to produce good food, the best food, with today's celebrity chefs fostering climates of abuse in their restaurants and TV shows like Top Chef where the abuse of contestants is considered part of the entertainment. Etiquetteer is encouraged that so many waitresses, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, are now suing their employers over workplace misbehavior. But change requires more than lawsuits. It requires leadership like M. Escoffier's - leadership by example. In the 21st century workplace, whether a professional kitchen or an office, we need to do better.
Etiquetteer would like to wish you a Perfectly Proper Saint Patrick's Day. Wear your green and drink responsibly.
And if you'd rather not, just close your eyes and think of England.
Etiquetteer hasn't tossed together a good salmagundi column in awhile, so let's look at some Random Issues of Perfect Propriety.
In the world of social media, it's not uncommon to find that a "friend" on one platform has blocked you on another platform. Yes, this can give you a jolt and cause you to question your value to this "friend," or even to speculation about what's being hidden. Don't fly into a temper about this, or spiral down a Wormhole of Self-Doubt or something. This is not Rejection, or even anything Remotely Sinister. This person is simply (albeit clandestinely) expressing the wish to interact with you on a particular platform rather than on others. And that's Perfectly Fine.
Not long ago a colleague expressed astonishment at seeing Etiquetteer wearing a necktie instead of a bow tie - a rare day indeed! "But you never wear a bow tie with a button-down collar," Etiquetteer responded. But is that really so? Etiquetteer had merely taken this Received Wisdom as Gospel Truth. The search for chapter and verse, to Etiquetteer's chagrin, didn't exactly make things clearer. Etiquetteer's vintage copy of Esquire's Etiquette for Men didn't clear up the point, but made Etiquetteer long for a world before Casual Friday. The Bow Tie Guy makes some valuable points in comparing shirt collars, but his main point is that a bow tie should obscure the collar points regardless of the type of shirt worn. The Bow Tie Guy strongly recommends a spread collar, but the button-down collar gets only a weak "okay, not optimal, but okay" endorsement.
Last month Etiquetteer was so delighted to host an etiquette dinner for the MIT Division of Student Life's "How to Adult" series of events. One of the memorable, heart-warming moments of the evening came when Etiquetteer realized that not one of these college students had put a smartphone or any other Personal Device on the table!
Saint Patrick's Day is almost here, which is a good time to remind gentlemen "of the Oscar Wilde Sort" that Oscar popularized the green carnation as a boutonniere. Wear yours with a difference!
Etiquetteer should not have to tell you this. Etiquetteer should really, really not have to tell you this. But apparently there are parents of babies out there who simply do not care about or understand what is and isn't Perfectly Proper in public. So here it is.
You may not change a baby's diaper in a restaurant's dining room.
That should be really obvious, shouldn't it? So Etiquetteer was appalled when some weeks ago a Revolted Friend posted on social media a photo of a woman changing a baby's diaper at a local bakery. On a table at which people were eating!
A quick search of the Internet proves, unfortunately, that this isn't the first time it's happened. One dad wrote to Chipotle after his wife made a scene there by changing a diaper on a dining room table, because there were no changing tables in the restrooms. This Sort of Thing has even happened at the White House, as the photo above from 2009 shows.
The excuse in most of these cases is that the restrooms contained no changing tables*. Since changing tables only started appearing in public restrooms since the 1990s, and in both women's and men's rooms more recently, one wonders what people did before this important innovation. Not this! The absence of a changing table is no excuse for using a dining table in a public restaurant off which people will be eating to perform an act that is unavoidably unsanitary. It does not matter how many antibacterial wipes you have in your bag.
Etiquetteer hopes it will not be necessary to mention this again.
*Reports on the Bakery in Question insinuate that more than one changing table is, in fact, available.
A reader took care to make sure that Etiquetteer read this recent New York Times article about how "cough etiquette" has undergone a change since the turn of the millennium*. What change, you ask? The direction to sneeze into one's elbow instead of a Perfectly Proper handkerchief held in one's hand.
And why has this happened? Science, fear, and change. Science has shown us that germs are spread by one's nasal effluvia, even when it's microscopic droplets of moisture. Fear of germs, especially after worldwide health scares, led to the promotion of the new elbow sneeze or "Dracula sneeze." And Etiquetteer has not failed to notice the growing bias against handkerchiefs in favor of packets of disposable tissues, or one's sleeve, which is Most Unfortunate. In moments of High Dudgeon, Etiquetteer often paraphrases Mary Bland in Eating Raoul: "Casual Friday! Just look what it's brought us!"**
Etiquetteer can just hear the chorus of Indignant Readers fulminating against the unsanitary nature of a keeping a cloth containing one's nasal effluvia in a pocket and reusing it. Etiquetteer considers that much, much less unsanitary than sneezing a big old gobbet of nasty glutinous phlegm onto your sleeve, and then having everyone have to look at it, or its glistening stain, for the rest of the day. Faugh! Is this really a risk you want to take? Etiquetteer has seen it happen, and it's really gross. Much better to use a handkerchief or a disposable tissue that is disposed of at once.
Etiquetteer cannot remember who said "The best place for a handkerchief is in your hand three seconds before you need it." It's still true, but not always easy to arrange. But even more important is the message at the end of that news article: “Hand washing is one of the most important things people can do to keep healthy,” according to Dr. Vincent Hill of the Centers of Disease Control. Which could only lead Etiquetteer to remind you of the wisdom of the late Professor Clyde Crashcup, who said with memorable relish, "Cleanliness is next to friendliness!"
*Indeed, the reader took care to quote the article: ". . . the term 'cough etiquette' first turned up in 2000."
**At times like that Etiquetteer has clearly Gone Round the Bend and often needs to lie down with a cold compress.
Etiquetteer doesn't often discuss the personal difficulties of daily life in the city, but on a Not Good Very Bad Day some time ago* not one but two Tests of Perfect Propriety presented themselves. Candidly, Etiquetteer didn't quite come out of either of them with a passing grade.
Sometimes the most savory delights of the table are the riskiest to eat, and this particular day Etiquetteer was nearly conquered by a "Black and Bleu" cheeseburger while lunching at a Popular Sports Bar.** You know there's going to be trouble when, as soon as the burger is lifted from the plate, its cheesy contents begin dribbling away. Trouble transformed into a Structural Integrity Issue this time, when the patty began to slip out, largely because the cook had put a slick of iceberg lettuce under the patty instead of on top of it, where Perfect Propriety dictates it belongs.
The most expedient way out of this mess was to remove the lettuce as discreetly as possible, and then finish eating as quickly as possible. It might also have been less obtrusive simply to abandon the bun and attack the burger with knife and fork. Etiquetteer kept wondering what Consuelo Vanderbilt would have done, having learned to eat with her back anchored to an iron rod, her head secured to it with a metal hoop. She probably wouldn't have ordered a burger in the first place.
The second situation could have been tragic. While waiting for the lights to turn at a busy intersection, Etiquetteer witnessed a Young Woman slurping on a gigantic soda walk into traffic despite the Unavoidably Obvious Don't Walk Sign. She made it through one lane, but then was nearly hit by a car! A driver had to stop short to avoid hitting her, missing her by only a few inches. Etiquetteer was enraged - not only that this Young Woman walked out into traffic in the first place, but that she clearly had no concern about the impact her actions had on others. So upset was Etiquetteer that words just popped out: "The sign said Don't Walk!" She smirked and walked on, leaving Etiquetteer to wonder when the Darwin Awards would next be given out, and whether or not she'd be a nominee. That said, it's Most Improper to comment on the behavior of strangers in public. This was one occasion when Etiquetteer didn't set the most Perfectly Proper example.
*"All right, maybe it was quite a few years ago," as Norma Desmond might say. Etiquetteer can refer to it now because the emotional scars have healed.
**Etiquetteer can just hear himself saying "We don't have these problems at the opera," but then there's no Popular Opera Bar nearby with a cheeseburger for lunch, either.
To celebrate the February 22 birthday of the Father of Our Country, Etiquetteer returned to George Washington's own books of manners, George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. While Etiquetteer has discoursed on this subject before, to refresh Washington's rules for the 21st century, this time it was worth reviewing to see what no longer applies to Perfect Propriety in daily life.
Take two rules that have to do with hats - how they're doffed to show respect, and then replaced. No. 26 reads "In pulling off your hat to persons of distinction, as noblemen, justices, churchmen, &c, make a reverence, bowing more or less according to the custom of the better bred . . . " Aside from Sondheim's famous observation in Company ("Does anyone really still wear a hat?"), "persons of distinction" today no longer appear to consider such gestures important, nor would others understand them. No. 27 is all about who can direct people to put their hats back on, and when. Really people, we have so moved on from that.
Hats pop up again in No. 85: "In company of those of higher quality than yourself, speak not until you are asked a question, then stand upright, put on your hat [emphasis Etiquetteer's], & answer in few words." That would be a curious ceremony indeed today!
Then there's a whole slew of rules about precedence - how to give place to those "in dignity or in office" - in speech, in one's home, and even on the street, as in No. 30: "In walking, the highest place in most countries seems to be on the right hand, therefore, place yourself on the left of him whom you desire to honour; but if three walk together, the mid place is the most honorable; the wall is usually give to the most worthy if two walk together." Precedence in the 21st century has become so much simpler: it's by age and, in the workplace, rank (regardless of gender). And besides, none of this takes into account on which side someone's deaf ear might be.
Etiquetteer will conclude with No. 40, "Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty." Umm . . . no. While it's important to know when you've lost, Etiquetteer would encourage citizens to continue to, as the phrase is today, "speak Truth to Power." The trick, of course is to do so in such a way that one's points are heard, absorbed, and given due consideration. That is not always done best with "striving," but with subtlety.
One might think, reading this, that all Washington's maxims were out of date, but not so! The wisdom and consideration of Washington continues to be relevant to 21st century behavior.
Etiquetteer would like to wish you a Perfectly Proper Washington's birthday. Drink something with a cherry in it to celebrate.
Etiquetteer has been enjoying Iles Brody's somewhat florid The Colony: Portrait of a Restaurant - and Its Famous Recipes, and particularly his account of the creation of its signature cocktail, the Colony Special. To mitigate the rotgut taste of Prohibition gin, barman Marco Hattem added a dash of absinthe to every martini, and then shook rather than stirred it. Conventional wisdom had it that a shaken martini could not come out clear, but for Hattem they did.
So Etiquetteer experimented with the Perfectly Proper ingredients and a shaker, using this recipe:
- Four parts gin.
- One part dry vermouth.
- One dash absinthe.
- Pour into ice-filled cocktail shaker and "shake merrily" as Iles Brody instructs.
- Strain into martini glass, add a twist of lemon, and serve.
Watch how Etiquetteer (almost, maybe) did it here:
The result, while perhaps a shade cloudy, eventually cleared. And the absinthe adds a fresh, vaguely bitter note that's far from displeasing.
Enjoy! And as Doris Day memorably said in Romance on the High Seas, "À votre santé!"
In honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday February 12, rather than review the hoary old chestnuts about his strict honesty, humble upbringing, and stirring eloquence, Etiquetteer would rather look at the most glittering social event of his administration, the Grand Presidential Party of February 5, 1862. Of the many nighs to remember in the history of the White House, it proved that no matter what's done in the White House, some loud group of people will be displeased with it.
Mary Lincoln proposed an extra-large evening reception as a subsititute for a series of "stupid state dinners" as a gesture of economy and, perhaps, as a way to show off a spectacularly refurbished White House with a bit less wear and tear. But to change existing social forms, one has to be in an unassailable social position oneself. And Mary Lincoln was not in such a position, looked down on (somewhat unjustly) as an uncultured Westerner by the cave dwellers of Washington society. She wanted both to display her good taste in the redecoration of the Executive Mansion, and also snub some of her detractors by keeping them off the guest lists. The President's secretary John Nicolay wrote a lady friend "Half the city is jubilant at being invited, while the other half is furious at being left out in the cold." So often in official entertaining one has to put aside one's personal dislikes to be gracious - "suck it up," as is said today. Mary was often unwilling to "suck it up," but even so her great Washington rival Kate Chase was there, without any attendant social fireworks.
What sort of etiquette problems attend on an official event like this? What to wear is always a consideration, of course, but this time Mrs. Lincoln had to consider how to acknowledge the recent death of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. Mary chose half-mourning since the British ambassador would be attending, dressing in white satin trimmed with black, and with white and purple flowers in her hair. One account says she wore "an expensive array of pearl jewelry," maybe the parure of seed pearls given to her by the President. Another says that she wore no jewelry but a string of pearls, which would be more in keeping with mourning restraint.
Fashions were also changing in favor of longer trains and lower décolletage. Mrs. Lincoln, by then a matron and what would now be called "a lady of a certain age," would be nothing if not fashionable, but filled in her low neck with a garland of crape myrtle. Even so, there were those who felt she was not dressed with Perfect Propriety. One senator from the West wrote that ". . . the weak-minded Mrs. Lincoln had her bosom on exhibition and a flowerpot on her head.*" Even the President made a couple cracks before they went down to their guests. "Whew! Our cat has a long tail to-night . . . Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style.**"
Grace under pressure, the motto of official entertaining, had an extra layer of meaning for the Lincolns with a very sick son upstairs in bed. At different points in the evening one or the other of them went upstairs to check on Willie, but without betraying to their guests that anything was amiss***.
Grace under pressure also means not betraying that anything is amiss even when it very obviously is. When it was time for the supper to be served, the promenade ended up halting at the door to the State Dining Room because it was locked! (No doubt to keep hungry guests from jumping the line.) Oops . . . but there were no reports of Mrs. Lincoln losing her cool over this serious breach of preparedness. It was General McClellan who had to keep his cool instead. While the steward fumbled for his keys, restive catcalls from the back of the line came: "I am in favor of a forward movement!" "An advance to the front is only retarded by the imbecility of commanders!****" As these were direct commentaries on McClellan's leadership of the Union army, he might have been expected to turn red or turn tail, but he kept his head and his good humor.
These days at evening parties the custom is for refreshments to be available from the very beginning. In the 1800s, particularly at balls, a supper would be served about halfway through the party (hence the promenade on this occasion ending in the dining room). Mrs. Lincoln engaged Henri Maillard, a top-flight New York caterer, to manage this supper, and the State Dining Room was full of enormous set-pieces of food, including a sugar replica of Andrew Jackson's home the Hermitage. So many good, costly, and showy foods were offered, though, that the First Lady endured a lot of criticism afterward. How respectful could the Administration feel toward the brave boys in blue, suffering the field, to carry on so?
So Mrs. Lincoln gave the largest party of her White House years, with the additional burden of a sick child, and got almost nothing but grief for it. But on the night itself, the Grand Presidential Party was considered a radiant success. Etiquetteer has seen so often that a guest's opinion of a party will start to brown and curdle after about three weeks. For Mrs. Lincoln, recollection of the night itself, and what her guests said to her then, may have been treasures she kept close to her heart long afterward.
*Senator James Nesmith, quoted in James B. Conroy's fascinating Lincoln's White House The Poeple's House in Wartime.
**Quoted in Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage.
*** Students of history will recall the struggles of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, entertaining Polish nobles at Spala while their hemophiliac son Alexis writhed in pain on his bed after an accident.
**** Quoted in Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage.
How can black bridesmaids' dresses be outlawed?
We live in a nation of freedoms, which has many undeniable advantages. Alas, one of them is not Freedom from - well, Etiquetteer won't say Bad Taste, but Unconsidered Taste. Were Good Taste to be legislated, we would no longer be a Nation of the Free. Etiquetteer considers that a better approach is for the Perfectly Proper to set the Best Example through their own daily lives. Etiquetteer rather feels that the fashion for Bridesmaids in Black is already passing, much as other bridal fashions have. And the sooner the better.
Not long ago at a party someone became fascinated by my perfume and kept asking me what it was. Aside from feeling that the question was inappropriate, I always thought a lady never told what her perfume was. Am I right?
Before addressing your sensibly query, allow Etiquetteer to observe that the word perfume is considered "Non-U" but the word scent is "U." You may want to check out the glossary of U and Non-U words for Handy Future Reference.
Traditionally a lady never reveals her scent because it deprives her of mystery. This would also imply that one doesn't wear enough that it might be identified. A Perfectly Proper scent calls attention to its wearer, not to itself.
The question within your query, though, is whether or not someone should even ask what one's scent is. After consideration, Etiquetteer is inclined to say not. This is in no small part because it might lead one to fret that one has put on too much and smells like a House of Ill Fame. Just consider poor Charlotte Vale in the novel Now Voyager, writhing in agony when Jerry notices that she is wearing the scent he gave her. Poor, poor Charlotte . . . so no, this is not the sort of question a gentleman asks a lady, nor is it the sort that one confirmed bachelor asks another.
My husband and I recently moved into a house in a small, and what we understand to be a relatively close-knit, neighborhood. In an earlier era neighbors might introduce themselves to newcomers with the stereotypical casserole or pie, but that era has passed. Accepting this, but wanting to be friendly neighbors, what might be a Perfectly Proper way(s) for us to take the initiative and introduce ourselves other than waiting for random chance such as shoveling snow at the same time? Or are proactive gestures considered too intrusive today, and waiting for
shoveling-type scenarios is the wiser course?
Etiquetteer was about to say that queries like yours recalled the days of the Welcome Wagon, when the burden of introductions fell on established residents rather than on newcomers. But when you read the history, that turns out to be a wee bit mythical; the Welcome Wagon hostesses weren't actually neighbors, but paid employees of Welcome Wagon International. So never mind about that. Back in the Dear Dead Days Beyond Recall, when visiting cards were in use, it was expected that established residents would pay a first call (also known as "leaving cards") on new neighbors, and that those calls would be returned within a limited time frame, usually something like a week. (And if no further acquaintance was desired after these initial introductions, so be it.)
Etiquetteer thinks you are wise to take the initiative now rather than waiting to be thrown together during a weather-related crisis. One thinks of the English guests of the Pensione Bertolini in Forster's A Room With a View, of whom he wrote "Generally at a pension people looked them over for a day or two before speaking, and often did not find out that they would 'do' till they had gone." In urban environments in can take years to meet neighbors, and then more years to get on speaking terms. What's that Old Joke about the two Englishmen marooned on an island for three years, who never spoke to each other because they hadn't been properly introduced?
We can do better than that. And since you recognize that waiting for a line of casseroles at your front door is No Longer the Way, we're off to a good start. Finding a balance between being considered pushing and standoffish is the real key here. Present, but not omnipresent. Pleasant, but not obsequious.
Here dog owners have the advantage. Doggie's walk four or five times a day will inevitably invite Sociable Contact with Other Dogs and Their Owners. If you have a dog, you've won half the battle already. If not, instituting a Daily Constitutional at l'heure des chiens may create an opening for you. It helps enormously if you like dogs. Otherwise, grin and bear it until you've met your neighbors, then change your walking hours.
The first time you and a new neighbor make eye contact - while you're unloading the moving van, even, or going out to the mailbox - walk over and introduce yourself. Be forthright, but not too famliiar. Invite them over for coffee once you're settled in. Ask about neighborhood hot spots and how to get engaged in the community. Ask about how long they've lived there and what they like about the neighborhood. So many people enjoy the thrill of power when appealed to, more likely than not your new neighbors will appreciate your initiative.
Otherwise, by all means bake the cakes yourself and bring one to your neighbors on each side of your new home. If the community is as close-knit as you say, the word will spread that the New People Will Do.
Etiquetteer wishes you and your husband a long, happy, and Perfectly Proper domestic life in your new home.
The end of January unofficially marks the launch of the Etiquetteer website, so why not just celebrate all 17 years with a toast? Thank you, readers and viewers!
To observe the occasion, a few "Best of Etiquetteer" selections:
"Gaping Maw of Bridal Need:" "So many brides believe all they have to do is receive, receive, receive (but not in a receiving line): receive congratulations, receive compliments, and especially receive gifts gifts gifts (but only from the registry that has been shamelessly advertised) and money. And that they don't have to GIVE anything but orders: orders to give parties, orders to buy gifts, orders to buy ugly dresses, orders to lose weight, orders constantly to satisfy the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need."
'Quagmire of Specificity:" "There's nothing to stop you from replying "And a Merry Christmas to you!" What Etiquetteer finds tedious is lengthening what is supposed to be a brief greeting -- "Merry Christmas!" "And a happy holiday to you, too!" -- into a drawn-out discussion about what holidays one does or does not celebrate and why. It doesn't matter! Can't you all just wish each other well without getting lost in a Quagmire of Specificity?"
Look at the Eyes: "Etiquetteer has heard from enough ladies to know that too many men would rather look at other parts of them than their faces. Left to their own devices, lanyards can hang anywhere from directly over the bosom to dangling below the navel, providing too much opportunity for Inappropriate Appreciation. A lady's eyes are not down there. A lady's eyes are not down there. Look up at the eyes, and keep looking there!"
"STAR SIX!" "Know your mute button. Background noise where you are is magnified on a conference call, and has the power to drown out the words of other participants. If you aren't speaking, mute your phone. Unmute when you wish to speak."
"Potential of One's Largesse:" "There's a difference between a strictly social invitation and an invitation to a fund-raiser. One is invited to the first solely for the pleasure of one's company, but to the latter for the potential of one's largesse."
"It's a Machine, Not a Coat Rack:" "It's a machine, not a coat rack. Don't leave your stuff about on those Weightlifting Things. Especially don't try to "reserve" one by hanging a hoodie or a towel over it. This inevitably leads to confusion and a lot of tiresome Alpha Male Posturing."
Gaping Maw of Bridal Need II: "You invite friends (or the friends of your parents) to a wedding for the pleasure of their company, not because you expect them to cover the costs of their own entertainment."
Don't see your favorite? Review the index to find it, and then by all means send Etiquetteer an email to ask about writing another favorite column on a Topic of Your Choice.
Where do you stand on the 'clinking' of glasses after a toast? I don't recall the etiquette rules on this but it does 'feel' rather awkward sometimes.
P.S. The next person who says "let's cheers..." instead of "let's toast..." is going to be invited to attend an etiquette class, in very strong but polite language.
Just as it's not Perfectly Proper to applaud the National Anthem*, it's not Perfectly Proper to clink glasses in a toast - and it will be impossible to get people to stop doing either. These deviations from Perfect Propriety have now become Standard Operating Procedure.
What makes the custom of clinking glasses so awkward is the superstition that everyone's glass must touch everyone else's. In Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top, authors Dorothea Johnson and Liv Tyler allow groups of two or four to "gently clink glasses." Clinking gets difficult as the length of the table or the size of the group grows, and it increases the risk of spillage and breakage. One sees people at opposite ends of the table half-rising in their chairs and straining to tilt their glasses to meet in the center; they risk baptising the tablecloth. Much simpler and less time-consuming for everyone just to repeat the toast, lift their glasses, and take a sip.
A SIP! It was a long, long, long time ago when one drained the glass at a toast. Toss that back and you run the risk of getting a reputation of enjoying your wine too much.
Etiquetteer much prefers the custom of "taking wine," which requires nothing but locking eyes with another for a Significant Brief Moment, lifting one's glass discreetly in that person's direction, and taking a sip. Perhaps this custom is what inspired Ben Jonson's famous "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." There's a wonderful description of it in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: "The custom of 'taking wine' - which called for catching the eye of someone else, looking meaningfully at them, and raising one's glass in their direction which they raised theirs eloquently back - would have vanished by the 1860s except in eccentric rustic households."
One toasting custom that has changed is that one no longer breaks the wineglass to keep it from serving any "less honorable purpose." Etiquetteer learned this early in life, drinking the Pure Milk of the Word of Emily Post (1937 edition). At a bachelor dinner, the groom was supposed to rise, toast the bride, and then break the stem of the glass. Those present were to follow his example and then toss all the broken glass into the fireplace**.
This Splendid Gesture wasn't always confined to bachelor dinners. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his son Archie during World War I about their wife and mother Edith making a rare order for a glass of wine after luncheon. After a toast to Archie, ". . . Mother, her eyes shining, her cheeks flushed, as pretty as a picture, and as spirited as any heroine of romance, dashed her glass on the floor, shvering it in pieces, saying 'That glass shall never be drunk out of again'; and the rest of us followed suit and broke our glasses too."***
After that "Let's cheers" from your Breezy Pal, Etiquetteer will allow you to follow up, gently, with a Perfectly Proper "Now let's toast . . . " so that you can Set a Good Example with your own Perfect Propriety.
Not sure what beverage to toast with? View Etiquetteer's video above.
*Acts of patriotism are not applauded.
**Dear Mrs. Post, bless her, thought that breaking glasses and singing loudly was as much of an "orgy" as a bachelor dinner was. Etiquetteer raises a toast to her naïveté.
***Quoted in The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War, by Edward J. Renehan, Jr. (page 176)
After Sunday's review of Brunch Is Hell, which advocates a dinner party renaissance but with a more relaxed vibe, Etiquetteer got to thinking about how That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much puts together a Poverty Pasta Dinner. Etiquetteer first suggested this type of dinner party many years ago, but it's worth detailing the specifics now:
- Pick an evening (weeknight or weekend) that works on your calendar.
- Send an email invitation (bcc: everyone to prevent an email spiral needlessly involving those who decline) to an appropriate list that should generate at least two dinner guests but no more than seven - about 14 people. Include an R.s.v.p. date five days before the dinner date, and remind everyone that you'll assign ingredients to the final list of attendees.
- Remind non-respondents the day before the deadline that they need to respond.
- Three days before the dinner, assign ingredients to attendees: pasta, sauce, garlic bread, cheese, red wine. If there are enough people, add salad*, dessert*, and more red wine. (There can always be more red wine, no matter how many are coming.)
- Be sure to have backup ingredients in case someone forgets. You can't have a Poverty Pasta without any pasta!
- People will R.s.v.p. right up to the dinner hour. Assign them red wine.
- The night before, put a fresh tablecloth on the table, set out silverware, tumblers, and napkins. Set out necessary equipment in the kitchen: pasta pot, bread baskets (line with paper towels), cookie sheet for garlic bread, corkscrew, small bowls for cheese, water pitcher, and dinner plates.
- On the night of the dinner, fill the pasta pot with water and start it boiling as soon as you get home. Tidy public rooms.
- Remain calm while simultaneously answering the doorbell, texting directions to a lost guest, and opening the first bottle of red wine.
- As guests assemble, make sure everyone knows where the wineglasses are to fill their own, and draft a guest to fill the tumblers with water.
- Remind guests reluctant to drink red wine out of champagne flutes when your birthday is.**
- Receive ingredients and prepare dinner. Wait to put the pasta in the water until all guests have arrived.
- Guests serve themselves when dinner is ready. Open seating (placecards at such a casual event would not be Perfectly Proper), but couples should avoid sitting together.
- When all are seated, make the traditional Poverty Pasta toast: "To Camaraderie and Thrift!"
- Keep an eye on who might need more ice water or wine and pass appropriate vessels as necessary.
- Encourage seconds if there's pasta left in the pot; you don't want all those leftovers.
- When it looks like all eating has ceased, begin clearing plates. This will prompt others to assist; don't discourage them.
- As conversation winds down, bid guests farewell.
- Roll up sleeves and begin washing dishes. (This step may precede #16 if guests linger too long.)
And that's it! Give it a shot if you need to inject some novelty (or economy) into your social life.
*The addition of salad or dessert automatically upgrades Poverty Pasta to Gentility Pasta.
**Not really. That is NOT Perfectly Proper.
Late to the ball once again, Etiquetteer just discovered Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano, creators of the radio and podcast program The Dinner Party Download, just as the podcast was ending permanently. The bridge between this program and their next ventures, Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party, takes a wildly irreverent 21st-century look at what is sadly a dying art: welcoming friends into one's home for a meal.
Because, let's face it. people are afraid of letting people into their homes and offering them a meal. They feel daunted by the necessary labor, anxious about the known and unknown food issues that could wreck a menu, pressured to perform perfectly, and conquered by sloth*. Newnam and Gagliano's book is filled with an electric, rowdy energy not often associated with a dinner party (and very rarely associated with etiquette books). It crackles with enthusiasm to take back our social lives from the restaurant-industrial complex! Why not reclaim our weekend days for True Sloth and shift our mealtime socializing to the dinner hour?
Etiquetteer should specify right up front that what the authors are really advocating is an informal dinner party, not a formal dinner. What used to be called "dinners of ceremony" live on only in the worlds of politics and international diplomacy. Dorothy Draper put it perfectly in her delicious little book Entertaining Is Fun: "Formality applies to the clothes you wear and the perfection of every detail of the service . . . " [emphasis author's]. Brunch Is Hell celebrates imperfections and errors. "At brunch, if the food arrives burned or bland, you complain and threaten to never return unless you're given a better quiche, or a refund. At a dinner party, if the food arrives burned or bland, you express sympathy and share a good laugh. Because, hey, we've all been there, and nobody's perfect" [emphasis author's]. Let this sound advice be your guide.
They also advocate for the dinner party as an "unstructured time to do ridiculous things," while Etiquetteer would Respectfully Suggest that of course a dinner party has structure and that conversation (the true purpose of any dinner party) may be about as ridiculous as any set of dinner guests needs to get. Interpretive dance and illegal substances don't need a place at a dinner party. But we all agree that conversation should stick to topics a few cuts above how someone got a refund at a Big Box Store or how directions to the home of a friend of a friend in Tuscaloosa were found.
Brunch Is Hell includes some refreshing guidance for the still-new century. The old mantra "If you want conversation in the foreground, no music in the background" has been replaced with the need for a good playlist to shape the mood and conversation of the 21st-century dinner party. "A musicless party is like food without salt: serviceable but dull." While Etiquetteer is familiar with very few of the musicians they refer to (what, no Lee Wiley?!), advice to avoid using a TV monitor to play music, to stick to one format, and to prevent the guests from substituting their own choices sounds solid.
Their analysis of how to say goodbye after a dinner party must be read to be believed. See especially references to the "twenty-cheek kiss" and the "Jar Jar Binks Goodbye."**
But they also share information that Etiquetteer would have to file under No One Should Have to Tell You This. You don't see Emily Post, Lillian Eichler, or the other great 20th century etiquette writers instructing their readers to clean the toilet before company comes, because it is understand that for Heaven's sake, the toilet is faultlessly clean whether company is coming or not. They would never have had to specify that one doesn't talk about poop at the dinner table, because ladies and gentlemen didn't even think about poop, much less talk about it!***
Etiquetteer comments further on how the authors suggest sending invitations, and some additional invitation pitfalls in the video below.
Reading this volume, Etiquetteer couldn't help entertaining the vision of a lady from the early 1930s at a dinner party of that period - hair perfectly marcelled into rainbow waves, sleeveless satin dinner gown with bits of discreet beading here and here - and wondering what she'd make of this Brave New World. For the upper classes, Novelty is so important, but only within the safe confines of a certain level of amenities. If she was a good sport, a Game Old Girl, Etiquetteer bets she'd switch out that satin gown for a dashiki and velvet slacks (but keep the marcel waves) and unbend enough to chat about almost any topic. But not poop.
Your assignment from Etiquetteer, dear readers, is to read this book, hold a dinner party, and report back. It will definitely be worth your time.
*Let's face it, you are afraid to have a dinner party, and Etiquetteer knows how beautiful your dining room is.
**Etiquetteer recommends you heed the words of Great Grandmother Dougherty: "If ya gonna go, GO."
***The authors may have included that as humor, but Etiquetteer has long been disgusted by the References to Bodily Function that have crept into regular discussion among Civilized People. It's gross, and it simply isn't necessary. Stop it at once!
Winter weather often chases people in need of some sort of escape to museums. So a refresher on Perfect Propriety at museums might not come amiss.
Don't bring a lot of stuff. Aside from the fact that it's time-consuming to check and retrieve personal belongings, many museums either don't allow backpacks in their galleries, or will require you to wear them in front like a baby in a snuggly. Keep it simple and travel light.
Do bring your member card (if you're a member). Yes, the staff can look up your membership, but why put them to all that trouble, and why hold up everyone behind you in line?
Don't touch the art! Etiquetteer should not have to say this. Keep your hands to yourself. You don't want to cause an incident like these folks.
This also includes sitting on the art. It doesn't matter how tired you are, you can't just sit down on some ancient stone slab carved with cunieform or something.
Be responsible for your children, and don't let them touch the art. Again, Etiquetteer should not have to be saying this.
It's not church, but keep it down. Your voice has the power to harsh the buzz of everyone in the gallery. By all means chat with your friends, but quietly.
Your need to photograph the art is less important than the need of others to view the art. Be aware of where you (and your camera) are in relation to others.
Obey photo rules. Most (but not all) museums allow photographs without flash. Know what's Perfectly Proper before you whip out your picture-taker, and be sure to disable your flash. (Etiquetteer's greatest museum fear is that a photo flash will accidentally go off, and a priceless painting will flake bit by bit to the floor.)
Watch out with that selfie, whether you're using a selfie stick or not. Some museums will not allow selfie sticks for exactly this reason.
Be courteous to the staff. Many of them are working there for love and peanuts, or they might even be volunteers. Speak pleasantly, use the Magic Words, and recognize their common humanity.
Etiquetteer wishes you many Perfectly Proper museum visits this winter!
Last week the President of the United States used a profanity to cast a racist slur on other nations. That report, already contested, caused Etiquetteer to think about the state of profanity in America today. It might best be embodied by these three quotations:
“There is nothing either bad or good, but thinking makes it so.” - Hamlet, Act II, scene ii
“The Tabasco sauce which an adolescent national palate sprinkles on every course in the menu . . . “ - Mary D. Winn (speaking of sex)
‘Freud found sex an outcast in the outhouse, and left it in the living room an honored guest.” W. Bertram Wolfe (also obviously speaking of sex)
Profanity gets a lot more play than it used to, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A growing number of people just do not care about Traditional Bad Words (though a great many still do). For at least the last 40 years the Soiling Tide of Profanity has risen in American culture, so that now most Americans roll happily as pigs in a Mucky Surf of Linguistic Waste. Profanities appear on stationery, clothing, and Items of Daily Life. In the 21st century, use of alternate spellings to get around internet censorship (e.g. biatch) have almost become a cottage industry. Profanities are used in the titles and scripts of popular entertainments on a routine basis. Profanity has become inescapable. Etiquetteer rather longs for the curtain of asterisks that, while not really protecting us from the words themselves, at least protected us from actually seeing them.
This hasn’t just been due to the work of comics who “work blue” (and who are killingly funny). Indeed, Etiquetteer’s first encounter with casual profanity was seeing a “B*tch! B*tch! B*tch!” notepad at a gift shop in 1977, which means it must have been going on much longer. The beginning might be the use of the most necessary profanity ever, Rhett Butler’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” in Gone With the Wind. The phrase, the word, so completely defined the situation and the character that producer David O. Selznick fought the censors to keep it.
But the key to its effectiveness was its necessity! How many of us ask if profanity is necessary to the points we need to make, to the situations we need to describe, the emotions we need to express? Etiquetteer invites you, dear readers, to consider your own use of profanity in daily life. While profane words are often interjected in the heat of passionate discourse, might we not find a way to ask ourselves if they help or harm the situation?
What the events of last week showed us was that there’s a little-discussed double standard in American society, a group held to a higher standard than other citzens: leaders. Americans still expect leaders to behave better than other citizens, so that we can look up to them and use them as good examples and sources of pride. President Trump has consistently failed to behave to a higher standard. His comment cannot be trivialized as merely “he said a dirty word.” He expressed an abhorrent opinion using the most debased language. How on earth is it possible to look up to a man who refers to allied nations with a vulgar term for an orifice? And how on earth can anyone who believes that courtesy is important in daily life excuse it?
Does it justify a profane response, as Patti Lupone’s profane description of the President at the Tony Awards a couple days after the story broke? Etiquetteer would suggest that it doesn’t, even though a great many people share her opinion. Name-calling isn’t helping the situation.
Does it justify the press quoting the President accurately? News outlets have handled this in various ways. Some have used the word, others have used an abbreviated version (“S-hole”) others have used words to describe the word (e.g. “vulgar”), and still others have used the word, but downplayed it by burying it in their stories as much as possible. With the means of communication available in the 21st century, it might be naive to believe that “family newspaper” standards can still be applied. Etiquetteer can only be saddened that the national situation has come to the point where a major story about a sitting President concerns using a profanity to refer to allies.*
Freedom of Speech remains the greatest of American freedoms. To Etiquetteer that means that that freedom should be used responsibly**. More often than not, profanity does not contribute to responsible use of free speech.
Postscript: Now, those of you who know That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much personally may feel you’ve detected the Sulfurous Odor of Hypocrisy about this column. Everyone knows That Mr. Dimmick swears like a trooper with little provocation, and has since his Treacherous Teens. Etiquetteer is going to allow him to tell you himself about some Instances of Profanity that Did Not Help - but not today.
*A brief article on previous Presidential use of profanity may be found in Rolling Stone.
**Actually, Etiquetteer means that that freedom should be used with Perfect Propriety, but Etiquetteer also recognizes that true Freedom of Speech means the freedom to speak Improperly.
Winter - especially an urban winter - can corrode our manners the same way that salt corrodes our shoes and our vehicles. No greater challenge to Wintertime Perfect Propriety can be seen than in the Bostonian battle of on-street parking spaces fought with "space savers." Usually derelict kitchen chairs but often other domestic detritus like old ironing boards, car owners who have shoveled out their cars from on-street parking spaces plant a space saver in the space so that they can benefit from their labor. Some drivers believe they should benefit from their labor until the final flake of snow has melted (for instance, Mother's Day).
Justifiable Resentment smoulders on both sides of the debate. Drivers with no place to park understandably believe that everyone should have a shot at what is, after all, a public street. Shovelers understandably believe that Hard Physical Labor entitles them to an exclusive claim on the space they cleared themselves for their own benefit, not that of others. The solution of a guarantee of space usage for a finite period (e.g. two to seven days) seems reasonable to everyone but most Shovelers, who will be satisfied with nothing less than permanent guaranteed on-street parking and the destruction of their enemies by fire and the sword.
Etiquetteer sympathizes with both sides, but has to draw the line at the intimidation, threats, and violence that flare out over saved parking spaces. Leaving notes threatening destruction of person and/or property on a space saver is bad behavior. Breaking someone's jaw is not just bad behavior, it's illegal and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Leaving candy and a cute poem is more Perfectly Proper, but it's still a space saver.
Unfortunately these battles rarely generate enough heat to melt the offending snow. They only char our hearts into briquettes of hatred. One has only to read the comments sections of any of the articles linked above to learn that. And speaking of comments, let's just retire that "If you don't like it, move" idea. That is simply not practical for 98% of the people engaged in the battle. What everyone seems to agree on, including Etiquetteer, is that the city needs to improve its snow-removal operation drastically. Now.
These battles also obscure Acts of Winter Kindness that need to be celebrated and encouraged. Only this morning Etiquetteer witnessed a driver postpone making a left turn to allow a Nervous Pedestrian to cross the street without slipping on the ice. And then there's the man who stepped uncomplainingly into a snowbank to allow a woman with a baby stroller to pass along a narrowly-shoveled sidewalk. Winter is a test of Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer wants desperately for you to pass the test.
Welcome to a New Year and a new volume of Etiquetteer! With much of North America shivering in a post-bombogenesis dystopia, it's Perfectly Proper to start the New Year with a query from an Australian reader about inappropriate questions about clothes:
I tend to be more formally dressed than my compatriots (Aussies): where they wear shorts, I wear trousers; where they wear a jacket, I wear a jacket and tie, etc. As such I often have people asking (kindly enough) what I'm doing wearing a blazer (or what-not) to church or dinner, or wherever.
Would you please advise an answer that is both polite and brief, and not too po-faced?
First, thank you for your use of po-faced, an underused expression that ought to make a comeback.
"You can never go wrong with a classic" as the old saying goes, and in this case, the classic is "Oh, I'm going on to something else later." The implication is that the later function requires a different dress code. Whether you actually have something later on is a matter for you and your conscience to decide. Think of this as another version of Bunburying.
Etiquetteer vividly remembers an occasion from the early 1990s when a professional gentleman had to show up at a cocktail party in a white tie because he was required to attend some Ferociously Formal Function immediately afterward. Perfectly Proper for him to do so, but he made it the leitmotif of his conversation during the entire party. It's one thing to answer a question, but another to call attention to the obvious.
Another option is simply to dismiss the importance of what you're wearing, such as "Oh, I guess I wasn't paying attention" or "I always wear something like this." You must be very careful not to come off as Gloria Grahame in It's a Wonderful Life, who famously said "What, this old thing? Why I only wear it when I don't care how I look!"
And it will help you to become adept at changing the subject to something more appropriate. "When I was dressing I was thinking about [Insert Engaging Topic Here]" and then hold forth.
Etiquetteer is particularly concerned to learn that people are questioning what you wear to church. Etiquetteer was raised on the concept of Sunday Best Clothes. While the Deity of One's Choice would not shun someone based on their clothes or cleanliness, respect for the Deity and for the act of public worship is shown by presenting a clean, tidy, and properly-dressed self in one's place of worship.
But Etiquetteer wants to ask why you find it necessary to dress one cut above what everyone else is wearing. If it involves a sense of being better than other people, you're in danger. There's a creative tension between wanting to stand up for proper dress and also standing out for looking overdressed. Gentlemen like us run the risk of appearing as Insufferable Snobs or the monomaniacal Lady Eleonore Rochcliffe in Hawthorne's "Lady Eleonore's Mantle," one of his Legends of the Province House. "I wrapped myself in PRIDE as in a MANTLE and scorned the sympathies of nature."* This is best counteracted by wearing one's clothes with a modest, matter-of-fact air rather than preening or bridling or showing off, no matter what one has chosen to wear.
Believe it or not, the best example of getting comfortable with one's look comes from a gay novel of the late 1970s, Splendora , by Edward Swift. Miss Jessie, the feminine alter ego of protagonist Timothy John, becomes the dominant of their two personalities. "He learned to dress her so she could blend into most any crowd and still be noticed" at first. But Miss Jessie's gal pal Magnolia cautions her "Ever' now and then you ought to let yourself go more than you do. Don't try to be so made up all the time. Let your hair down once in awhile and it'll be a breather for you."**
Timothy John surprised Magnolia one afternoon in a New Orleans bar, "wearing Miss Jessie's hairstyle and tight-legged jeans together with a camisole top flaring out around his waist, a string of pearls, and silver lamé heels," along with an attitude of nonchalance. "Magnolia took one look. It was all she needed. 'You don't seem like a cartoon so much no more, honey,' she said. 'You been taking lessons from the right person is all I can say, and there ain't nothing left for me to do but pronounce you "graduated with honors."'"
Etiquetteer wearies of people who believe that dressing up, or even having to make any effort at all to look respectable, is too much trouble and to be avoided. They lack a sense of Occasion and Appropriateness. A quiet example needs to be set for them, and Etiquetteer commends you for continuing to do so.
*Poor thing then dies of smallpox.
**But, let Etiquetteer hasten to add, when the dress code allows! Relaxation and Perfect Propriety are not mutually exclusive.