Party Guests, Vol. 16, Issue 26

Dear Etiquetteer:

There’s an old expression, “in the powder,” which means that when guests arrive too early. Last weekend a couple party guests showed up two hours early. My house was not yet ready to receive guests, I was still cooking and cleaning, I hadn’t showered yet, and all of a sudden there were people at the door I must entertain. In my case they could’ve spent time walking around my historic neighborhood. Other people must have had this happen to them and heard the excuses: light traffic, easier than expected parking, bringing perishables to the party, etc. How can I get out of this? I love having people over, but I love having them over when I’m ready more than when I’m getting ready.

Dear Pre-empted:

No host or hostess wants their guests to see “how the magic happens,” and that’s doubly tough when they show up so very early. Sometimes that happens because guests miss the correct arrival time on the invitation.* The Perfectly Proper solution is, as you suggest, to take a walk until the party is supposed to start. That’s tough to do, though, if it’s raining or viciously cold.

You’ll be relieved to know, though, that there’s no obligation to entertain early arrivals. Just park them in the parlor with a “Don’t mind me, I’m in my prep zone," and get back to your business. Deflect any offers of assistance (if unwelcome) with "Thanks, I really appreciate it, but I have my routine already set and I just need to get things done at my own pace."

If you don't mind some extra help, however, toss them an apron and put 'em to work. This can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth if your guests then question how to do what you've asked them at every step of the process, so they can be sure it's done the way you want it. Much better, in Etiquetteer's view, to leave them in the parlor with a magazine.

You can mitigate this kind of behavior in two ways: confirm the time on the morning of your event, and plan to have everything but the cooking complete one hour before the party starts.

*Etiquetteer has had to lecture That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much about this more than once. Indeed, his ability to appear up to an hour early by mistake at one annual gathering has become almost an eye-rolling tradition.

Signs of the Times, Vol. 16, Issue 25

Etiquetteer has been traveling lately, and has been amused and/or instucted by instructional signs everywhere:

As usual, Etiquetteer believe these signs should read "Everyone must wash hands."

As usual, Etiquetteer believe these signs should read "Everyone must wash hands."

Seen in a San Francisco bookstore. An important reminder that no one cares about your "private" conversation.

Seen in a San Francisco bookstore. An important reminder that no one cares about your "private" conversation.

Gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming quite the rage, as can be seen from these two examples:

Of course there's also a Head 1.

Of course there's also a Head 1.

The screen makes this difficult to read, but the sign says "Sorry ........ Due to our environmentall delicate location, restrooms are for customers only Public restrooms are across the parking lot. Thank you ......." Isn't this a triumph of Euphemism?

The screen makes this difficult to read, but the sign says "Sorry ........ Due to our environmentall delicate location, restrooms are for customers only Public restrooms are across the parking lot. Thank you ......." Isn't this a triumph of Euphemism?

Etiquetteer Reviews Suave in Every Situation: A Rakish Guide to Style for Men

The world of Fashion has its arbitrary side, which sometimes veers toward the silly. And any time the word "rakish" appears in a book title, you know Humor is going to rear its smiling, unruly head for a bit of fun. Which is exactly what Gonzague Dupleix (author) and Jean-Pierre Delhomme (illustrator) have given us with Suave in Every Situation: A Rakish Guide to Style for Men. This bonbon box of frivolous advice, sprinkled with History and Wisdom throughout, makes a delightful read and reinforces some Central Tenets of Perfect Propriety.

Written in strictly Q-and-A format, Suave in Every Situation gathers seemingly random questions under chapter headings the underscore the author's belief that one needs to know the rules in order to play with them for positive effect: "Ask Yourself the Right Questions," "Make the Ordinary Extraordinary," "Live With Your Own (Bad) Taste," etc. From berets to zentai, opinions are shared, advice offered, and rules overruled (or not) about how to behave and what to wear.

Considering a gentleman's wardrobe, biases are expressed. Briefs, the undergarment of superheroes, are the only possible choice for a suave gentleman. Fur-lined shoes are beneath consideration. Military jackets are not to be trusted. Etiquetteer got a good laugh over the ultimate advice about wearing overalls: "Women and children first." Gingham and turtlenecks are encouraged, but not gingham turtlenecks. The author advises creatively on use of color. For red, "Imagine yourself in charge of paprika in a hotel kitchen: dose it carefully." For white, suggestions of appropriate-impact whiter-than-white, clever white, and dirty white.

The fickle nature of Fashion also gets highlighted. Why should one avoid a steel blue tie with a gray suit? Why are colorful socks OK, but novelty socks not? Why are "faded" jeans back, but "bleached" still out? Why do the authors endorse floral prints in such an ambiguous way: ". . . This picnic spirit à la open house at the University of Manchester's Humanities department . . ."? But coming trends are encouraged. Etiquetteer was delighted to read that capes are making a comeback for gentlemen. Time to dig out that Venetian tabarro!

There's more to suavity than what one wears, and helpful advice is offered on how to DJ a party, how to wipe sand from your feet at the beach, what sort of accent to use when speaking a foreign language, how to get the waiter's attention without getting everyone else's attention, whether or not to take off your glasses when kissing, and even whether or not to use a chaise longue or a just a towel for reclining on the beach. Some of the answers might surprise you.

That said, Etiquetteer has no idea why some of these questions are being asked . . . .Etiquetteer's answer to all of them is CERTAINLY NOT! "Should you wear your blazer inside out?" "Is it OK to leave French cuffs* unbuttoned?" "Is it OK to put your feet up on the glove compartment?" "Can you give the finger in a photo?" Really, these questions might have been added to the book solely to taunt Etiquetteer.

But if you've ever wondered how to be suave at the supermarket or cafeteria, whether or not to button or unbutton your naval sweater, where to put your arms when your photo is taken at the beach, or how to get that nasty odor out of your clothes, this is the place. Gonzague and Delhomme have created a delightful, engaging safe space for gentlemen.

*Teenagers push the limits as far as they dare - of fashion, of style, of good taste, of bad taste - as part of their transformation into (one hopes) Perfectly Proper Ladies and Gentlemen. Teenage Etiquetteer, in the faraway land of 1981, wore to a cast party one of his Dear Father's long-neglected 100% cotton pleated tuxedo shirts, untucked, with jeans, no tie of any kind, and using safety pins for cufflinks and studs and not folding the cuffs. It had not been ironed in perhaps 20 years. The evening remains memorable for the arrival of a Young Lady of the Cast dressed to the nines in flawless white and pink linen, every hair in place, looking absolutely ravishing. Teenage Etiquetteer could only gape self-consciously in uncomfortable astonishment.

Relationships, Vol. 16, Issue 23

Dear Etiquetteer:

Every time we go shopping, my husband buys a carton of [Insert Brand of Thin Mint Cookies Here]. He likes sweets, but not as much as I do.

Inevitably, I'll break open the bag and eat them before he gets around to having one or two.

A week or so after buying them, he'll open the cupboard and ask, "There aren't any [Insert Brand of Thin Mint Cookies Here] left?"

A simple solution would be to buy multiple cartons but I know I'd just end up eating both of them. That would be being piggy.

Should I feel guilty for eating them all - even if I've given him a fair chance to have some? What can we do to resolve this?

Dear Minty:

Relationship are so important because they teach us about sharing. What you can do to resolve this is to share. A simpler solution than buying two cartons would be for you to offer one or more cookies to your husband the next time you dip into the bag. "Sweetums," you might say, "would you like to have some cookies with me?" Cookie Time could become so popular it evolves into afternoon tea. And even if he declines with an "Oh no, Darling, not right now," you will at least get points for having made the effort.

Some Central Tenets of Perfect Propriety, Vol. 16, Issue 22

Etiquetteer must be feeling a bit bossy today. What are the central tenets, really, of what Etiquetteer believes? It could be summed up in this way: consider the impact you have on other people.

  • Nobody cares how you feel or what you want, so you might as well behave.
  • Look respectable. Tuck in that shirttail and those bra straps. Nobody wants to know about the waistband of your underwear . . . and if they do, you might not want to know them.
  • Dress appropriately to the particular situation. Just because you don't feel like putting on black tie is no excuse to go to a ball in a track suit.*
  • Get out of the way.
  • Be quiet, both in general and especially on your cellphone. No one cares about your "private" conversation.
  • Retain your sense of humor. That's usually key to getting out of most etiquette jams.
  • When responding in anger, whether in person or through correspondence, ask yourself if you want a successful resolution or just a chance to express anger.
  • Travel light.
  • When in doubt, send a Lovely Note.

Now that's out of the way, Etiquetteer is going to spend the rest of the day bringing his summer whites out of storage since Memorial Day (observed) is tomorrow.

*Once upon a time, if one didn't have the correct clothes for a particular function, one did not attend said function. (Consider the plight of Judy Garland's beau in Meet Me in St. Louis, who suddenly couldn't take her to a Christmas ball because his father's dress suit was locked up at a tailor's.) Nowadays this sort of Perfect Propriety is considered fussy and exclusive by far too many people - but not Etiquetteer.

Addressing Strangers, Vol. 16, Issue 20

This is really one of Etiquetteer's pet peeves, so pay attention.

Last weekend Etiquetteer was neatly and innocently waiting at the corner for the light to change when a man trundled alongside about five feet away and asked no one in particular where a local hotel was. Except he thought he was asking someone in particular: Etiquetteer! And Etiquetteer had no idea this was the case. This man was not exhibiting any of the characteristics of actually addressing someone, such as standing at a reasonably close (but not too close) distance, facing them, eye contact, unmistakably audible tone of voice, and the Very Important Introduction of "Excuse me, please . . . " How on earth is anyone supposed to know they're being spoken to by a stranger?

Once Etiquetteer fully understood what was happening, directions could be provided ("That way.") But it also brought to mind a much more unpleasant version of this common problem from about 25 years ago.* Intent on reaching a subway entrance, Young Etiquetteer missed hearing a question being hog-called by some Dreadful Woman** standing ten feet away. And missing the question - and why should Etiquetteer even think it was personally directed in the first place? - this Dreadful Woman started shouting about these Rude Bostonians and how horrible Etiquetteer was not instantly to come to her aid. She clearly thought just standing in the middle of a busy corner made her perfectly noticeable and comprehensible!

If you're in a strange city and you need directions, for heaven's sake, make yourself known to the people whose aid you seek by saying "Excuse me please," facing them, and looking them in the eye. Nobody at a busy intersection is thinking about you to begin with. Help them help you by asking for help in a recognizable, unambiguous manner. That's not just Perfect Propriety, it's common sense.

*Do you ever wake up screaming about things in your past? This is the sort of thing that wakes Etiquetteer up screaming.

**No doubt the British etiquette writer would describe her as Not Our Sort. The American writer Paul Fussell would peg her as a prole.

Signs of the Times: Dog Owners, Vol. 16, Issue 16

Occasionally Etiquetteer likes to report on instructional signs to see how well we're doing with Perfect Propriety in Public.

Etiquetteer was delighted to see that the Arnold Arboretum is getting serious about negligent dog owners who allow their dogs to run and scratch around without a leash. These four signs appear to be a new campaign. As they correctly note, "Dogs are not the problem. Dog owners who violate leash laws are the problem."

Let's hope this has what used to be called a salutary effect on Perfect Propriety in the arboretum.

Vacation Plans, Vol. 16, Issue 15

Dear Etiquetteer:

At times, when on vacation, I meet friends while there (sometimes I know in advance I will see them and other times I just run in to people). The suggestions of plans are made. Of course, these interactions are wonderful and just what vacation should be: spontaneity and fun. The headiness of vacation time is magnified by the shared experience with friends. Nonetheless, I sometimes find that my relaxing vacation is being over planned and much of the relaxing I was planning on doesn’t happen. I return from vacation not exactly refreshed.

I don’t begrudge my friends and their interest in seeing me socially. I live for that and feel lucky. But I’d gladly swap a dinner out in, say, January or February when such invitations are so scarce then try to jam in all the various invitations in July on vacation. Any suggestions?

Dear Vacationing:

A change of destination might help. Reading your query, Etiquetteer couldn't help but remember how interested Newland Archer was in summering in Mount Desert Isle, while his in-laws insisted on the social pleasures of Newport*. Perhaps you need to find your Mount Desert Isle, where you're sure not to run into friends and acquaintances.

Etiquetteer finds nothing wrong in standing up for relaxation on a vacation. When plans are suggested, just stretch yourself languorously by the pool and say "Oh, I couldn't move a limb. You all go off and have a nice time, and we'll catch up tomorrow." A spontaneous suggestion can just as spontaneously be declined as accepted, but once you've announced a decision, stick to it. Or, you could suggest spontaneously that everyone simply "hang out" without careering off to a restaurant, bar, beach, mountain, sideshow, or other local attraction.

Etiquetteer feels deeply your conundrum of an Absence of Sociability during the Cruel Winter Months. Worn out by the weather, and perhaps the Heady Whirl of the Holiday Season, too many people hibernate socially when they should at least make some effort. The freedom of being on vacation releases that Hospitable Urge. But like you, Etiquetteer would prefer more balance. You may have to lead the charge by issuing some January invitations.

*From Edith Wharton's remarkable novel The Age of Innocence.

Personal Communications, Vol. 16, Issue 13

Dear Etiquetteer:

Sir, in this modern age, is it ever proper to put down the pen and resort to e-mail? When many have given to owning only a cell phone, how dare we call them just to leave a message? Being quite old and residing in an old folks home, I'm shocked at what some of my neighbors consider proper. For those in younger years, just you wait for old age waits for no one.

Dear Corresponding Regardless:

No matter one's age, Speed has overtaken Graciousness in communications, especially in the last 25 years with the universal adoption of cellphones and email. A well-turned phrase and a well-rounded period rarely appear to advantage via text message. But humans adapt to changes in technology. We aren't, for instance, still scratching with styli on clay tablets.

To answer your first question, resort to email when expedience matters. Email has become so ubiquitous that it has become Proper. (How one uses it determines whether it is Proper or Perfectly Proper.) When the speed of your communication doesn't matter, by all means write a Proper Letter.

If you are eager to communicate with someone who has only given you a phone number, then you must use the phone number to make a phone call, or discover by whatever means you have at your disposal what their mailing address is and send a Proper Letter.

You refer to living in "an old folks home," which leads Etiquetteer to observe that yes, there are many senior citizens who have not embraced the Digital Revolution of the last 25 years. Whether through Fear, Skepticism, General Cantankerousness, or even Lack of Equipment, they miss out on keeping up with family and friends. (And how many grandparents do we know who finally get on Facebook to find out what their grandchildren are doing, only for the grandkids to abandon Facebook for Instagram or Snapchat or Something-or-Other.)*

At a time when others should be making a special effort to reach out to them, these senior citizens find themselves making special efforts to reach out in the ways they know (mostly written correspondence and phone calls). Besides which, current technology is not always designed to accommodate the elderly. Large, unsteady fingers obscure closely-set buttons so that one doesn't always know what button one is pressing. Designers, take note.

With National Card and Letter-Writing Month coming next month (so designated by the United States Postal Service), Etiquetteer hopes that you will make more special efforts than usual to communicate with the written word.

*Even Etiquetteer, who has yet to achieve the age of "Get off my lawn," has had to learn to text, but it was a hard-won battle.

 

National Common Courtesy Day, Vol. 16, Issue 12

These Internet Holidays just pop up with no warning at all. Perhaps an invitation would be Perfectly Proper?

Etiquetteer has just learned that March 21 is National Common Courtesy Day. While (perhaps tartly) observing that every day is a day for common courtesy, Etiquetteer notes the website's stated goal: "This day brings awareness to how important common courtesy is in our lives." And indeed, the Magic Words "Please" and "Thank you," the Friendly Greetings, and Acts of Quiet Assistance like holding a door make daily life that much more endurable.

Etiquetteer is especially aware of how Service Personnel are treated - drivers, deliverymen, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, customer service representatives over the phone, custodians - and how casually, even cruelly, they can be passed over. If anything, today is an opportunity for everyone to consider how often they do (or don't) greet and acknowledge Service Personnel in their daily lives. Etiquetteer, for instance, makes a point of greeting the bus driver, and then saying "Thank you" when exiting past him/her. In a Nation were All are Created Equal, this is an important acknowledgement of our common humanity.

Another Very Bad Thing is to approach the cash register while carrying on a phone conversation. The person you're with is more important than the person on your device. Show respect!

Track yourself over the next couple days and see how you're doing.

And with that, Etiquetteer is pleased to wish you a Happy National Common Courtesy Day.

Dinner Menus of Yore, Vol. 16, Issue 11

Food has been much on Etiquetteer's mind lately, perhaps after having had that pie heaved into his face on Pi Day. So you can imagine how happy Etiquetteer was when a scrapbook containing menu cards from the 1910s was heaved over the transom. As was the custom in those more leisurely days, the Technology* Club of New Bedford held an annual dinner that appears lavish by 21st-century standards. How did these compare to what was actually recommended in the etiquette books of the period?

The Victorians loved eating! Let’s start with the number of courses, which started big, and could only get smaller. No less an authority than Judith Martin, Miss Manners herself, recorded this list in her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior:

1. Oysters or clams on the half shell, or fruit or caviar.
2. Soup, one clear soup and one thick soup.
3. Radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds.
4. Fish, served with fancifully shaped potatoes and cucumbers with oil and vinegar.
5. Sweetbreads or mushrooms.
6. Artichokes, asparagus, or spinach in pastry.
7. A roast or joint, with a green vegetable.
8. Frozen Roman punch
9. Game, such as wild duck or quail or ptarmigan, served with salad.
10. Heavy pudding or another creamed sweet.
11. A frozen sweet.
12. Cheese, or a hot savory of cheese.
13. Fresh, crystallized, and stuffed dried fruits, served with bonbons.
14. Coffee, liqueurs, and sparkling wines.

Now it’s important to note that some of these courses aren’t served one to a person, but are actually just placed about the table in little dishes between every place or two. The non-sweet early accompaniments to a formal dinner - those radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds - would have been so. And later in the meal, the crystallized fruits and bonbons. Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden described a dinner at the Taft White House this way: “Little silver dishes of salted nuts and green and brown candies broke out everywhere just as they do on all tables nowadays, and in every way it was a comfortable, unpretentious meal, not as handsome as several I have seen in the houses of the merely rich . . . Senator Tawney on my other side . . . consumed a whole dish of large soft caramels, taking one or tmore after each course from caviar to ice cream."

How does this 1910 menu differ?

First off, there's a reference to "Martini Cocktail," which seems odd to Etiquetteer since a cocktail was only to be consumed before one went to table**. It also implies that only martinis would be offered before dinner, and you'd either take it and like it, or go without a cocktail. Then, the number of courses is greatly reduced. And last, the heartiness of the menu, particularly that prominent "Sirloin of Steak" indicates that this is decidedly a "stag" dinner at which ladies would not be present.

The 1911 menu is much the same.

By 1914, it's clear a humorist worked his way onto the dinner committee, with references chemical and jocular appearing, "Coffee, Cigars, and Some Talk" being the principal feature of any stag dinner - and, at least for the Club of New Bedford, sirloin steak.

Now, by way of comparison, let's look at this 1915 menu for the annual dinner of the entire MIT Alumni Association held in Boston. This would be a larger and more formal affair than that held in New Bedford, but still likely a stag dinner. The mock turtle soup is a nod to the importance of the occasion, as terrapin, or turtle soup, was one of the two courses that signified one was at a true Occasion for the Victorians.*** Its vogue did not begin to fade until after World War I. And yet there is no Roman punch in the middle of menu as a chance to rest before consuming even more food. Note also the item "Cafe Noir." Those who like clouds in their coffee need not apply

The amount of food served per person seems astonishing in this century, but it occurs to Etiquetteer that the Way We Eat Today, this same menu could be offered almost as is for any public or charity dinner, with dinner guests checking off their entrée choices in advance.

And let's also notice how none of these menus are engraved on white or cream bristol board with gilt edges. And how small they are! They are there to be part of the table appointments, not book-sized annual reports or Advertisement Delivery Systems.

Etiquetteer, like many people, enjoys speculating about menus such as these, but they can only really be executed flawlessly when one has staff. Emily Post used to write about Mrs. Three-in-One who was simultaneously hostess, cook, and waitress, but Etiquetteer knows from experience how near-impossible it is to do that. So if you happen to know a good cook, do send him or her Etiquetteer's way.

*At this time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was popularly referred to as "Technology" or "Tech." Since World War II, "MIT" is preferred.

**It's actually still Bad Form to do so, and Etiquetteer has to remonstrate with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much occasionally.

***The other was canvasback duck. Etiquetteer has not been able to figure out why the Victorians put such an emphasis on it and, later Long Island duckling.