Signs of the Times, Vol. 18, Issue 28

Etiquetteer occasionally likes to run a photo essay of instructional signs seen out in the world.

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No exceptions. Not even for a moment!

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No sitting please!

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A subtle invitation.

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Hard times call for hard measures!

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An example of the most abhorrent condescension.

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Seen in London. Etiquetteer loves the words “antisocial driving” defining all driving that’s out of bounds.

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Seen on the back of a restroom door. Clever placement!






Followup Questions, Vol. 18, Issue 23

Etiquetteer was delighted to receive a couple followup questions from readers after last weekend’s column on Random Issues.

Dear Etiquetteer:

A few questions following up on your most recent post. As a host, I always query guests on food likes and dislikes. Is that improper? Likewise, after spending much time in Boston and now living in a more "relaxed" city, I often find myself overdressed for events. Should I dress as I know the occasion calls for or match the attire of the attendees?

Dear Hostly:

Inquiring about the culinary likes and dislikes of your guests in advance of their arrival at your party is considered thoughtful now, but not required. Fifty years ago it would have been unthinkable. As long as you aren’t giving the impression that you’re a short-order cook able to turn out whatever they want instantly, you should be OK.

Now, as to proper dress, the more snobbish side of Etiquetteer would say that you are correctly dressed and that everyone else is underdressed for the occasion at hand. That, however, is not a Perfectly Proper attitude to have. You have a couple choices: adopt the local dress code and stand out by blending in, or continue to dress as you always have and stand out by standing out. Since you’re living in a new city, it’s important to make a cordial impression on your new neighbors and associates. Your traditional dress code becomes a problem if the locals think you’re putting on airs. If you can wear your clothes without letting them wear you - if you can be kind and welcoming without preening yourself - then you’ll blend in just fine. But if you’re tempted to use your clothes to think of yourself as above the natives . . . well, Etiquetteer needs to advise you to dress down to avoid a dressing-down.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I adore my stepson, I truly do. He's a great guy, forty-one years old, and very helpful to us. I didn't rear him, however. He is single and joins us for most of our social activities and almost all of our family meals. He has two annoying, and, at least to me, obtrusive habits at table. Firstly, he cuts his meat up into little bites before he begins to eat, not one at a time as he eats. He does this with things like baked potatoes as well.

Secondly, he butters bread and picks it up to take big bites out of it, again not breaking pieces off. I find it fairly disgusting, actually. I've tried to teach by example, but have never said a word. I'm not sure how to approach the topic, or even if I should. I know I'm particular, and was brought up by English people who were real sticklers for form and was taught directly how to handle every and any table situation. Do you have any ideas? Thanks in advance for your time and attention.

Dear Stepfather:

The table manners you want to instill are indeed the correct ones. It’s Perfectly Proper to break off a bit of roll and butter it by itself rather than buttering the entire roll and biting off it. It’s more grownup to cut and eat one piece of meat at a time and not all at once. Traditionally children and invalids have their food prepared for them in this way.

Leading quietly by example remains the most Perfectly Proper way to influence those around you. Etiquetteer must advise you to continue this course and not to raise your concern with your stepson. You might think that Etiquetteer advises this because you’re the stepparent, and therefore more likely to be equated with the famous Wicked Stepmother of the fairy tales. And that is a part of it. But your stepson is well past the age of adulthood, well past the age of having to receive parental instruction. At forty-one, his table manners may have to fall under the heading of Tolerated Eccentricity.

Could there be an exception to this? If your stepson mentions that he’s having difficulty dating, or at work, you might discreetly discuss with him how he thinks he presents himself in these situations. Some years ago Etiquetteer was lunching with a promising young professional who licked the table knife. Believing that this person could go far in a career, and being alone, Etiquetteer was able to say a Discreet Word in an Avuncular Tone without unnecessary embarrassment.

Etiquetteer wishes you success as you continue to serve as an exemplar of Perfect Propriety.

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National Waitstaff Day, Vol. 18, Issue 18

Today, May 21, is another one of those Internet Holidays, National Waitstaff Day, “created to show appreciation to and thank all waitstaff for making our dining experiences enjoyable ones.” Many of us can remember waiters and waitresses who Saved the Day, either by salvaging a situation with a Misbehaving Child, helping present a birthday dessert with Just One Candle, or ensuring that an allergy is appropriated attended to. If you’re dining out tonight, be generous.

It’s also Perfectly Proper to share this reader comment after Etiquetteer’s recent column on tipping:

“My daughter was a waitress once, and it’s a hectic job with long hours (early for breakfast or late for dinner) and surly patrons. They are poorly paid and rely on those tips. On a $50 dinner, 15% is $7.50, and 20% is $10. So we’re talking about two dollars a fifty stinking cents. Really? That doesn’t mean anything to most of us, but it can be significant for the waitress, especially when taken over the night. 

“And large groups are harder work, so 15% is closer to stiffing than generous.

“Finally, breakfasts are usually significantly cheaper than dinner but require the same amount of work, so 20% is usually too low. 

“I’d just recommend people think about what they’re tipping.”

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Restaurant Manners and Tipping, Vol. 18, Issue 16

Dear Etiquetteer:

I eat out regularly at a local restaurant, and over the years have gotten to know some of the servers. A few nights ago I got seated in a section empty except for a large group of eight or ten. After they left, I heard my server complaining to someone else about how cheap they were. She was upset, and I was embarrassed. They weren’t thinking that anyone could hear them.

You hear stories all the time on server blogs about patrons who stiff servers. I wanted to find out more, and maybe make up the difference since I’m there so much. Maybe they hadn’t left anything for a tip at all. So when she brought my check, I asked if they’d stiffed her. She told me what their bill was, and what they’d left for a tip. It was actually 15%. I know a lot of servers think 20% is right, but I think 15% is reasonable. I didn’t share that opinion, but I didn’t try to make up the difference in the tip I left (though this time I left more than 15%).

So here’s my dilemma, Etiquetteer. Should I mention to the manager that I overheard all that complaining? I was the only customer in my section, but not in the restaurant, and I don’t want the place to get a bad rep because the staff can be heard complaining about the customers. I also don’t want to get in bad with the staff. What’s a discreet guy to do? Thanks for your advice.

Dear Dining:

Let it lie. You’ve already identified yourself as a player in the story by drawing out your waitress*, so even if you say something to the manager, somebody will put two and two together and ID you as the Complaining Customer. And that won’t do you any good if you plan to continue going there.

Customer service can be a thankless profession, whether it’s in a restaurant, a beauty salon, a drug store, or driving a bus. it helps to be able to let off steam with co-workers. But it needs to be done in a place that is completely isolated from the customers. It’s good for management to remind staff that they need to be in a Safe Space before Sounding Off. But you’re no longer in a position where you can comment on that and remain anonymous.

The other issue you bring up but don’t ask about is the size of the tip left, and it’s a hornet’s nest of disagreement. Servers and other members of the restaurant industry advocate (with varying degrees of vehemence) for a 20% standard tip. (This piece at Eater is a good one.) In the past etiquette writers have pointed out that a tip is a percentage of the bill in order to keep pace with inflation; they suggest that raising the percentage is, therefore, not appropriate. So Etiquetteer did some research in 20th-century etiquette books to find out How Things Used to Be.

In Emily Post’s original 1922 edition of Etiquette, tipping in restaurants doesn’t even come up (though there is an unexpected entry in the index for tipping on steamboats). By the 1950 edition, Mrs. Post specified that a waiter was tipped 10-15% of the bill. Esquire Etiquette of 1953 indicates that 15% is correct. Letitia Baldrige reaffirmed the 15% tip in her reissue of New Manners for New Times in 2003.

The most interesting tidbits on this controversial topic come from the 1982 edition of Miss Manners‘ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. A reader commented point blank on the increase in percentage from 10% to 15-20%. Her reply made it clear she didn’t think much of the increase. Later in the chapter she acknowledged that the standard tip had now become 15%. But it seems that almost 40 years ago the biggest restaurant issue was the refusal of restaurants to issue separate checks. In the 21st century, the customers have clearly won that battle.

So, in the last 65 years we’ve seen the practice of a standard restaurant tip increase from 10% to 15-20%. The Emily Post Institute currently recommends a base tip of 15-20%, and Etiquetteer seconds that recommendation. Will the next generation of diners be tipping 35-40% after the next 65 years? Etiquetteer will not be here to know!

In the meantime, Etiquetteer would encourage you to err on the side of leaving a larger rather than a smaller tip. Bon appétit!

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*Etiquetteer admits to disliking the term “server” and much prefers the original “waiter” and “waitress” for those who wait at table. While gender neutral language is more usual these days, the term “server” suggests something mechanical and robotic. “Waiter” and “waitress” at least acknowledge our common humanity.

Reader Questions, Vol. 18, Issue 15

Etiquetteer sent out a reader survey a few days ago (it’s still open; if you’d like to contribute, too, here’s the link) which has yielded some interesting questions. As it happens, Etiquetteer has already answered some of them.

Dear Etiquetteer:

These days, I'm mainly concerned about the rules of etiquette governing messages of condolence.

Dear Etiquetteer:

When to send condolence notes—immediately upon learning of the death, within a month, or at any time?

Dear Etiquetteer:

What is the best way to write notes, especially condolences?

Dear Correspondents:

Etiquetteer put together a fairly comprehensive guide to condolence correspondence in Volume 16 which includes guidelines for sending, and replying to, condolence messages by post, email, and social media.

The best way to write notes, of any kind, is to sit down and write them. That may sound flippant, but believe it or not, that’s often the biggest stumbling block.

Dear Etiquetteer:

What Is a nice, quick way to sincerely respond with appreciation to a compliment in conversation?

Dear Complimented:

Truly, nothing more than “Thank you” is needed, though you may add “That’s very kind of you” if that feels too brief. Not everyone is comfortable receiving compliments. If that’s you, changing the subject will steer focus away from you.

Dear Etiquetteer:

Is it ever too late to write a thank-you note?

Dear Thanking:

Not really, but the longer you put it off, the more sweetness you need to slop into it. (And what a timely reminder; That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much has more than a few Lovely Notes waiting to be written!)

Dear Etiquetteer:

You notice that someone has food on their face, or something in their hair. Should you say something?

Dear Observant:

You may, but quietly, so as not to call attention from anyone nearby. Often they’ll be grateful. Etiquetteer has come home from parties only to find a dark, malevolent piece of spanikopita stuck in his teeth, leading Etiquetteer to stamp his little foot in a rage and cry out “Why didn’t someone tell me?!”

All that said, gentlemen never approach ladies with concerns about their clothes (for instance, visible underwear), especially if they are strangers. Regardless of the purity of his intent, more often than not it will be interpreted differently. That’s the sort of thing where only ladies can help each other out (and should). Etiquetteer has always loved the euphemism “It’s snowing down south” when a lady’s slip is showing beneath her hem - but that’s only for the Sisterhood. In the same vein, gentlemen have a range of euphemisms for an open fly to share with each other. “XYZ” for “Examine your zipper” is the briefest.

Dear Etiquetteer:

After getting a nice invitation, what should I wear? This goes for both women and men.

Dear Invited:

A Perfectly Proper invitation would provide a dress code. Etiquetteer has written before about the ambiguity of novelty dress codes. (The one in the news most now is the dress code for the just-held Met Gala: “studied triviality.”) Truman Capote did it best for his famous Black and White Ball in 1966. The short answer is, when in doubt, check with your hosts. You may also browse through Etiquetteer’s index for some helpful columns.

Etiquetteer would like to thank all the anonymous readers who responded to this survey. Etiquetteer loves to hear from readers!

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Theatre Etiquette, Vol. 18, Issue 14

Bostonians of a certain generation may remember the late theatre critic Arthur Friedman, who Young Etiquetteer was privileged to accompany on his rounds occasionally during the 1990s. Arthur, a fierce advocate for Perfect Propriety in the theatre, also loved a good dare. Before one performance at the Boston Center for the Arts, in a theatre in the round where the floor was the stage, Arthur offered Young Etiquetteer $100 to sit in one of the chairs on the set. Scandalized, of course Young Etiquetteer did no such thing.

This memory comes vividly to mind when reading about breaches of theatre etiquette such as the theatregoer in New York who violated the Fourth Wall to attempt to recharge his phone on the set of Hand to God. There's even video of the incident, since we live in a world of Eager and Instant Surveillance.

Robert Vlagas of Playbill writes "It's nice that people feel at home at Broadway theatres — but perhaps they shouldn't feel this at home." Etiquetteer must disagree. It is not nice that theatregoers feel so at home that they behave as though they were at home. Etiquetteer needs to ask theatre- and moviegoers this question: why do you go to see a show? To experience it, to be entertained and/or informed, or as background against which you can live your online life?

There is a Fourth Wall for a reason, and the audience needs not to violate it - unless invited by the performers as part of the performance. Participatory theatre is, as the children say, “a thing,” and one sometimes has to be prepared. For a show like The Mystery of Edwin Drood or, Heaven help us, Shear Madness, audience participation is necessary, and one runs the risk of being perceived as a killjoy if one just sits there like a bump on a log. If, however, an actor is ready to grab you and bring you to the stage as part of the show, and you intend that No Such Thing Will Happen, simply remain in your seat staring fixedly ahead, ignoring completely all entreaties (including those from other audience members, including your companions) no matter how in your face they might be. After sufficient time the actor will move on, wanting to maintain the momentum of the performance.

Arthur Friedman taught Young Etiquetteer other important aspects of Perfect Propriety in the theatre, which you may read way back in Volume 6. He was a pillar of the Boston theatre, and should be obeyed to this day.

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The Night Etiquetteer Saw All the Way to Crawford's Notch, Vol. 18, Issue 13

Out and about in the last two weeks, Etiquetteer witnessed an example of the need for elegance in daily life, using the first of its definitions: “refined grace or dignified propriety.” We need some elegance. A little forethought is all it takes.

Do you know the “see all the way to Crawford’s Notch” story? John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner excited a great deal of commentary when it was exhibited at the St. Botolph Club in 1888. Viewing the plunging neckline of her form-fitting black dress, a clubman remarked that he “could see all the way to Crawford’s Notch.” (Crawford’s Notch is actually a feature of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.) And that would have been all well and good except that Mr. Gardner heard about it. And that’s how a painting becomes a legend.

Etiquetteer was forced, you might say, to take the low road to see Crawford’s Notch. Heading home from an evening party, Etiquetteer found himself perhaps 50 feet behind three slim, well-groomed young women who had all borrowed Marcia Brady’s hair for the evening. They wore sleeveless tops, form-fitting short skirts, heels, and no stockings. (Etiquetteer has lamented the passage of stockings from the wardrobes of ladies, but then Etiquetteer doesn’t have to wear them, and women of the 21st century have made it very clear that they will not be told what to wear by men.)

Suddenly this trio stopped; one of the women had to fix her shoe. She bent forward to do so - from the waist. As Etiquetteer approached, it became clear that this woman’s skirt had ridden up over the top of her legs exposing at least an inch or two of her naked buttocks, and . . . and . . . and Etiquetteer hastily continued past them on his way. Remember Etiquetteer’s dictum: no one should have to know whether you are, or are not, wearing underwear. And remember all the trouble Britney Spears got into ten years ago or so, getting out of that limousine* in a short dress and no underpants**.

Miniskirts have always presented just this conundrum. How short can you go without exposing . . . exposing . . . exposing all of one’s self? Perhaps this situation could have been avoided if the young woman had worn less difficult shoes or a slightly longer skirt, or undergarments, or had bent from the knees instead of the waist - but that might have provided more of a view to anyone approaching from the front. Ladies, what do you think?

Etiquetteer will end this with the words of the late Marlene Dietrich on elegance: “Rarely found today. Women are not brought up to know about it and therefore lack even the desire to acquire it.”

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*The Perfectly Proper way for a lady in a dress to exit a car is to swivel both legs out of the car at the same time, knees together. This allows a lady the opportunity rise graciously from the car. It takes practice, but anything worth achieving usually does.

**The search for an appropriate link to post here as been more than embarrassing. Readers will just have to search for themselves.