Attending Your Class Reunion, Vol. 18, Issue 33

Dear Etiquetteer:

I will be attending my 50th high school reunion on September 28 with my husband. I am anticipating about one hour of fun, and torture for anything longer than that. What is the proper way to excuse yourself from a party when you want to leave early without hurting anyone’s feelings?

Dear Reuniting:

First off, Etiquetteer has to confess to a weakness for reunions, so much so that That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much enjoys the distinction of being the only member of his high school class to have attended all its reunions. The purpose of any reunion worth its salt is to see old friends and make new ones, and so often the passage of time obscures earlier differences (much in the same way moss covers a disagreeable birth date on a tombstone.)* Shucks, Civil War veterans of both sides came together for reunions after 75 years! So Etiquetteer is very glad to hear that you are going to yours.

Your anxiety about going, though, is not uncommon. You can help assure yourself of a good time by calling some Friends of Bygone Days (in advance - start now!) to find out if they, too, are planning to come. Knowing in advance that people you know will also be there will help make you feel more comfortable. And if none of them can come, accept that a) you will have to talk to people you may not know well, and b) have some pleasant, non-confrontational topics at hand to start conversations. As at any dinner party, stay away from politics and religion (though if you went to a religious school, that might end up being the centerpiece of the night, including any fireworks).

The kind of event your school planned will influence an exit strategy. If it’s just a big general party, like a cocktail party, you should be able to duck out with a simple “We have to go on to something else tonight, but it was great to see you!” (The “something else” could be the safety of your recliner, but they don’t need to know that.) But if there’s a meal involved, especially if it’s a seated, somewhat formal dinner, it’s rude to leave before dessert. So if you’re already feeling antsy when dinner is announced, make your farewells then. But should you stay, as soon as you’ve bolted down your chocolate mousse, you can run for the door. Etiquetteer has witnessed a lot of college 50th reunions, and about one third of formal dinner attendees start leaving as soon as dessert is served. Etiquetteer is not a fan of feigning illness, but if worse comes to worst, you can put a pleading look in your eyes, turn to your husband, and say “Honey, I’m really not feeling very well. Please take me home.” The urgency of your illness will prevent any lengthy farewells.

Your husband is going to be an important part of your evening; be sure he is on board with your exit strategy in advance. You should also help him enjoy the evening by making introductions to old friends and classmates (and their spouses) who end up talking to you. One of the more awkward aspects of attending someone’s class reunion (when you aren’t also in the class) is having to stand watching your beloved having an animated conversation with someone who’s a total stranger to you - and you don’t even know their name! Everyone who goes to a class reunion - whether they graduated in the class (or didn’t!), married into it, were brought forth by it, or serve as caregivers to it - gets to have a seat at the table, so to speak.

Etiquetteer hopes and expects that you’ll end up having a much better time at your reunion than you anticipate. Please write back and let Etiquetteer know how it went.

*Read Dorothy Parker’s poem “The Actress” from Tombstones in the Starlight for more information.

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Online Behavior, Vol. 18, Issue 31

Dear Etiquetteer:

When, and how, and if, should I reply to rude behavior on social media? I'm thinking less of angry arguments, and more about proclamations of taste, made by closer friends and family, that insult those that do not share it. My preferred mode is silence, but not addressing it also makes me incredibly stressed and sometimes sad.

Dear Stressed and Sad:

When considering how to interact with someone whose public statements have offended you - or at least made you raise your eyebrows - the first thing to ask yourself is what outcome you want. If all you want is to express your own view, that’s one thing. If you want to change that person’s behavior, or at least make that person reconsider how they make others feel, that’s another. Regardless, you need to acknowledge to yourself that, no matter what you say, it’s possible that this person’s behavior will not change.

People often entrench themselves further in beliefs or behaviors if they feel publicly shamed. Etiquetteer can’t find that surprising; when attacked, one’s instinct is to defend one’s position. This makes a private approach less threatening, whether by email, private message via social media*, by letter, or even in person one on one**. Express yourself calmly (verbal pyrotechnics feel so satisfying, but don’t always help solve the problem) along the lines of “What you said about [Insert Issue Here] isn’t something I agree with. I may not change your mind, but I want to tell you why I think the way I think.” Then dispassionately state your case. Sometimes links to online references help; other times they give the appearance of hectoring. Use discernment.

It’s also important to point out that not everyone cares about what other people think, and not everyone cares about being polite. This always makes Etiquetteer think of Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen:” “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”

With that in mind, we have to accept that the reputation of Twitter is that of an online platform where Volanic Hurly-Burly is preferred over Civil Discourse. Think twice before engaging there. Yes, Etiquetteer is on Twitter - all the etiquette writers are - but engaging there only with Perfect Propriety!

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*This is not quite the same thing as “sliding into the DMs!”

**This means not in a party setting, even just off in the corner.

"Full Canonicals," Summer Edition

Etiquetteer first read the expression”full canonicals” reading the diaries of Ellen Maury Slayden, that beloved Congressman’s wife between the wars*, sharply observant daughter of the blueblooded Maurys of Virginia. While its true meaning refers only to the clergy (“the complete costume of an officiating clergyman or ecclesiastic”), she used it a few times to refer to Congressional wives who appeared dressed in their very best day clothes to discuss Matters of Importance.

Etiquetteer has whimsically taken up the expression for his own wardrobe, and here is the summertime version of “full canonicals” for a Perfectly Proper gentleman:

Bostonian  cognoscenti  will of course recognize the doorway.

Bostonian cognoscenti will of course recognize the doorway.

  • Panama hat

  • Seersucker suit

  • White dress shirt (white is always the most formal)

  • White bucks (note the novelty shoelaces of light blue; white is really more Perfectly Proper)

Traditionalists will be quick to point out the absence of a pocket square, so allow Etiquetteer to Beat Them to the Punch.

*The Spanish-American War and World War I, that is.

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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