Snark vs. Sarcasm, Vol. 17, Issue 39

The clever insult replaced the gallant compliment.

- Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, from their excellent Misia: The Life of Misia Sert

Dear Etiquetteer:

Can you explain to me if there's a difference between snark and sarcasm? Maybe I've lived overseas too long and dislike sarcasm as a result, which to me is an excuse to say something nasty to or about someone or something masked as humor, but snark seems to be acceptable by many around me as sharp wit with city edge humor.

Dear Snarked:

Your query had more than a whiff of hair-splitting about it, so Etiquetteer felt the need to define exactly the terms "snark" and “sarcasm” as well as “snide." Amusingly, Dictionary provided only the original definition of “snark:" "a mysterious, imaginary animal." How often we forget that it was the late Lewis Carroll who created this term in his nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark!”* Urban Dictionary provides the definition "Combination of “snide" and "remark". Sarcastic comment(s),” and defines snide as "a mean, snobbish, or spiteful remark." So at least according to Urban Dictionary, snark contains sarcasm.

Sarcasm, according to Dictionary, is “harsh or bitter derision or irony” or “a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark.” Urban Dictionary is franker: “The ability to insult idiots without them realizing it.”

So, tossing all these definitions together, Etiquetteer discerns the difference between snark and sarcasm thus. If sarcasm is the ability to insult idiots without them realizing it, snark is the ability to insult others who will realize it and will a) appreciate the effort made and/or b) respond in kind in a perpetual snarkfest, making them a worthy opponent in a battle no one should have to fight.

Long story short, Etiquetteer sees both terms as insults delivered with irony, which often leads them to be mistaken for wit, which is defined as “clever or apt humor.” So Etiquetteer would encourage aspiring snarkers to give up now. Because let's face it, if you're not the late Dorothy Parker, you'll never get it right.

Etiquetteer pines for the days when the well-turned compliment was more common, and more valued, than the snappy comeback. For instance, Etiquetteer was recently asked by an old friend’s new lover what his favorite flower was. Not knowing, Etiquetteer responded “You are always his favorite flower!” We don’t have nearly enough of This Sort of Thing these days.


*Decades later this was surrealistically translated into French by the Last of the Bright Young Things, Nancy Cunard, as “La Chasse au Snark."

Reader Response, Vol. 17, Issue 36

Etiquetteer is always pleased to hear from readers, and has a couple items to share from the mailbag:

In response to a recent column on Sarah Huckabee Sanders vs. the Red Hen, a Facebook follower commented: "I'm curious how Etiquetteer would have counseled Ms. Huckabee Sanders in light of the widespread social media attention engendered by the restaurant staff posting about the incident. Does Perfect Propriety require one to stay silent in the face of Social Obloquy, or may one offer, as Ms. Huckabee Sanders did, one's own, respectful (in the opinion of this Humble Commenter), take on one's experience?"

And Etiquetteer replies: Dignified Silence is always preferable, but even Etiquetteer understands how difficult that can be to maintain in the face of worldwide Twitter-shaming. Ms. Huckabee Sanders' tweet, for the record, said: "Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so." Ms. Huckabee Sanders could have omitted that comment about the behavior of the restaurant owner and focused instead on the good behavior of herself and her party in leaving the restaurant without making a scene. Otherwise, Etiquetteer does have to give Ms. Huckabee Sanders credit for bringing less heat to the discussion of this topic than her boss.

Thank you also for your use of "obloquy." Etiquetteer is fond of quoting the late Mame Dennis Burnside, who memorably said "An extensive vocabulary is the hallmark of every truly intellectual person."

Another reader responded to Etiquetteer's column on how Wimbledon is using honorifics for married ladies competing in its tournament: "Thank you for another very well written article! I remember when I married my husband back in 1989, when I was young, I decided not to take my husband's last name. He had even thoughtfully asked me first what I would prefer to do. Having recently graduated from college, I decided to keep my maiden name. We didn’t really discuss it again for almost ten years when our son was about to be born. How was his name to end? I helped us decide this by giving my maiden name as a second middle name. My husband's last name is the name passed down to our son. This has proven to work for all three of us."

And Etiquetteer replies: Thank you very much for sharing your family's choices. The use of family names as middle names is not unknown - indeed, the New York families of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence seem only to have family names! Your solution seems a particularly elegant one, since it doesn't involve you assuming a hyphenated name at marriage and then changing it later once the children are born (as has happened).

While there is greater acceptance today of brides retaining their maiden names after marriage, Etiquetteer hears tell that those who have the most trouble with this practice are the mothers of the groom . . . readers, is this what you've witnessed?


Honorifics, Vol. 17, Issue 34

Since Etiquetteer couldn't possible be considered one of Those Sporty Types, it takes a matter of manners to draw Etiquetteer's attention to the athletic arena. So how convenient, now that Wimbledon is well and truly launched for the season, for The New York Times to run a piece about how the All England Club uses honorifics for married female competitors. Forms of address are most decidedly a matter of manners!

The Club continues to use what Etiquetteer calls the Pre-Ms. Practice of referring to married ladies as Mrs. Husband's Name. This hearkens back to the era when ladies had no choice in what they were called. Once a lady married, she took her husband's name, and that was that. Then came the 1970s, and not only did Gloria Steinem give the world the new honorific Ms., but more and more ladies decided to retain their own names after marriage. Now, almost 50 years later, ladies most definitely have a choice in how they are addressed, and Etiquetteer thinks those choices should be honored. All England Club . . . get with it! Protocol author Robert Hickey best explains the current state of feminine honorifics on his Honor & Respect website.

The situation at the Club is made a shade more complicated by the fact that, although it is a private club for members (and can therefore establish its own rules), it's hosting an event with unrelenting television coverage and everyone competing in it is already a worldwide celebrity. Very, very few people are going to recognize that "Mrs. L.W. King" is really Billie Jean King, for instance. Expecting the rest of the world to understand a private club's rules is not, perhaps, very realistic.

All that said, Etiquetteer must betray some impatience with Serena Williams, who has said she is "still figuring out how she wants to be addressed." Good gracious, that is something that should have been "figured out" before the wedding took place to prevent just this sort of confusion! Having expressed that Fit of Pique, Etiquetteer recalls that this Change of Status does present unique challenges for Prominent Women. The great Letitia Baldrige Herself, after her marriage to Bob Hollensteiner, went through a brief period of being known professionally as Letitia Hollensteiner. But then several people begged her to go back to her maiden name in professional life. Not only was that how everyone knew her, "Letitia Hollensteiner" was a real mouthful to get out over the phone!*

So ladies must be addressed as they wish to be, but Etiquetteer draws the line at Royalty. "Her Royal Highness, Megan Markle" is not Perfectly Proper. She is now properly addressed as Her Royal Highness Princess Henry of Wales, Duchess of Sussex.**


*This charming story from Baldrige's wonderful memoir A Lady, First, page 222.

** Etiquetteer absolutely expects to hear from a few Devoted Royal Watchers who will take issue with this one way or another.

Etiquette in the News, Vol. 17, Issue 30

At times Etiquetteer has to wonder if people are actually behaving worse than they used to, or if the press is just writing about it more. Recent news stories of Absolutely Appalling Behavior have been more than distressing to Etiquetteer.

First, we have the case of a white man asking a black woman if her daughter showered before swimming in a hotel swimming pool. This is wrong on so many levels it makes the head spin. First, and most obvious, it's bald racism. Second, it's rude to comment publicly on the manners of total strangers. The excuse that he "was perfectly within his rights to ask such an intrusive question" is no excuse. We have the right to do many things that we should not do, and this is so very clearly one of them. If this man really did have concerns about the hygiene of a fellow hotel guest, he should have directed them to a hotel staff member. But the fact of the matter is, if he was really that concerned about hotel pool hygiene ("Google it"), he should have reconciled himself to going without a swim.

Next is the mysterious resignation of Harvard Pilgrim CEO Eric Schultz for "behavior that was inconsistent with my personal core values and and the company's core values and code of conduct." The mere phrasing of this statement, as well as the absence of any specific follow-up in the press, indicates that some Very Powerful People are trying to spare a scandal, and perhaps Mr. Schultz's reputation, as much as possible. Now everybody can have an off day every once in a while, but that usually doesn't lead to resigning from a high-profile position after a three-week investigation. And while humiliation should never be the goal of a public announcement, honesty should be. As distressing as this no doubt is, Etiquetteer hopes that more information will be forthcoming, if only to cease a lot of Unseemly Speculation.

Then there's the spectacular fall from grace about three weeks ago of Roseanne Barr after an especially racist tweet. (Etiquetteer is a bit late to the ball on this, as the rest of the world has already stopped talking about it. Sic transit gloria Dei nuntium.) This experience should prove to a whole lot of people, regardless of their views, that sharing every Random Thought in Your Head as it appears is not a very good idea. Let that thought marinate for a bit before firing into the Internet; you might feel differently about it in an hour. We must always remember President Lincoln's good advice to write the angry response to the letter - and then not send it.

Of course Etiquetteer never understood how Roseanne Barr could ever be considered seriously after her unpatriotic rendition of the National Anthem in 1990:

And since it's Father's Day, let Etiquetteer conclude with the words of his own Dear Father: "We must concentrate on lovely, pure, and virtuous things."

Noisy Children in Restaurants, Vol. 17, Issue 26

Over on Etiquetteer's Facebook page (you are following Etiquetteer on Facebook, yes?), there's been an unusual amount of commentary about a restaurant in Monterey, California. The Old Fisherman's Grotto does not allow disruptive children, specifically "children crying or making loud noises," and they've made it known with a prominent sign in the lobby and on their website.. A group of Bay Area mothers has made their opinion of the restaurant's policy known. Etiquetteer's repost of the article generated almost two dozen comments - pro, con, and nuanced - and almost two dozen reactions. A nerve, as they stay, was struck.

Etiquetteer approves of this policy, let's not be in any doubt about that. When it comes to Perfect Propriety, no one cares what you want or how you feel; manners come first. And Etiquetteer understands that it's shocking to many parents that other people simply do not care about their children and won't indulge or stand for bad behavior from them. The restaurant, though, has taken into account the size of their dining room, the ability of their staff to serve safely and well when access is impeded by strollers, high chairs, and other paraphernalia, and what their most frequent customers value about the restaurant. And they seem to have made the right call; business is strong.

Most commenters approve, though one, using ALL CAPS, plans to take her business elsewhere - a good idea IF THAT IS HER VOLUME LEVEL IN A RESTAURANT. The idea of a special occasion in a special place being marred by noisy babies or unruly children seems to have motivated many to take this view. And more than one reader noted that children who behave well are welcomed at the restaurant. Etiquetteer would rather like to see parents indignant at the thought of their Precious Snowflake being criticized start to think of the Old Fisherman's Grotto as a Final Exam of sorts, to see if their children can pass the test of dining out with Perfect Propriety.

Some reminiscence about parental training in restaurants also ensued, with commenters recalling maternal methods to get correct behavior. In the words of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, "Discipline mixed with love is such a good recipe." Certainly Young Etiquetteer was brought up to behave well by his parents in restaurants of all types. What seems to motivate so much heat around this issue is those parents who won't or can't instill manners in their children. Unfortunately, those parents are giving all parents an undeserved reputation.

And speaking of training, it's worth noting that once upon a time children ate at home in the nursery until they were old enough to have the proper table manners to dine with adults in the dining room. Etiquetteer remembers well seeing the back dining room of Beauvoir (the final home of Jefferson Davis), where the grandchildren would eat. Finer hotels of the 19th century would even have a special dining room for the children.

Several commenters used a word on many lips today, "discriminiation," and felt that the restaurant's policy was ageist. Diners of any age who are making loud noises must be banished, they say! (Reading those comments, Etiquetteer will have to admit to giving some Significant Side Eye to That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who's ahem Made an Impression at more than one "very gay dinner party" over the years.) Yes, Dsruptive Adults also impact restaurant dining, but Etiquetteer rather worries that setting expectations for grownups might not help business. Policies about children's behavior seem to be good for business, attracting clientele who want a dining experience guaranteed to be free from disruptive children. But policies about disruptive behavior from adults might lead too many Otherwise Lovely People to over-examine their behavior, decide they might not make the cut, and take their business elsewhere. Who wants to run the risk of the humiliation of being asked to leave a restaurant?

One commenter who Etiquetteer can only describe as Noble expressed the wish to project compassion toward misbehaving children and their parents. That is a truly admirable viewpoint to take, but Etiquetteer has to admit that it's easier to do when the parents appear concerned about the impact their children are making. Indeed, the principal reason there seems to be so much dialogue on this issue is the number of parents who take no action and seem not to care.

Wherever and with whomever you dine, Etiquetteer wishes you joy as you gather about the festive board.


National Card and Letter Writing Month Concludes, Vol. 17, Issue 24

National Card and Letter Writing Month, begun by Etiquetteer with such ambitious plans to observe it, comes to a close tomorrow. Frankly and candidly, it's going out with a whimper and not with a bang. As with any worthwhile project, daily discipline makes all the difference, and . . . well, you might say Etiquetteer paved the Road to Hell with good stationery this month.

Of course this just underscores the Crisis of Perfect Propriety we're all enduring (creating?). Handwritten communications, once basic because there was no other way, have now been relegated by Efficiency into the realm of what is considered Gracious but Optional Because Inefficient. The situation reminds Etiquetteer of what Marlene Dietrich said about elegance, something about people not even missing something essential if they aren't taught about it*.

Has Etiquetteer sent any handwritten correspondence during this dedicated month? A couple Letters of Condolence (so essential to be written by hand), a couple "thinking of you" postcards, a couple Lovely Notes of Thanks (and more still to be written after a Marvelous Party last night.) Far from the "Postcard a Day" pledge! The particular failing emphasizes the need to create the daily routine necessary for something one considers important. Etiquetteer has never believed that "Oh, it's just five minutes" sort of thing. (If you knew how much time Etiquetter spent trying to find that Marlene Dietrich quotation . . .) Ten minutes, however, is not unreasonable, assuming you know your correspondent's mailing address already. Designating a place to write at home makes a difference, too. It doesn't have to be an old-fashioned escritoire (though that helps). It doesn't even have to be a desk! It can be a corner of your dining-room table to which you bring your box of stationery and stamps.

So, let's not give up just yet, but redouble our efforts in the month of May to spread Perfect Propriety through the mails.

*If you happen to know the source of this quotation, please share. A diligent search reveals much of interest, but not this.

Random Issues, Vol. 17, Issue 22

Etiquetteer has been clapping his little hands with delight over some interesting queries that have popped into the inbox. Won't you warm the cockles of Etiquetteer's heart by sending your own query?

Dear Etiquetteer:

Might there be a polite way to tell/ask a guest to sleep between THE SHEETS and not between the top sheet and the comforter? That requires that I wash said duvet, a much more involved procedure that washing the sheets.

Dear Hostly:

According to Sally Quinn's delightful memoir of Washington entertaining The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining, "A guest can do no wrong." So once a guest has slept between your top sheet and your duvet, Expressions of Reproach, no matter how justified, are not particularly hostly.

But you already know this. What you want to do is to encourage Perfect Propriety by making compliance easy. And you can do that by turning down the sheets before your guests even arrive, with the top sheet and duvet folded back and the bottom sheet unquestioningly the place to slide into bed. You might event toss a mint on the pillow, but it's no fair clipping the top sheet to the duvet.


Dear Etiquetteer:

I was at a party recently and someone asked me what my cologne was. I didn’t think it was proper to tell. Isn’t there some sort of tradition around that?

Dear Subtly Scented:

Once upon a time a lady never revealed her dressmaker or especially her perfume. Perhaps one's scent was considered too much a part of one's person? Certainly a bewitching, tantalizing perfume was thought to contribute to a lady's mystique, and to reveal its source would be to undercut its magic. Nowadays the tradition is made fun of, but Etiquetteer believes a little Perfectly Proper mystique lends some (aromatic) spice to Life. If you'd rather not reveal, you might say "It's called 'My Secret,'" look knowingly at the questioner, and slink away like a femme fatale. (When people ask about cocktails, Etiquetteer is fond of responding "Oh, just the essence of a few woodland herbs and flowers," and that would work for a perfume response, too.)

Interestingly, perfume gets mentioned most in etiquette books to advise against wearing too much. "Also hold back on the perfume and cologne," [emphasis author's] says Bernice Bryant in Miss Behavior: Popularity, Poise and Personality for the Teen-Age Girl, "would you be the lass with a delicate air." Sometimes ladies would only put scent on their handkerchiefs and not on their persons. Charlotte Vale, when given her first bottle of perfume in the novel Now, Voyager, becomes acutely embarrassed when its giver, Jerry, recognizes that she's wearing it; she's afraid she's put on too much. 


Dear Etiquetteer:

Oh no! I was stamping a thank-you note and I accidentally put on the stamp upside-down! Will my friend now think I’m insincere?

Dear Stamping:

Only if it was a Richard Nixon stamp. Etiquetteer had always assumed that a stamp placed upside-down expressed insincerity, but apparently this is not so. An upside-down stamp really means "I miss you," and it's especially popular to place stamps upside-down on correspondence with loved ones in the armed forces. Other meanings of stamps in different positions may be found here.

By the way, thanks for sending this query during National Card and Letter Writing Month! Etiquetteer hopes you're putting lots of stamps on lots of cards and letters.


From the Daily Life of Etiquetteer, Vol. 17, Issue 21

As you know, Etiquetteer is awfully fond of quoting Ellen Maury Slayden's "This is a test of breeding. Keep cool." Because one never knows when one's breeding will be tested. Last night Etiquetteer passed the test, and will share the story here not out of a sense of braggadoccio, but to illustrate how important it is to keep calm and to keep quiet.*

Each year Etiquetteer enjoys serving as master of ceremonies at the annual benefit reception for the Gibson House Museum, and last night's discreetly glittering occasion was no exception. About ten minutes before the program was to begin, Etiquetteer passed by a lady who inadvertently jostled an elbow, as often happens at a cocktail party. Alas, that jostled a quantity of delicious cabernet down Etiquetteer's shirtfront. 'Twas not so deep as a well nor as wide as a church door, but it was enough to be seen by anyone at the back of a ballroom looking at someone behind a podium. Etiquetteer has been the schlemiel before (years ago there was a horrifying encounter between Etiquetteer's merlot and the ice-blue satin pantsuit of a Lady of Unquestioned Magnitude - at least Etiquetteer no longer wakes up screaming), but was now cast in the role of schlemazel.

"This is a test of breeding. Keep cool." Anyone who's ever had red wine spilled on them knows that Time means something in preventing Lasting Damage. The quicker the stain can be attended to, the better chance it will come out completely. Etiquetteer was able to step quietly into the restroom to get to work with some durable paper towels. The result: no red wine stain and a quickly evaporating area of water, much of which could be obscured by buttoning a few more jacket buttons.

But the proof of success was that no one noticed. And that's the key. No one noticed because attention was not called to it; a scene was not made. Etiquetteer hopes you'll never need this knowledge - good wine should be sipped, not spilled - but wishes you well should your breeding be tested at some party in the future.

*Unless in case of a medical emergency. Then some attention must be commanded!