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.

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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. 

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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.

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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!

National Poetry Month and National Letter Writing Month, Vol. 17, Issue 19

To Etiquetteer's surprise, this year National Poetry Month collides with National Letter Writing Month (which last year was National Card and Letter Writing Month . . . ). To celebrate the former, Etiquetteer will be posting original haikus on matters of manners. Today's offering:

It’s a tradition
A sneeze triggers “God bless you!”
Some folks don’t like that.

As to the latter, Etiquetteer hopes you will embrace the joy of handwritten communications during this special month, for all the reasons Etiquetteer has articulated before.

Kitchen Calm: An Appreciation of Escoffier, Vol. 17, Issue 17

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.

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Random Issues, Vol. 17, Issue 16

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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

Achoo! The Art of the Sneeze, Vol. 17, Issue 14

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!"

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*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.

From the Daily Life of Etiquetteer, Vol. 17, Issue 13

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.

Random Queries, Vol. 17, Issue 9

Dear Etiquetteer:

How can black bridesmaids' dresses be outlawed?

Dear Outlawing:

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.

Dear Etiquetteer:

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?

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Dear Scented:

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.

 

New Neighbors, Vol. 17, Issue 8

Dear Etiquetteer:

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?

Dear Moved:

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.

A 17th Anniversary Best of Etiquetteer

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.