Have you been listening to the Awesome Etiquette podcast? Actual great-great-grandchildren of Emily Post Herself continue her legacy in the 21st century, interpreting etiquette “through the lens of consideration, honesty, and respect.” They will shortly commence work on the 20th (!) edition of their great-great-grandmother’s most famous book to be released for the 2022 centennial of the first edition. Dan Post Senning asked "for a little bit of help: to think about what the Emily Post tradition means to you . . . your reflections on how that tradition is meaningful and relevant.” This is Etiquetteer’s attempt to respond to that appeal.
To do that, we need to go back in time about 45 years or so to a little Southern boy with no Southern accent, who was taught daily (and took seriously) how important it was to Be Good and Mind Your Manners . . . only to live in a world where no one else was held to the same standard. When you want only to be accepted, but are mocked for liking reading more than sports — where you just don’t fit in — well, you have to find a retreat. One day that little boy discovered his mother's 1950 edition of Emily Post, and it became his safe space. Nothing bad can happen with Emily.
For the uninitiated, Mrs. Post didn’t just make lists of rules, of “you are good if you do this and bad if you do that.” She told stories with characters who had funny names* about what happened when things did, or didn’t, go well. “How a Dinner Can Be Bungled” tells the story of Mrs. Newwed, who has all the equipment, but not the wisdom, to give a formal dinner. The results are a disaster. “The House of Perfection” brings us the new wife of an old friend of the Oldnames. Her husband gives her misleading advice about how to prepare for a weekend at their home, and illustrates with his ignorance just what Good Taste really is. Mrs. Post takes us through house party weekends, weddings held in churches and simple homes, debutante dances, card parties, even breakfast in bed. Just like any storybook for children, her stories create a magic land far away where everything is beautiful, everyone behaves nicely and there is no taunting or teasing or backstabbing. Who wouldn’t want to go to a place like that?**
This all sounds very rarified, doesn’t it? So why is Emily Post still relevant? Because people are still, still hurt by the bad behavior of others, and they need a refuge. They need reassurance that they are doing their best, have value in the larger social framework — that they matter!
The situation has changed in the 21st century, of course. The social patterns of the rich are no longer considered the automatic criteria to which to turn. The dinner party is no longer the cornerstone of American social life. Traditions other than those of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are valued and celebrated much more than hitherto, providing a richer, sometimes contradictory, palette of etiquette. And the 21st-century ascendance of social media has given the Rude and Hateful an ever-louder platform from which to spew their rejection of Perfect Propriety — and set an irresistible Bad Example for so many others.
Questions about etiquette have changed since Mrs. Post’s day. Instead of “What can I do to behave well?” 21st-century etiquette questions are more likely to be “How can I deal with other people who are not behaving well?” For instance, Mrs. Post never had to deal with riders of public transit with loud earbuds - or no earbuds at all. Her descendants, happily, have adapted the Emily Post Tradition perfectly to this change, assuring their ancestress’s continued value to American life.
*So many etiquette writers, including Etiquetteer, also give their characters funny names, but Mrs. Post was the first.
**As a grownup, Etiquetteer discovered the first edition which included “The House Party in Camp,” or what happens when a gentleman brings his valet (even when he knows he is not supposed to) to a “rustic" camp weekend. How on earth can Mrs. Worldly survive without her maid to do her hair every day?
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.”
Today, May 19, is the 25th anniversary of the death of the most iconic First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. She remains revered as a paragon of style, of hospitality, of strength under pressure - but now in a remote way. In the 21st century Jackie is admired from a safe distance, in a niche: something to be admired, but not to be emulated. Etiquetteer frankly thinks we could all stand to be better Jackie Exemplars in our daily lives. Let’s consider how she made such a lasting impression, and how we might follow her example now.
As First Lady, Jackie was known for her success as an official hostess because she chose to focus less on protocol and official form and more on the experience of the guests. Formality was not sacrificed - it is so important to emphasize this; so many people now would just as soon wear track suits as tuxedos to a formal dinner - but form was. Jackie famously abandoned the large E-shaped table in the State Dining Room in favor of small round tables for eight or ten. Seating at the former was bound by protocol. But with the smaller tables, compatibility could be considered more than rank, making for more enjoyable conversation. She reduced and lightened the menus so that guests wouldn’t leave the table feeling heavy, and she changed the lighting to be more flattering to the guests. (“Wrinkles take on wrinkles under this harsh light” she was quoted as saying.)
But where she most excelled, in Etiquetteer’s view, was in private entertaining at the White House. Among many other things, the Kennedys became famous for their small dinners for eight to 12 people in the newly-created second floor President’s Dining Room. Jackie created these dinners for “stimulating people” from all fields. “If you put busy men in an attractive atmosphere where the surroundings are comfortable, the food, is good, you relax, you unwind, there’s some stimulating conversation. You know, sometimes quite a lot can happen, contacts can be made . . . It’s part of the art of living in Washington.”* These intimate gatherings were much more conducive than cocktail parties, in Jackie’s view, to relaxation and productive connections. (That’s what a well-planned guest list can do. Joan Crawford also knew this.) Why aren’t we doing more of this ourselves in our own homes?
Jackie was famous for her clothes, but Etiquetteer wants especially to praise how she wore them. She dressed appropriately for every occasion from magnificent but simple gowns for evening occasions to jodphurs or jeans and sweaters to unpack antiques. And never a spot, stain, rip, or tear to be seen, and certainly not even the shadow of a bra strap - such a contrast to nowadays! And Jackie carried herself so well. Do any of you remember deportment class? Yes, once upon a time there were classes in posture! When you see pictures of people (usually girls) trying to balance a book on their heads while walking, that’s part of deportment class. And we could use some. Ladies and gentlemen, slouching does nothing for you. It does NOT help make a Perfectly Proper Impression on others. Straighten up! (Etiquetteer used to be awfully fond of double-breasted jackets because you cannot slouch in them.)
Jackie’s most enduring example, of course, will always be her impressive bearing following the assassination. Within her own grief, she knew she had to show herself as an example not only for her children, but for the nation and the world.
Most important, Jackie embodied sophisticated discretion. She was aggressive about protecting the privacy of her family and herself and made no bones about it. Her instructions to Pam Turnure say it all: “The minimum of information with the maximum of politeness.” How, Etiquetteer is inclined to wonder, would Jackie take to social media? Since her death just after the availability of the Internet 25 years ago, we’ve gone from being the Me Generation to the Me Me Me Now Now Now Generation. Would Jackie even see the need to have a Twitter account herself? With that in mind, could we not all be more - how to say this - more considered in what we post and less hasty?
On this milestone anniversary, Etiquetteer encourages you to consider how to take the example of Jackie into your own daily living to create a life of Perfect Propriety.
*Quoted in Sally Bedell Smith’s wonderful Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.
and this dashing blue-and-gray bordered number by Bailey of Hollywood. Which do you like best?
Unfortunately, this year’s Straw Hat Day weather is not conducive to wearing straw hats. When Etiquetteer first researched the origins of Straw Hat Day, it was learned that the day used to be decided locally. When enough gentlemen start wearing hats again, maybe the locals can take control of the hat calendar again.
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.
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!
*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.
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.
These days, I'm mainly concerned about the rules of etiquette governing messages of condolence.
When to send condolence notes—immediately upon learning of the death, within a month, or at any time?
What is the best way to write notes, especially condolences?
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.
What Is a nice, quick way to sincerely respond with appreciation to a compliment in conversation?
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.
Is it ever too late to write a thank-you note?
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!)
You notice that someone has food on their face, or something in their hair. Should you say something?
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.
After getting a nice invitation, what should I wear? This goes for both women and men.
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!
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.
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.”
*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.
Scroll to the bottom for video of Etiquetteer’s cannabis etiquette fails.
Pot is the new wine.
Sessions are the new dinner parties.
Etiquette is the constant.
Nothing short of an etiquette revolution has been mapped out by Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post Herself, in her new book Higher Etiquette, a 21st-century overlay to Emily’s famous Etiquette for the new world of legalized cannabis. Note the wording: cannabis is preferred to marijuana by the community of partakers.
POT IS THE NEW WINE
HIgher Etiquette concerns more than marijuana manners. It includes an early chapter on cannabis itself, from small glossaries of slang* and scientific terms as well as a tour of the cannabis plant, products, chemistry (how and why cannabis might affect you the way it does - or doesn’t), and especially strains of cannabis. Reading this, Etiquetteer could not help but think of the way oenophiles talk about wines. They discuss knowingly the many factors that end up impacting a bottle, from the terroir and its components (rainfall, soil quality, topography, etc.), harvest times, aeration, bouquet, and of course the “nose.” Cannabis connoisseurs converse on strains, terpenes, temperature, and the different ways to enjoy cannabis: combustion (plain old smoking), ingestion (eating and drinking), and absorption (topically applying lotions or oils). And strains. Mercy goodness, apparently there are thousands of strains of cannabis plants; Etiquetteer would love to see a family tree of them, which would probably help.
Awareness and appreciation of the wealth of cannabis knowledge permeates this book, along with an important caution not to get too smug about how much you know - and how what you know must of course trump anything anyone else knows. “As science and industry grow and learn together,” Ms. Post writes, “it’s easy for people to believe their knowledge is the only knowledge or their method is the only method. It has never been cool to look down your nose at someone. The more we can embrace an attitude of curiosity, the more considerate our interactions can be when comparing knowledge.”
SESSIONS ARE THE NEW DINNER PARTIES
The cornerstone of American social life used to be the dinner party held in a private home**, and Emily Post Herself made rules of conducting formal and informal dinners one of the cornerstones of Etiquette. LIzzie Post has now made rules of home entertaining with cannabis an essential pillar of Higher Etiquette, and a good thing, too. A traditional evening party doesn’t have to consider where to bunk all the guests, but canna-hosts need to take that into account if their canna-company aren’t quite fit to leave at the end of the session. Methods of ingestion are explained at length, from joints, vaping, and bongs to dab rigs and transdermals. (Etiquetteer feels sure that Emily Post Herself never needed to use the phrase “massage train” in any of her books). Canna-hosts need to be well educated about the types of cannabis they’re offering, and how different intake methods might alter the impact. The stereotype of cannabis is that everything is all casual, all “Just let it be, man,” but that impression of casualness is actually based on rigorous knowledge. Higher Etiquette is only the beginning of a cannabis education for the novice.
Etiquetteer, like the maiden sisters discovering wine in Babette’s Feast, really had no idea that there was more than one type of cannabis. When entertaining with cannabis, it is vital to retain the packaging so that guests have an idea of what they’re smoking and how it might affect them. This is even more vital for edibles; obviously food and drink prepared with cannabis look just like food and drink without it, and it is Wicked and Evil to feed people cannabis without their knowledge or consent. Etiquetteer rather hopes some enterprising stationer will start selling gilt-edged menu cards with tiny gold cannabis leaves at the top for just these occasions.
ETIQUETTE IS THE CONSTANT
The themes of behavior to which Higher Etiquette returns again and again are respect, generosity, gratitude, and sharing. It’s still important to behave well in social settings, whether you’re enhancing your feelings with a joint or a cocktail.
Etiquetteer picked up a whiff of ambivalence about language in and around the cannabis community. Some terms are more likely than others to give offense. Unsurprisingly, “pothead” is one of those terms; surprisingly, so is “marijuana.” Different subsets of the cannabis community have had different experiences with words and stereotypes. While Etiquetteer is often not fond of the Word Police (except around issues of profanity), the impression one makes in a new community can be made or broken by one’s manners, and that also includes the words one choose. Be advised.
Lizzie Post recognizes that cannabis remains a controversial subject in America. Beyond looking past the stereotypes of the sex-crazed murderous addicts of Reefer Madness, for instance, there is also the unmistakable fact that marijuana simply isn’t right for everyone, and for some it is extremely wrong. Respect for those who have chosen not to make cannabis a part of their lives is also a cornerstone of higher etiquette, not just for those who have. In other words, ask first before lighting up.
The most important message of this revolutionary new book is that of awareness: awareness of how cannabis affects oneself and others, awareness of language that could have unpleasant connotations for some, awareness that cannibis use isn’t something everyone wants - and it’s OK for them not to want to.
Higher Etiquette is an original, worthy successor to Etiquette. Whether you partake of cannabis or not, you’ll find this book an accessible, engaging resource for the Perfect Propriety of cannabis. It also made Etiquetteer think about a couple spectacular failures of cannabis etiquette from his own experience; learn more in the video below.
*Etiquetteer was always enchanted by the phrase “Tokin’ on a spleef.” Turns out it’s really spelled “spliff,” and it contains tobacco, a “fragrant weed” Etiquetteer has never cared for. It’s difficult to know what’s worse: having romanticized something that actually contains tobacco, or the fear that one has been mispronouncing and misspelling a word for decades.
**Etiquetteer really misses that, too. Could we all please have a dinner party at home this spring?
Yes, it’s another one of those National Days. This time it’s National Common Courtesy Day. Common courtesy must be in danger if we need to have a day for it! Practice these Perfectly Proper Acts of Common Courtesy today, and every day.
Hold the door for someone else.
Be quiet: no one needs to know what’s emitting from your earphones/earbuds.
Be quiet: that crinkly candy wrapper is disturbing everyone!
Get out of the way.
Be on time.
Use exact change, without taking too much time about it.
Offer your seat to someone who needs it.
Say the magic words! “Please” and “thank you” are far more effective than “Abracadabra.”
Never ever ask “Don’t you know who I am?”
Brush your teeth.
Be good to Norah and Ito after I’m gone.
And don’t forget to smile.
As always, spring break will bring on a rush of travel, especially by air. And we've already seen this winter, as we do every winter, how what remains of Perfect Propriety has been compromised. So Etiquetteer wants to put forward some Gentle Suggestions about how to get through it:
Travel light.Etiquetteer was once given the best advice about overseas travel: pack half the clothes and twice the money. And it’s true! Consider very carefully what your clothing needs will be, and pack to mix and match. Be prepared to do laundry. Buy fresh undergarments on your trip if necessary. Fold things compactly! You're likely to find that you can bring a smaller bag with you.
Dress respectably. No one needs to know about your body. Stay away from skintight clothes and super-abbreviated tops and shorts. Etiquetteer will not soon forget the somewhat zaftig woman in the translucent baby-blue track suit; nothing was left to the imagination. And some of you may remember the “leggings on a plane” scandal of 2017. And please, wear socks or stockings so that you don’t have to walk barefoot through security! Etiquetteer feels rather ambivalent about this recommendation to wear athletic clothes for travel, but Perfectly Proper Hygiene does need to be maintained; your fellow travelers will be grateful.
Be on time, and on time is early. There would be less hysteria at airports if more people allowed themselves sufficient time to get to the airport and get through security. Far better to linger in an airport bar or food court for an additional 20 minutes or so than to have to bolt in panic through security and rush through the terminal.
Stow your bag properly. Wheels first, wheels in! And if you can, check it instead. Decide if the cost of checking your bag and risk of the airline losing it are greater than the inconvenience of dragging it after you for eternity.
Feet on or near the floor please! Passenger Shaming is full of horrifying photos of passenger misbehavior, especially bare feet climbing to the tops of seats and bulkheads, and protruding into the space of passengers into the row ahead - and many other misdemeanors. Faugh! This sort of thing reminds Etiquetteer of why the Duke of Wellington was so opposed to railroads: “[They] will only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.”
Be courteous to the flight attendants. Just because you’re a) having a bad day, b) convinced that because you paid full price you should have servants, or c) annoyed with the airline, doesn’t mean it’s OK to unload on the flight attendants. Remember, they’re trained to save your life! Always show sympathy, especially if you’ve just seen them handle a difficult problem. It makes a difference for everyone.
And with that, allow Etiquetteer to wish you safe, and Perfectly Proper, travels!
Occasionally Etiquetteer likes to post etiquette signs seen in the wider world.
This apartment does not wish to welcome proselytizers, but “No soliciting, no proselytizing” would communicate the message more simply and elegantly.
One trembles to think of the experiences that required this notice to be posted!
In an Italian restaurant, an attempt to embrace Perfect Propriety with history and humor:
The message is expressed more discreetly at another restaurant.
Notice the trouble the residents have taken to cease the flow of unwanted literature: a laminated and printed sign carefully attached to the front stairwell.
Finally, a museum warning that keeps from being alarming.
Etiquetteer just held another etiquette dinner at MIT, as part of its How to Adult event series for students. The caterers devised a diabolical menu, with challenges at almost every step:
Italian Wedding Soup
Clear broth containing large pieces of floppy lettuce and meatballs
Statler Chicken with Tagliatelle Pasta Carbonara
Chicken including bones with long, thick, stringy pasta
Berry Crumble a la Mode
Blessedly easy to eat
A tasty challenge indeed! How does one handle those dripping pieces of lettuce, that endless ribbon of pasta, the chicken that is definitely not finger food? First off, a soup bowl is no place for a knife. If you can’t use the edge of your soup spoon to cut whatever’s in your soup to a manageable size, Etiquetteer recommends just leaving it in the bowl. Long stringy pasta is best twirled into a bite on the tines of a fork, as we know. But the trick is to keep from twirling the entire mass of pasta onto your fork, as well as keeping the ends from slipping off . . . or having the whole thing fall apart as you lift it to your mouth. It takes practice! While the students in this class acquitted themselves well, of course Etiquetteer could not help but the remember the charm school class in that marvelous Japanese film Tampopo:
As always, Etiquetteer was delighted with the questions that came in, including
Where do you put the hand you aren’t using to eat? The Western custom is to put it in your lap*, but two participants pointed out that in some Asian cultures, the tradition is to keep both hands in sight, to prove, as one said, that one isn’t concealing a weapon.
What do you do if you have to leave the table? Well, first of all, you try not to have to leave the table at all. But we all know that sometimes that’s unavoidable. The next thing is, don’t tell anyone why you’re leaving. In the last 40 years people have become very explicit about what they’re going to do when they leave the table. No one needs to know! The most that need be said is “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” If more people cultivated an air of mystery, we’d all be better off. Before you go, leave your napkin in your chair; leaving it on the table indicates that you aren’t returning.
Do you have to eat all your bread at once before you start on the first course? Bread accompanies a meal; it isn’t a course, but may be eaten with all courses before dessert (when the bread plates are taken away).
Is it all right to use a bit of bread to clean off the bottom of your soup bowl? This led to a spirited discussion about the pros and cons of dunking, which is still a bit controversial. For Etiquetteer, the more casual the meal, the more permissible dunking might be, but for professional or formal functions, it’s much less so. Emily Post Herself thought of dunking as a big no-no, but when cornered by the Associated Press, commented that she “couldn’t go against local custom” and “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”** And really, may you sop up the end of your soup with a bit of bread? At formal/professional functions, no, but at informal meals, use discretion. It’s interesting to note that for sopping up gravy on a plate, Mrs. Post would allow diners to drop a bit of bread onto the plate and then use a fork to push the bread around, not one’s fingers.
Etiquetteer also had to make the point that one does not gesture with utensils at the table. Good heavens, you might put someone’s eye out! Or, more likely, stain them with a gobbet of food or sauce flying off one’s fork. Stop it at once!
But the most important point to be made about table manners is that a meal, food, is just an excuse for conversation. Be prepared to talk with the people seated around you, especially if you don’t know them. If you do, find out discreetly what some common interests are. Look through the day’s news. Ask questions that will get more of a response than “Yes” or “No.”
And if you make a mistake, just keep going. Projecting an absence of anxiety about table manners is the most Perfectly Proper way to dine.
*Like a bunch of forgotten violets,” as Willa Cather suggested in her short story “The Old Beauty.”
**Etiquette, by Emily Post (1950), and Emily Post, by Laura Claridge.
Etiquetteer’s opinion about white after Labor Day has been pretty well established, so you can imagine the consternation when That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much came home from an impromptu shopping expedition with a new winter overcoat . . . in white! Etiquetteer and That Mr. Dimmick have disagreed before, but you can imagine the shock . . .
Still, what about winter white? Is winter white the same thing as white after Labor Day? The what-aboutists are always eager to ask! And actually, it isn’t. The kind of white known as “winter white” differs from summer white in that it is Never Actually White, but cream or ivory or bone. You can see the difference between That Mr. Dimmick’s overcoat and shirt collar.
How does one wear winter white with Perfect Propriety? Just about anything in a thick wool should do: gigantic sweaters, scarves, knitted caps, and of course gloves. Especially for the ladies, who always seem to have more leeway that gentlemen. But while many would disagree, Etiquetteer doesn’t really think that white jeans in winter are Perfectly Proper, nor white athletic shoes. But this is perhaps more a choice of Style than Etiquette.
Etiquetteer would exempt, of course, the basic white dress shirts and blouses that are the staples of a Perfectly Proper wardrobe. They look correct all the year round. Even white-based T-shirts. if you’re going someplace where you’d ordinarily wear a T-shirt, white is OK.
But if you’re going to wear more than one piece of winter white at a time, make sure they match! You don’t want to look all tuppence ha’penny and have people saying “Oh, she’s trying to make everything match.”
So . . . what about this overcoat, readers? Etiquetteer thinks it a bit too showy and ostentatious, but clearly That Mr. Dimmick just loves it, while Etiquetteer is a bit aghast. What do you think? Just right, or too flashy? Use Common Courtesy to share your opinion yea or nay on Etiquetteer’s Facebook page, or on Twitter.
Etiquetteer has recently had many opportunities to reflect on how unspoken action makes a difference in daily life. The unprompted fulfilling of a task smoothes the path of daily life for family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. Leaving a task unfulfilled has a negative impact. It’s not good etiquette. For instance, not replacing the toilet paper.
Etiquetteer was recently handed an artifact of his Dear Mother, an index card with a special message on it that had been left at the back of a toilet paper holder. It reads “It’s only THOUGHTFUL and KIND and UNDERSTANDING and UNSELFISH and CONSIDERATE to take time to replace the used up roll of toilet paper. Wouldn’t YOU like to have paper on the roll at the time of need?” The writing and posting of such a message could be considered an Extreme Act by Dear Mother. Her style was generally much less angry and passive-aggressive. She would prefer to speak directly with the offender, especially if the offender was under the age of 18.
The creation of that little card, Etiquetteer recalls, came when Dear Mother had been left without “paper on the roll at the time of need” by neglectiful or unthinking children - and she didn’t intend for it to happen again. But Dear Mother was always inclined to forgiveness, especially for those in their nonage, after giving a lesson on why it was important to think about others.
Making sure there’s plenty of toilet paper on hand is only the most urgent of ways to make things easier. The people who make the coffee for the whole household, or start washing the dishes unbidden, or clean out the workplace refrigerator, or refill the printers and/or copiers with paper - these thoughtful people are the ones who deserve more than our thanks (if we can figure out who they are). They deserve our emulation. Consider how unsolicited thoughtfulness impacts your life, and tell Etiquetteer what makes a difference.
“Traditional knowledge is being ignored by those who should listen most closely.”
— Darren Thompson, an organizer for the Indigenous Peoples March
Last week two events took place that (re)launched yet another National Discussion, this one about How Men Should Behave. The first was an advertisement by Gillette called “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” that called out men for not doing more to stop bad behavior like bullying. The second was, in fact, the bullying of a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War by a group of white male students from a Kentucky Catholic high school.
The ad received a lot of backlash from those who believe it was part of a “war” on men and masculinity. Many, many men believe it is not the role of a vendor of razors to tell them what to do, or even to imply that there is anything they have to do. Perhaps the most visible example is this photo of social media personality Graham Allen in a cotton field with his three children and three guns. “Hey Gillette, does this offend you? I’ll raise my kids the way I believe they should be…thanks for your advice,” he wrote. Marksmanship is a fine and valuable skill to have (and it’s also a Perfectly Proper skill for girls, too, Mr. Allen. Why have you only armed your sons?), but it’s not Perfectly Proper to whip out your heat like that as soon as you feel threatened.
And then there was backlash to the backlash. Etiquetteer was deeply moved by Christopher Muther’s column in The Boston Globe, in which he courageously shares his own bullied childhood. “Do you know who isn’t taking to Twitter to complain about the Gillette ad? Those of us who have been bullied, beat up, and sexually victimized. When I watched the ad, I didn’t see tanks gathering at the border of masculinity. I saw myself, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes.”
The message in the Gillette ad, to Etiquetteer, is no different from calls in church to follow the footsteps of Christ in showing compassion for all. Nor is it any different from the Oath and the Law of that bastion of American men’s learning, the Boy Scouts of America: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” The Scout Law has 12 components: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” With all of the anger unleashed by an advertisement that promotes these values, Etiquetteer has to wonder if, finally, we’re seeing the truth: that many men don’t attribute that kind of behavior to “manliness” and only pay lip service to it.
Only a couple days after that ad was launched, we saw a demonstration of just why it’s still so necessary. Students from a Kentucky Catholic high school swarmed, mocked, and bullied a Native American veteran (a veteran!) in the Nation’s Capitol. (See this additional video footage, too.) “Boys will be boys” indeed! So much for that hymn “And They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Etiquetteer puts the blame solidly on their role model. This is not how to #BeBest, boys!
The school has put out a statement condemning the actions of the students in its charge and offering the usual apologies. The behavior of these students should offend everyone. It cannot be laughed off, excused, or otherwise condoned in any way. Is it time to bring back the Inquisition? No, but Etiquetteer expects a heavy penance for those young men with an unwavering focus on the many different kinds of religions and people there are in America, and on service to others.
Etiquetteer’s Dear Father (may he rest in peace), both a man and a gentleman, once wrote “We must concentrate on lovely, pure, and virtuous things.” This does not have to be all wispy angels-in-the-clouds sentiment. What could be more virtuous than preventing someone from committing violence? What could be lovelier than setting an example of kindness for young people? That’s a lot of hard work, day in and day out, but that is the behavior that we need to acknowledge, celebrate, and encourage. That is what truly makes a Great Nation.
To paraphrase the late William Shakespeare, “Some writers are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have topics thrust upon them.” Etiquetteer most decidedly falls into the latter category, and this week two decidedly uncomfortable topics are being thrust into Etiquetteer’s face: President Trumps’s serving fast food to a visiting sports team, and Gillette’s new advertisement encouraging men to intervene when witnessing bad behavior. Etiquetteer would much rather chastise people who haven’t written their Lovely Notes yet or explain how to use some obscure piece of silver . . . but no. Noooooooooo! All you readers, snatching Etiquetteer out of the Comfort Zone! Etiquetteer will only cover the first topic in this column.
First, let’s talk about expectations, and how we react when expectations are not met. The father of the bride expects his daughter to wear a white wedding dress; what happens if she suddenly appears at the church door in red? The White House is “the Nation’s address.” Everyone has ideas about the kind of hospitality the House should extend to guests. It should reflect the style of the current occupant, to be sure, but it also has to befit the standard of one of the Great Nations. Etiquetteer remembers being outraged over the Obama “beer summit” in 2009. President Obama was inviting the two principals in a nasty dispute to the Nation’s address to drink beer on the lawn in their shirtsleeves?! Can’t you at least go in the Green Room and drink out of glasses?* Green is such a a calming color . . . and don’t go throwing a red flag at Etiquetteer by pointing out that a lawn is green.
Now President Trump is causing a fresh uproar for serving fast food in the State Dining Room to the Clemson Tigers football team. The President is using this White House visit in a very political way, underscoring that many of the White House residence staff are on furlough because of the government shutdown.** With no cooks in the kitchen, what else is there to do?*** For those who have an expectation of what White House entertaining should be like, packaged fast food served on White House china and silver is just like seeing the bride in red when you expected white. Etiquetteer imagines this is especially painful for those who revere the memory of Jackie Kennedy, who truly revolutionized White House entertaining in favor of both elegance and enjoyment.
This event also symbolizes the Great Cultural Divide in our Great Nation, because let’s face it, there are millions of people who think a Big Mac is [Insert Expletive Here] awesome and much better than any of that fancy [Insert Expletive Here] French food. And Etiquetteer can’t help thinking that if the President had done this with irony everyone in Brooklyn would immediately be buying gold-rimmed china for fast-food dinners.**** it may yet start a trend. Who knows?
So, no, Etiquetteer doesn’t really like this innovation in White House entertaining, but can’t deny that it accurately reflects the style of the current occupant. Etiquetteer sympathizes most with the Clemson Tigers in whose honor the event was held. For most of them, this is likely to be their only visit to the White House.
*In fact they may have been drinking that beer out of glasses.
**Etiquetteer is not going to talk about the shutdown.
***President Trump also seems to be making a big deal that he’s picking up the tab himself for this event. That’s nothing. Until the Truman Administration, the President was expected to fund personally the running of the entire White House. Plus, it’s really bad manners to talk about money like that.
****But this President has no irony.
Really, Etiquetteer should have remembered to wish you a Perfectly Proper National Peach Melba Day yesterday, but peach Melba was never on the menu at Durgin-Park in the first place, and why on earth would peach melba be celebrated in January when peaches are not in season? Probably to emphasize its upper-class origin. Traditionally the rich enjoy all the culinary delicacies out of season just because they can*.
We must never forget that no less a chef than the Great Escoffier Himself created this deliciously simple (and simply delicious) dessert in homage to the great singer Dame Nellie Melba Herself following her performance in Lohengrin. (Granted, it’s much simpler when not served in an ice swan, as originally done.) So of course that would be much too grand for Durgin-Park, the last home of Indian pudding.
Owing to an unfortunate allergy to peaches, Etiquetteer is no longer able to enjoy this Exquisite Pleasure of the Table. But if served it, you may be sure that Etiquetteer would just pick wistfully at the ice cream without making a fuss. Let’s not make a fuss about our dietary issues, shall we?
So that was all supposed to be yesterday. Today, the second Monday of January, is National Clean Off Your Desk Day, a handy reminder for anyone who made New Year’s resolutions to Get On With It in a non-threatening manner. That said, you may be sure that Etiquetteer is casting a Most Threatening Glance in the direction of That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much. Just think (oh, the shame of it!), he has not even begun his Lovely Notes from Christmas. Let’s get on with it, people! We all have bits of the Old Year still clinging to us: unanswered letters and bills, Lovely Notes unwritten and unsent, reports to file, etc. Take some time today to Clear the Deck, and if so inclined, post a photo of your clean desktop to Etiquetteer’s Facebook page. If it helps, pretend you’re the Second Mrs. DeWinter getting rid of all Rebecca’s things. Perhaps Mrs. Danvers will give you a gold star for tidiness . . .
*Readers of Edith Wharton will immediately recall her short story After Holbein.
“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother used to say.* And though Dear Mother would not say there’s a time and a place for rudeness, Boston’s fabled Durgin-Park restaurant made itself the Place for Rudeness. But its Time has now passed. Yesterday night the unthinkable happened; Durgin-Park closed for good after 192 (!) years of slinging traditional Yankee cooking and traditional Yankee sass. “Then let us drown an eye, unus’d to flow,” and all that, but in spite of all the hand-wringing, perhaps D-P’s time really had come.
On a whim one night last week, Etiquetteer headed over for one Last Supper (much as last year at the closing of Brasserie JO, but more out of curiosity than sadness). Since a last visit in 2007, everything was reassuringly the same, but the line to go upstairs to the market dining rooms stretched all the way from the front door back to the bar. Durgin-Park is not the sort of place to go for Those Who Expect Deference, so Etiquetteer was by turns amused and frustrated by a Family Man getting testy about a reservation (a reservation! at Durgin-Park!) not being honored and having to wait in line, blah blah blah. Another patron not quite quietly told him off by saying “Y’know, they’re closing on Saturday. Do you really think they’re gonna worry about it?” Sometimes the most important part of Perfect Propriety is knowing When to Let It Go.**
After about 20 minutes in a chilly line overhearing both Fond Reminiscence and Mounting Impatience, Etiquetteer was finally admitted up the steep staircase to the market dining room and shown a seat at one of the tables. All these new restaurants with their community tables . . . people, the idea is not a new one! It got started at pretension-free eating places like D-P 200 years ago and more. Diners talk among themselves, or generally, or keep apart, as they choose. It’s bad form to be too exclusive in such surroundings, but Perfectly Proper to be on one’s own if that’s your preference.
Amidst the hubbub one saw pairs of diners able to have quiet conversations, family groups that somehow all got to sit together, and mountains of down jackets. Let’s talk about the dress code, such as it is. In a market dining room or any community table setting, you take what you get - all are welcome regardless of dress. And while Etiquetteer witnessed lots of down jackets and jeans, one gentleman stood out in a shiny brocade dinner jacket with pink ruffled shirt and extravagant cowboy boots. Etiquetteer felt practically incognito without a bow tie, but then recalled a time in the dining room when a crabby waitress called out “Hey Einstein!” to Collegiate Etiquetteer . . . there are ways and ways one’s clothes call attention. Sometimes it’s best to stand out by blending in.
And speaking of dress, it’s worth noting that almost all of the waitresses wore the traditional white uniform dress that used to be standard for waitresses and nurses. Often accessorized (by necessity) with a black sweater, it was an important reminder that that overused word “authentic” is not synonymous with “precious.”
Etiquetteer saw fresh pink-and-red tablecloths being laid over soiled pink-and-red tablecloths to keep the service going swiftly. At D-P, you get a knife, a fork, a napkin, and a tumbler; there’s a communal water pitcher on the table. Don’t ask for lemon. Etiquetteer’s favorite meal at D-P has ever been the Yankee pot roast and strawberry shortcake. Alas, the half-tub of non-dairy whipped topping that came with Etiquetteer’s shortcake was still partially frozen. Which begs the question: if D-P had upped its game in the kitchen, by continuing to turn out traditional Yankee favorites but at truly top quality, would the doors be closing?
Etiquetteer’s waitress, and several others, expressed hope that a buyer would come along at the last minute, to save this iconic institution. Hope, as they say, springs eternal. If so, let’s hope they keep Durgin-Park just as it’s always been, but with a better kitchen.
*She still does, too.
**That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much should pay attention to that . . .