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!

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.


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.


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.


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!


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!