READER RESPONSE, Vol. 16, Issue 34

Etiquetteer is always delighted to hear from readers, and recent columns have provoked some correspondence seeking clarity:

On Wedding Refreshments:

I enjoyed you response about the wedding a great deal. I myself had an early afternoon wedding and with all the guests from out of town, we offered a large buffet of lunch items before cutting the cake. Still, I don't feel that your response fully answered the question. My gut says you might have responded to the stand up reception or your disapproval of them. Personally, having a wedding with thirty guests, a buffet worked well and allowed everyone plenty of food. As bride I even got a plate! I feel that stand up receptions don't allow those who need to sit down the option of sitting down. I would have enjoyed hearing your response include an answer to the question.

Etiquetteer responds: Your buffet dinner reception for 30 guests sounds delightful; the smaller a wedding is, the easier it is to look after everyone's comfort, in your case providing a meal format in which people might sit or stand as they choose. To restate from the original column, a stand-up reception of hors d'oeuvres may be interpreted by the guests as insufficient acknowledgment of their own commitment to attend the wedding. Whether Etiquetteer approves or not is somewhat beside the point. Whether the level of bridal hospitality offered has the desired effect of making the wedding guests glad they came is the real issue. If more Happy Couples - brides especially - considered how well they treated their guests, there'd be less back-biting about weddings.

On a Night at the Opera:

Our seats at the [Insert Name of Very Important Opera Company in Prominent American City Here] were in the very, very last row of the upper balcony last season.  It is all we could afford. We wore black tie for the Friday night premier of the first opera of the season, and every performance of six thereafter.  Hobnobbing in the main lobby with the hoi polloi was fun, and the Champagne was free.  

Not Perfectly Proper? 

Etiquetteer responds:

There are few situations in which Champagne is not Perfectly Proper! And Etiquetteer has spent many performances in seats near or similar to the ones you describe.* Your request for clarity on the Perfect Propriety of black tie in an opera balcony led Etiquetteer to seek out some "chapter and verse," starting of course with Etiquetteer's beloved 1950 edition of Emily Post. And even in that postwar period, formal dress for gentlemen was still de rigueur in the orchestra, parterre boxes, and first tier boxes. Black tie was worn in the first balcony only and "above that, clothes are no longer formal." As with so many things in the postwar years, formality kept sliding down the slippery slope, so that when Esquire Etiquette came out in 1953, it made no reference at all to what a gentleman wore to the opera, only that he must on no account sit in the front row of the box.

But for the 21st century, we are best guided by the old saw that it's a greater sin to be overdressed than underdressed. Inconspicuousness remains the best choice. So unless it's a gala night or the opening of the season, it's more Perfectly Proper to wear dark suits. On a more general note, the true test of a gentleman's clothes is how he chooses to stand out by blending in.


*Etiquetteer vividly recalls a recital given by Dame Joan Sutherland in the mid-1980s in a cavernous Boston theatre. Etiquetteer sat next to the ceiling and remembered first a large bit of paint peeling off the ceiling and wondering if Dame Joan would dislodge it with a high note, and then the fierce glare of Dame Joan's passementerie, which even so did not obscure the vast expanse of her black gown.

A Night at the Opera with Etiquetteer, Vol. 16, Issue 24

Earlier this summer Etiquetteer trotted off to the opera, and you might all be expecting Etiquetteer to Sigh for Bygone Days and exclaim "It isn't what it was." But then going to the opera hasn't been "what it was" for such a long time already, there's really no need, is there? It's as useless to pine for the Days of Black Tie*, Wine and Roses as it is to search for Robert Taylor in the orchestra. Besides which, the space per person is so compressed one does not necessarily leave the theatre feeling elegant. Greta Garbo would clearly have been eaten by her hoopskirt trying to negotiate those narrow seats - NOT Perfectly Proper.**

That said, there were so many opportunities to ask (to oneself, of course) "You wore that? Really?" A suit and tie at a minimum for gentlemen, and an equivalent standard for ladies, should not be difficult. There's no need to appear in a theatre a T-shirt or (shudder) shorts. Etiquetteer used to think that Boston audiences were exceptionally dowdy. That illusion was shattered on observing opera audiences in New York, Paris, and Venice. As Etiquetteer has pointed out before, too much of the middle class has Simply Given Up.

Ladies seated in the mezzanine or balcony, however, might be encouraged to wear flats or low heels. Etiquetteer witnessed a lady take a tumble on the steep mezzanine stairway when making way for others. Mercifully she fell up or she might easily have rolled down a good 14 feet of staircase before collaping in the aisle.

Before the curtain rose, Etiquetteer was horrified to discover that he was sitting in the wrong seat. Now of course These Things Happen, and when they do it's important to follow the advice of Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden: "This is a test of breeding. Keep cool." Once apologies were extended, it remained only to hoist one leg after the other into the row above, which required some dexterity. At least it prevented disturbing nine other people, but this approach is not recommended for Those Wearing Skirts.

Supertitles on screens at the opera excite strong opinions. Some of them because only with supertitles can they understand what the singers are singing. Others revile them as a distraction from the stage. Etiquetteer will confess to feeling guilty for finding them helpful, but Etiquetteer vastly prefers hearing an opera in a foreign language with supertitles rather than in English (if English was not the original language of that particular opera.)

Now Etiquetteer is not much for "upgrading" during intermission, moving to (hopefully) unoccupied seats closer to the stage. (Should you find that someone has upgraded themselves in your seats, just alert the usher.) At this particular theatre, though, the mezzanine seats almost required amputating one's legs, and Etiquetteer's friend spotted almost an entire row vacant just a bit down, so the second act allowed for more legroom. The key is to move seats just before the lights go down. (Why on earth did so many people not return after intermission? Could it have been the tightness of the seats? The absence of a plot?)

But how beautiful to witness an audience completely in sympathy with a singer. Some of the ovations . . . remarkable.

Lastly, in theatres with minimal public space, it's even more important to Get Out of the Way. A collection of fellow operagoers clotted the intersections to greet each other for an extended period. A brisk (and possibly brusque) "Excuse me" solved that problem.

Etiquetteer is eager to return to the opera again once the Season resumes, and hopes you are, too.


*Still, Etiquetteer does remember one opera night when Dewy Youthfulness still clung about one's figure and complexion, the night that turned out to be Sarah Caldwell's final performance conducting the Boston Opera Company. The production was Aida, and Etiquetteer and a friend donned black tie and excitement for a very special evening. As it happened, the rest of the audience hadn't dressed, leaving Etiquetteer feeling a shade de trop, until discovering the other six gentlemen in the house who wore black tie. The parties combined, making a jolly octet for the rest of the evening. But remember, this only works in the orchestra and perhaps the mezzanine. Black tie is never Perfectly Proper in the balcony.

**One recalls that, at the premiere of Handel's Messiah, instructions went out early that, due to the crush, ladies were requested not to wear hoopskirts, and gentlemen to leave their swords at home.

Signs of the Times, Vol. 16, Issue 33

Seen recently in a garden in Boston's South End neighborhood:

These signs are a sad reminder that not all dog owners are equally Perfectly Proper. As the saying goes, "There are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners."

Personal Grooming, or the Case of the Clipping Colleague, Vol. 16, Issue 32

Dear Etiquetteer:

I'm somewhat new to working in an office environment so the subtleties of what constitutes public and private behavior may elude me. That said, I have a coworker who once a week straddles his trash container and cuts his nails. I can't stand the sound of this and warily watch for the errant clipping heading my way. I'm dumbfounded on what I could possibly say? I suppose we are all lucky he doesn't clip his toenails. Help!

Dear Newbie:

Etiquetteer's first reaction on reading your query was a piercing "Eeyew!" This sort of public grooming needs to stop. Etiquetteer firmly believes that no one should have to "see the magic happen," or hear it, either.

No one should leave home without being fully dressed and fully groomed.* A nail kit of pair or nail clippers for emergencies should be kept at the office, but taken into the restroom to be used.

Most problems like this don't get resolved without actually having a conversation with the offender. Someone will have to Say Something. The goal, of course, is to stop the behavior, not to shame the offender. As a newcomer, it might be thorny for you to do so; you don't want to get a reputation as a complainer so early in your tenure. Your colleague's supervisor should be informed, discreetly, and asked to address this issue with your Clipping Colleague. An office memo reinforcing Perfectly Proper behavior might work depending on the size of your workplace. You could even send a gift card for a manicure with the heading "It's time to put the man in manicure!" (While it's dangerous to assume, Etiquetteer believes this must be a man.)

If those options aren't open to you, and you don't find it possible to step out for a coffee when your Clipping Colleague is clipping, then take a deep breath and have a quick private conversation. Apologize for raising the issue, be honest about the impact of his behavior, and ask if he could take his clippers into the restroom. Etiquetteer hopes your Clipping Colleague will take this in the spirit intended.

Best wishes for a successful outcome!

*Yes ladies, that means not applying your makeup while behind the wheel or on public transportation.

Wedding Refreshments, Vol. 16, Issue 30

Dear Etiquetteer:

My boyfriend and I are getting married next year. We're on a budget, paying for the whole thing ourselves. The tradition seems to be a sit-down dinner, but one person suggested that we do a heavy hors d'oeuvres reception with everyone standing up. I'm not really comfortable with this, but because we do need to be careful I wanted to ask your thoughts. Is it OK to go against tradition like this?

Dear Bride to Be:

There are traditions and traditions. Etiquetteer grew up going to Southern weddings with punch-and-cookies receptions featuring a Gigantic Wedding Cake and no other refreshments (for the most part), regardless of whether the wedding was in the afternoon or evening. In New England the tradition is certainly for a wedding banquet of at least three courses - one of them being the Gigantic Wedding Cake.

The Perfectly Proper answer to your query will involve how many of your guests are traveling from out of state to attend your wedding. It can be ruinously expensive to travel to a wedding: airfare, taxis, accommodations (if not staying at the home of friends), new clothes, and of course a wedding gift. After all that trouble, a Perfectly Proper sit-down banquet is well-deserved. You don't have to feed them steak and lobster, but fobbing them off with a few trays of quiche cups and stuffed mushroom caps may not leave them feeling that their efforts for your happiness are appreciated. Feed your guests well, and they'll always wish you happiness on your anniversaries to come.

Have you considered having a luncheon instead of a dinner for your wedding reception? Consider also substituting something novel for your table centerpieces instead of flowers, often a hefty chunk of any wedding budget. For instance, if a lot of your wedding guests are construction-minded, a large tin of Tinker Toys on each table could lead them all to construct some outrageous concoction. Pyramids of photo cubes featuring photos of the Happy Couple and guests at Pleasant Times Gone By will also entertain.

Best wishes as you and the Gentleman of Your Choice prepare for a Long and Happy Life Together!

Vendor Relationships, or the True Source of Beauty, Vol. 16, Issue 29

Etiquetteer was taken aback by yesterday's news story about the one-million-dollar judgement against a Happy Couple for destroying the professional reputation of their wedding photographer. Neely Moldovan, also known as Neelykins, a beauty blogger, and her husband Andrew initiated a news story in 2015 about photographer Andrea Polito withholding their wedding album and photos because of an additional fee for the album cover. Now that they've destroyed her business, they're going to have to pay for it.

The most charitable thing that could be said about the Moldovans is that they didn't read their photographer's contract well enough to understand what their obligations were. And that's probably the only charitable thing that could be said for them. A Perfectly Proper business dispute is handled in a meeting room, possibly with attorneys if it's Come to That. It is not handled on the evening news. The Moldovans, however, with vengeance in their hearts and publicity on their minds, brought it to the networks. The result then: Polito, her reputation unjustly shattered, had to close her business and has depleted her savings since the story broke. The result now: just look at the hashtag #neelykins to learn the extent of her public shaming. Her website is down, and her Twitter and Instagram accounts have gone private.

This entire situation could have been avoided if the Moldovans had first reviewed their paperwork and recognized that they still had a financial obligation to the photographer. Barring that, they should have tamed their unquenchable, unjust need for vengeful publicity, which is now backfiring on them. Rumors to the contrary, there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Some Perfectly Proper Tips for Working with Vendors

  • Recognize that people go into business to make money.
  • Understand the terms of the contract before you sign it. If you don't, get a third party to explain them for you.
  • Abide by the terms of the contract after you've signed it.
  • Be sure the vendor abides by the terms of the contract, too. That document is a two-way street!
  • Don't let your temper flare so much that you use language you'd be embarrassed to find in print. (Etiquetteer wishes someone had shared that advice with Mr. Scaramucci . . .)
  • Resolving a vendor dispute in a public forum is likely not a great idea. Call your lawyer first, not the local news outlet.

A final question: how beautiful a beauty blogger can you be, really, to behave this way? True Beauty, like Perfect Propriety, starts on the inside and works out.

Party Guests, Vol. 16, Issue 26

Dear Etiquetteer:

There’s an old expression, “in the powder,” which means that when guests arrive too early. Last weekend a couple party guests showed up two hours early. My house was not yet ready to receive guests, I was still cooking and cleaning, I hadn’t showered yet, and all of a sudden there were people at the door I must entertain. In my case they could’ve spent time walking around my historic neighborhood. Other people must have had this happen to them and heard the excuses: light traffic, easier than expected parking, bringing perishables to the party, etc. How can I get out of this? I love having people over, but I love having them over when I’m ready more than when I’m getting ready.

Dear Pre-empted:

No host or hostess wants their guests to see “how the magic happens,” and that’s doubly tough when they show up so very early. Sometimes that happens because guests miss the correct arrival time on the invitation.* The Perfectly Proper solution is, as you suggest, to take a walk until the party is supposed to start. That’s tough to do, though, if it’s raining or viciously cold.

You’ll be relieved to know, though, that there’s no obligation to entertain early arrivals. Just park them in the parlor with a “Don’t mind me, I’m in my prep zone," and get back to your business. Deflect any offers of assistance (if unwelcome) with "Thanks, I really appreciate it, but I have my routine already set and I just need to get things done at my own pace."

If you don't mind some extra help, however, toss them an apron and put 'em to work. This can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth if your guests then question how to do what you've asked them at every step of the process, so they can be sure it's done the way you want it. Much better, in Etiquetteer's view, to leave them in the parlor with a magazine.

You can mitigate this kind of behavior in two ways: confirm the time on the morning of your event, and plan to have everything but the cooking complete one hour before the party starts.

*Etiquetteer has had to lecture That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much about this more than once. Indeed, his ability to appear up to an hour early by mistake at one annual gathering has become almost an eye-rolling tradition.

Signs of the Times, Vol. 16, Issue 25

Etiquetteer has been traveling lately, and has been amused and/or instucted by instructional signs everywhere:

As usual, Etiquetteer believe these signs should read "Everyone must wash hands."

As usual, Etiquetteer believe these signs should read "Everyone must wash hands."

Seen in a San Francisco bookstore. An important reminder that no one cares about your "private" conversation.

Seen in a San Francisco bookstore. An important reminder that no one cares about your "private" conversation.

Gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming quite the rage, as can be seen from these two examples:

Of course there's also a Head 1.

Of course there's also a Head 1.

The screen makes this difficult to read, but the sign says "Sorry ........ Due to our environmentall delicate location, restrooms are for customers only Public restrooms are across the parking lot. Thank you ......." Isn't this a triumph of Euphemism?

The screen makes this difficult to read, but the sign says "Sorry ........ Due to our environmentall delicate location, restrooms are for customers only Public restrooms are across the parking lot. Thank you ......." Isn't this a triumph of Euphemism?

Etiquetteer Reviews Suave in Every Situation: A Rakish Guide to Style for Men

The world of Fashion has its arbitrary side, which sometimes veers toward the silly. And any time the word "rakish" appears in a book title, you know Humor is going to rear its smiling, unruly head for a bit of fun. Which is exactly what Gonzague Dupleix (author) and Jean-Pierre Delhomme (illustrator) have given us with Suave in Every Situation: A Rakish Guide to Style for Men. This bonbon box of frivolous advice, sprinkled with History and Wisdom throughout, makes a delightful read and reinforces some Central Tenets of Perfect Propriety.

Written in strictly Q-and-A format, Suave in Every Situation gathers seemingly random questions under chapter headings the underscore the author's belief that one needs to know the rules in order to play with them for positive effect: "Ask Yourself the Right Questions," "Make the Ordinary Extraordinary," "Live With Your Own (Bad) Taste," etc. From berets to zentai, opinions are shared, advice offered, and rules overruled (or not) about how to behave and what to wear.

Considering a gentleman's wardrobe, biases are expressed. Briefs, the undergarment of superheroes, are the only possible choice for a suave gentleman. Fur-lined shoes are beneath consideration. Military jackets are not to be trusted. Etiquetteer got a good laugh over the ultimate advice about wearing overalls: "Women and children first." Gingham and turtlenecks are encouraged, but not gingham turtlenecks. The author advises creatively on use of color. For red, "Imagine yourself in charge of paprika in a hotel kitchen: dose it carefully." For white, suggestions of appropriate-impact whiter-than-white, clever white, and dirty white.

The fickle nature of Fashion also gets highlighted. Why should one avoid a steel blue tie with a gray suit? Why are colorful socks OK, but novelty socks not? Why are "faded" jeans back, but "bleached" still out? Why do the authors endorse floral prints in such an ambiguous way: ". . . This picnic spirit à la open house at the University of Manchester's Humanities department . . ."? But coming trends are encouraged. Etiquetteer was delighted to read that capes are making a comeback for gentlemen. Time to dig out that Venetian tabarro!

There's more to suavity than what one wears, and helpful advice is offered on how to DJ a party, how to wipe sand from your feet at the beach, what sort of accent to use when speaking a foreign language, how to get the waiter's attention without getting everyone else's attention, whether or not to take off your glasses when kissing, and even whether or not to use a chaise longue or a just a towel for reclining on the beach. Some of the answers might surprise you.

That said, Etiquetteer has no idea why some of these questions are being asked . . . .Etiquetteer's answer to all of them is CERTAINLY NOT! "Should you wear your blazer inside out?" "Is it OK to leave French cuffs* unbuttoned?" "Is it OK to put your feet up on the glove compartment?" "Can you give the finger in a photo?" Really, these questions might have been added to the book solely to taunt Etiquetteer.

But if you've ever wondered how to be suave at the supermarket or cafeteria, whether or not to button or unbutton your naval sweater, where to put your arms when your photo is taken at the beach, or how to get that nasty odor out of your clothes, this is the place. Gonzague and Delhomme have created a delightful, engaging safe space for gentlemen.

*Teenagers push the limits as far as they dare - of fashion, of style, of good taste, of bad taste - as part of their transformation into (one hopes) Perfectly Proper Ladies and Gentlemen. Teenage Etiquetteer, in the faraway land of 1981, wore to a cast party one of his Dear Father's long-neglected 100% cotton pleated tuxedo shirts, untucked, with jeans, no tie of any kind, and using safety pins for cufflinks and studs and not folding the cuffs. It had not been ironed in perhaps 20 years. The evening remains memorable for the arrival of a Young Lady of the Cast dressed to the nines in flawless white and pink linen, every hair in place, looking absolutely ravishing. Teenage Etiquetteer could only gape self-consciously in uncomfortable astonishment.

Relationships, Vol. 16, Issue 23

Dear Etiquetteer:

Every time we go shopping, my husband buys a carton of [Insert Brand of Thin Mint Cookies Here]. He likes sweets, but not as much as I do.

Inevitably, I'll break open the bag and eat them before he gets around to having one or two.

A week or so after buying them, he'll open the cupboard and ask, "There aren't any [Insert Brand of Thin Mint Cookies Here] left?"

A simple solution would be to buy multiple cartons but I know I'd just end up eating both of them. That would be being piggy.

Should I feel guilty for eating them all - even if I've given him a fair chance to have some? What can we do to resolve this?

Dear Minty:

Relationship are so important because they teach us about sharing. What you can do to resolve this is to share. A simpler solution than buying two cartons would be for you to offer one or more cookies to your husband the next time you dip into the bag. "Sweetums," you might say, "would you like to have some cookies with me?" Cookie Time could become so popular it evolves into afternoon tea. And even if he declines with an "Oh no, Darling, not right now," you will at least get points for having made the effort.

Some Central Tenets of Perfect Propriety, Vol. 16, Issue 22

Etiquetteer must be feeling a bit bossy today. What are the central tenets, really, of what Etiquetteer believes? It could be summed up in this way: consider the impact you have on other people.

  • Nobody cares how you feel or what you want, so you might as well behave.
  • Look respectable. Tuck in that shirttail and those bra straps. Nobody wants to know about the waistband of your underwear . . . and if they do, you might not want to know them.
  • Dress appropriately to the particular situation. Just because you don't feel like putting on black tie is no excuse to go to a ball in a track suit.*
  • Get out of the way.
  • Be quiet, both in general and especially on your cellphone. No one cares about your "private" conversation.
  • Retain your sense of humor. That's usually key to getting out of most etiquette jams.
  • When responding in anger, whether in person or through correspondence, ask yourself if you want a successful resolution or just a chance to express anger.
  • Travel light.
  • When in doubt, send a Lovely Note.

Now that's out of the way, Etiquetteer is going to spend the rest of the day bringing his summer whites out of storage since Memorial Day (observed) is tomorrow.

*Once upon a time, if one didn't have the correct clothes for a particular function, one did not attend said function. (Consider the plight of Judy Garland's beau in Meet Me in St. Louis, who suddenly couldn't take her to a Christmas ball because his father's dress suit was locked up at a tailor's.) Nowadays this sort of Perfect Propriety is considered fussy and exclusive by far too many people - but not Etiquetteer.

Addressing Strangers, Vol. 16, Issue 20

This is really one of Etiquetteer's pet peeves, so pay attention.

Last weekend Etiquetteer was neatly and innocently waiting at the corner for the light to change when a man trundled alongside about five feet away and asked no one in particular where a local hotel was. Except he thought he was asking someone in particular: Etiquetteer! And Etiquetteer had no idea this was the case. This man was not exhibiting any of the characteristics of actually addressing someone, such as standing at a reasonably close (but not too close) distance, facing them, eye contact, unmistakably audible tone of voice, and the Very Important Introduction of "Excuse me, please . . . " How on earth is anyone supposed to know they're being spoken to by a stranger?

Once Etiquetteer fully understood what was happening, directions could be provided ("That way.") But it also brought to mind a much more unpleasant version of this common problem from about 25 years ago.* Intent on reaching a subway entrance, Young Etiquetteer missed hearing a question being hog-called by some Dreadful Woman** standing ten feet away. And missing the question - and why should Etiquetteer even think it was personally directed in the first place? - this Dreadful Woman started shouting about these Rude Bostonians and how horrible Etiquetteer was not instantly to come to her aid. She clearly thought just standing in the middle of a busy corner made her perfectly noticeable and comprehensible!

If you're in a strange city and you need directions, for heaven's sake, make yourself known to the people whose aid you seek by saying "Excuse me please," facing them, and looking them in the eye. Nobody at a busy intersection is thinking about you to begin with. Help them help you by asking for help in a recognizable, unambiguous manner. That's not just Perfect Propriety, it's common sense.

*Do you ever wake up screaming about things in your past? This is the sort of thing that wakes Etiquetteer up screaming.

**No doubt the British etiquette writer would describe her as Not Our Sort. The American writer Paul Fussell would peg her as a prole.