National Waitstaff Day, Vol. 18, Issue 18

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.”

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Restaurant Manners and Tipping, Vol. 18, Issue 16

Dear Etiquetteer:

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.

Dear Dining:

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!

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*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.

Reader Questions, Vol. 18, Issue 15

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.

Dear Etiquetteer:

These days, I'm mainly concerned about the rules of etiquette governing messages of condolence.

Dear Etiquetteer:

When to send condolence notes—immediately upon learning of the death, within a month, or at any time?

Dear Etiquetteer:

What is the best way to write notes, especially condolences?

Dear Correspondents:

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.

Dear Etiquetteer:

What Is a nice, quick way to sincerely respond with appreciation to a compliment in conversation?

Dear Complimented:

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.

Dear Etiquetteer:

Is it ever too late to write a thank-you note?

Dear Thanking:

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!)

Dear Etiquetteer:

You notice that someone has food on their face, or something in their hair. Should you say something?

Dear Observant:

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.

Dear Etiquetteer:

After getting a nice invitation, what should I wear? This goes for both women and men.

Dear Invited:

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!

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Theatre Etiquette, Vol. 18, Issue 14

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.

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The Night Etiquetteer Saw All the Way to Crawford's Notch, Vol. 18, Issue 13

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.”

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*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.

National Common Courtesy Day, Vol. 18, Issue 11

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.

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Signs of the Times, Vol. 18, Issue 9

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.

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One trembles to think of the experiences that required this notice to be posted!

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In an Italian restaurant, an attempt to embrace Perfect Propriety with history and humor:

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The message is expressed more discreetly at another restaurant.

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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.

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Finally, a museum warning that keeps from being alarming.

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Winter White, Vol. 18, Issue 7

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.

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Peach Melba and a Clean Desk, Vol. 18, Issue 3

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 . . .

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*Readers of Edith Wharton will immediately recall her short story After Holbein.

Durgin-Park, Rest in Peace, Vol. 18, Issue 1

Welcome to the New Year, and to a new volume of Etiquetteer! Alas, this volume begins with an ending, the surprise news yesterday evening that the storied restaurant Durgin-Park, '“established before you were born,” will close January 12, 2019. Its “market dining rooms,” originally serving workers of all shifts as well as sailors from Boston Harbor, were gleefully absorbed into the “festival marketplace” that Faneuil Hall became in the 1970s. Over the years Etiquetteer has also met many men of the Greatest Generation who, as college students, would flock to D-P on the weekends for its economical steak special. The restaurant is a Bostonian touchstone for older generations and for those who love traditional New England foods.

Mark White, the son of Boston Mayor Kevin White who led that transformation, was quoted saying that Durgin-Park is “part of the soul of the city.” Etiquetteer must respectfully disagree. In the last 50 years it may have been so for visitors to the city, but for the locals - not so much. Indeed, many have suggested that D-P was “cooking for the tourists” for years.

Part of the restaurant’s fame came from the deliberately crabby attitude of its waitresses - and Etiquetteer has met many men of the Greatest Generation who, returning after long years away, discovered that the memory of a crabby waitress is better than her reappearance with bad service. Etiquetteer has never been a fan of the rudeness schtick anywhere, but still raises a glass in grateful memory to the crabby D-P waitress who taught him how to eat king crab legs. Many years ago in the 1980s, Collegiate Etiquetteer celebrated a professional milestone with The Boss over dinner at D-P and ordered the surf and turf - which that night happened to be king crab legs. For those unfamiliar, this is a collection of hard shell tubes with a sharp point at one end and an opening at the other. Etiquetteer, completely at a loss, was picking away at the opening with a fork as a crabby waitress came by. “Ya nevah gonna get much that way, deah!” she cried. Almost seizing the crab leg and the fork, she fit one tine down one side of the shell and, using the fork as a can opener, deftly cracked open the entire leg. Thank ya, deah!

Those crabby waitresses also knew how to turn on the charm for a rowdy version of “Happy Birthday!” of which Collegiate Etiquetteer was once the focus long ago. They were not going to let the occasion go unobserved!

The city of Boston has undergone several restaurant closings lately. L’Espalier just announced that it’s closing, a blow for those who love fine French cuisine. Jacob Wirth announced last year it was up for sale, a threat to those who love good beer and German food (and for the theatre people who find it convenient to the stage door). And of course Etiquetteer is still mourning the closing last autumn of Brasserie JO, that beloved bistro, and a tear still falls when remembering when the Ritz-Carlton dining room closed (in the 1990s) for luncheon. Whether fine dining or market dining, restaurants help define our public lives and our Perfect Propriety. Indeed, it could be said that the community table that’s so popular in so many restaurants now got its start at Durgin-Park, where all individual diners were served at long tables in the market dining rooms - and you didn’t get to choose your seat either.

And the only way to keep the restaurants we value part of our communities is not to expect other people to keep them in business until we “feel like going.” Put your table manners to the test in public and head out to your favorite restaurant soon. You may not know it’s endangered until it’s too late!

Durgin-Park is a storied part of Boston, to be sure. But just as New York is getting along fine now with a Mrs. Astor, Boston will survive quite well without Durgin-Park. But perhaps we’d all better make reservations at the Union Oyster House . . .

A Toast for New Year's Eve 2018

It’s almost midnight! And Etiquetteer offers, once again, Noel Coward’s famous toast from Cavalcade.

Allow Etiquetteer to wish all of you a New Year of Perfect Propriety.