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.

Signs of the Times: Dog Owners, Vol. 16, Issue 16

Occasionally Etiquetteer likes to report on instructional signs to see how well we're doing with Perfect Propriety in Public.

Etiquetteer was delighted to see that the Arnold Arboretum is getting serious about negligent dog owners who allow their dogs to run and scratch around without a leash. These four signs appear to be a new campaign. As they correctly note, "Dogs are not the problem. Dog owners who violate leash laws are the problem."

Let's hope this has what used to be called a salutary effect on Perfect Propriety in the arboretum.

Vacation Plans, Vol. 16, Issue 15

Dear Etiquetteer:

At times, when on vacation, I meet friends while there (sometimes I know in advance I will see them and other times I just run in to people). The suggestions of plans are made. Of course, these interactions are wonderful and just what vacation should be: spontaneity and fun. The headiness of vacation time is magnified by the shared experience with friends. Nonetheless, I sometimes find that my relaxing vacation is being over planned and much of the relaxing I was planning on doesn’t happen. I return from vacation not exactly refreshed.

I don’t begrudge my friends and their interest in seeing me socially. I live for that and feel lucky. But I’d gladly swap a dinner out in, say, January or February when such invitations are so scarce then try to jam in all the various invitations in July on vacation. Any suggestions?

Dear Vacationing:

A change of destination might help. Reading your query, Etiquetteer couldn't help but remember how interested Newland Archer was in summering in Mount Desert Isle, while his in-laws insisted on the social pleasures of Newport*. Perhaps you need to find your Mount Desert Isle, where you're sure not to run into friends and acquaintances.

Etiquetteer finds nothing wrong in standing up for relaxation on a vacation. When plans are suggested, just stretch yourself languorously by the pool and say "Oh, I couldn't move a limb. You all go off and have a nice time, and we'll catch up tomorrow." A spontaneous suggestion can just as spontaneously be declined as accepted, but once you've announced a decision, stick to it. Or, you could suggest spontaneously that everyone simply "hang out" without careering off to a restaurant, bar, beach, mountain, sideshow, or other local attraction.

Etiquetteer feels deeply your conundrum of an Absence of Sociability during the Cruel Winter Months. Worn out by the weather, and perhaps the Heady Whirl of the Holiday Season, too many people hibernate socially when they should at least make some effort. The freedom of being on vacation releases that Hospitable Urge. But like you, Etiquetteer would prefer more balance. You may have to lead the charge by issuing some January invitations.

*From Edith Wharton's remarkable novel The Age of Innocence.

Personal Communications, Vol. 16, Issue 13

Dear Etiquetteer:

Sir, in this modern age, is it ever proper to put down the pen and resort to e-mail? When many have given to owning only a cell phone, how dare we call them just to leave a message? Being quite old and residing in an old folks home, I'm shocked at what some of my neighbors consider proper. For those in younger years, just you wait for old age waits for no one.

Dear Corresponding Regardless:

No matter one's age, Speed has overtaken Graciousness in communications, especially in the last 25 years with the universal adoption of cellphones and email. A well-turned phrase and a well-rounded period rarely appear to advantage via text message. But humans adapt to changes in technology. We aren't, for instance, still scratching with styli on clay tablets.

To answer your first question, resort to email when expedience matters. Email has become so ubiquitous that it has become Proper. (How one uses it determines whether it is Proper or Perfectly Proper.) When the speed of your communication doesn't matter, by all means write a Proper Letter.

If you are eager to communicate with someone who has only given you a phone number, then you must use the phone number to make a phone call, or discover by whatever means you have at your disposal what their mailing address is and send a Proper Letter.

You refer to living in "an old folks home," which leads Etiquetteer to observe that yes, there are many senior citizens who have not embraced the Digital Revolution of the last 25 years. Whether through Fear, Skepticism, General Cantankerousness, or even Lack of Equipment, they miss out on keeping up with family and friends. (And how many grandparents do we know who finally get on Facebook to find out what their grandchildren are doing, only for the grandkids to abandon Facebook for Instagram or Snapchat or Something-or-Other.)*

At a time when others should be making a special effort to reach out to them, these senior citizens find themselves making special efforts to reach out in the ways they know (mostly written correspondence and phone calls). Besides which, current technology is not always designed to accommodate the elderly. Large, unsteady fingers obscure closely-set buttons so that one doesn't always know what button one is pressing. Designers, take note.

With National Card and Letter-Writing Month coming next month (so designated by the United States Postal Service), Etiquetteer hopes that you will make more special efforts than usual to communicate with the written word.

*Even Etiquetteer, who has yet to achieve the age of "Get off my lawn," has had to learn to text, but it was a hard-won battle.

 

National Common Courtesy Day, Vol. 16, Issue 12

These Internet Holidays just pop up with no warning at all. Perhaps an invitation would be Perfectly Proper?

Etiquetteer has just learned that March 21 is National Common Courtesy Day. While (perhaps tartly) observing that every day is a day for common courtesy, Etiquetteer notes the website's stated goal: "This day brings awareness to how important common courtesy is in our lives." And indeed, the Magic Words "Please" and "Thank you," the Friendly Greetings, and Acts of Quiet Assistance like holding a door make daily life that much more endurable.

Etiquetteer is especially aware of how Service Personnel are treated - drivers, deliverymen, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, customer service representatives over the phone, custodians - and how casually, even cruelly, they can be passed over. If anything, today is an opportunity for everyone to consider how often they do (or don't) greet and acknowledge Service Personnel in their daily lives. Etiquetteer, for instance, makes a point of greeting the bus driver, and then saying "Thank you" when exiting past him/her. In a Nation were All are Created Equal, this is an important acknowledgement of our common humanity.

Another Very Bad Thing is to approach the cash register while carrying on a phone conversation. The person you're with is more important than the person on your device. Show respect!

Track yourself over the next couple days and see how you're doing.

And with that, Etiquetteer is pleased to wish you a Happy National Common Courtesy Day.

Dinner Menus of Yore, Vol. 16, Issue 11

Food has been much on Etiquetteer's mind lately, perhaps after having had that pie heaved into his face on Pi Day. So you can imagine how happy Etiquetteer was when a scrapbook containing menu cards from the 1910s was heaved over the transom. As was the custom in those more leisurely days, the Technology* Club of New Bedford held an annual dinner that appears lavish by 21st-century standards. How did these compare to what was actually recommended in the etiquette books of the period?

The Victorians loved eating! Let’s start with the number of courses, which started big, and could only get smaller. No less an authority than Judith Martin, Miss Manners herself, recorded this list in her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior:

1. Oysters or clams on the half shell, or fruit or caviar.
2. Soup, one clear soup and one thick soup.
3. Radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds.
4. Fish, served with fancifully shaped potatoes and cucumbers with oil and vinegar.
5. Sweetbreads or mushrooms.
6. Artichokes, asparagus, or spinach in pastry.
7. A roast or joint, with a green vegetable.
8. Frozen Roman punch
9. Game, such as wild duck or quail or ptarmigan, served with salad.
10. Heavy pudding or another creamed sweet.
11. A frozen sweet.
12. Cheese, or a hot savory of cheese.
13. Fresh, crystallized, and stuffed dried fruits, served with bonbons.
14. Coffee, liqueurs, and sparkling wines.

Now it’s important to note that some of these courses aren’t served one to a person, but are actually just placed about the table in little dishes between every place or two. The non-sweet early accompaniments to a formal dinner - those radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds - would have been so. And later in the meal, the crystallized fruits and bonbons. Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden described a dinner at the Taft White House this way: “Little silver dishes of salted nuts and green and brown candies broke out everywhere just as they do on all tables nowadays, and in every way it was a comfortable, unpretentious meal, not as handsome as several I have seen in the houses of the merely rich . . . Senator Tawney on my other side . . . consumed a whole dish of large soft caramels, taking one or tmore after each course from caviar to ice cream."

How does this 1910 menu differ?

First off, there's a reference to "Martini Cocktail," which seems odd to Etiquetteer since a cocktail was only to be consumed before one went to table**. It also implies that only martinis would be offered before dinner, and you'd either take it and like it, or go without a cocktail. Then, the number of courses is greatly reduced. And last, the heartiness of the menu, particularly that prominent "Sirloin of Steak" indicates that this is decidedly a "stag" dinner at which ladies would not be present.

The 1911 menu is much the same.

By 1914, it's clear a humorist worked his way onto the dinner committee, with references chemical and jocular appearing, "Coffee, Cigars, and Some Talk" being the principal feature of any stag dinner - and, at least for the Club of New Bedford, sirloin steak.

Now, by way of comparison, let's look at this 1915 menu for the annual dinner of the entire MIT Alumni Association held in Boston. This would be a larger and more formal affair than that held in New Bedford, but still likely a stag dinner. The mock turtle soup is a nod to the importance of the occasion, as terrapin, or turtle soup, was one of the two courses that signified one was at a true Occasion for the Victorians.*** Its vogue did not begin to fade until after World War I. And yet there is no Roman punch in the middle of menu as a chance to rest before consuming even more food. Note also the item "Cafe Noir." Those who like clouds in their coffee need not apply

The amount of food served per person seems astonishing in this century, but it occurs to Etiquetteer that the Way We Eat Today, this same menu could be offered almost as is for any public or charity dinner, with dinner guests checking off their entrée choices in advance.

And let's also notice how none of these menus are engraved on white or cream bristol board with gilt edges. And how small they are! They are there to be part of the table appointments, not book-sized annual reports or Advertisement Delivery Systems.

Etiquetteer, like many people, enjoys speculating about menus such as these, but they can only really be executed flawlessly when one has staff. Emily Post used to write about Mrs. Three-in-One who was simultaneously hostess, cook, and waitress, but Etiquetteer knows from experience how near-impossible it is to do that. So if you happen to know a good cook, do send him or her Etiquetteer's way.

*At this time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was popularly referred to as "Technology" or "Tech." Since World War II, "MIT" is preferred.

**It's actually still Bad Form to do so, and Etiquetteer has to remonstrate with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much occasionally.

***The other was canvasback duck. Etiquetteer has not been able to figure out why the Victorians put such an emphasis on it and, later Long Island duckling.

Bow Tie Emergency, Vol. 16, Issue 9

Not long ago, Etiquetteer took a phone call from a Dear Friend having a Bow Tie Emergency ("It won't tie!") and it reminded Etiquetteer of that auspicious night about 30 years ago when Young Etiquetteer finally had to learn how to tie a Perfectly Proper bow tie fast.

You may not believe this, but there was a time when Young Etiquetteer could not tie a bow tie and proudly wore (you will really never believe this) clip-on bow ties handed down from a relative. Some of them were really quite lovely, too, but still . . . one could tell they were Not Perfectly Proper.

Etiquetteer a few years ago with a Perfectly Proper satin bow tie, exercising the privilege of "creative black tie" with that red vest.

Etiquetteer a few years ago with a Perfectly Proper satin bow tie, exercising the privilege of "creative black tie" with that red vest.

One fine autumn day an executive at Young Etiquetteer's place of business passed on an invitation to a ball to be held in two month's time. Young Etiquetteer used that opportunity to purchase a brand-new tuxedo with all the trimmings. It fit like a dream after the usual alterations, and Etiquetteer confidently appeared at the haberdasher's late on the afternoon of the ball to collect it, and to purchase a cummerbund and tie. With only hours to go until the ball began, imagine Etiquetteer's horror on discovering that the haberdasher had no clip-on bow ties. He didn't even have one of those pre-tied bow ties on a satin strap! All there was to go with that black cummerbund was a traditional black satin bow tie.

Commencing a fine state of panic, Young Etiquetteer hurried home and began preparations, slipping studs into that pleated shirt front (ruffled shirts had, by that time, mercilessly fallen from fashion), buttoning on suspenders, and then (deep breath), confronting a harried but well-coiffed vision in the bathroom mirror.

People say "Oh, tying a bow tie is like tying a shoe." Not so - when did you ever try to tie a shoe around your neck? Slippery satin made creating a knot that much more difficult. But after about only 20 minutes - only 20 minutes - Young Etiquetteer got it tied in a knot sturdy enough to last the evening. The ends didn't exactly match, but then Young Etiquetteer had just read in Paul Fussell's Class thatcrooked bow tie was an upper class indicator.

The ball, at one of the finer hotels, turned out to be a lovely evening. But oddly, the most memorable detail all these years later was the sight of a man attending this black-tie evening in a tan suede sport jacket. Not Perfectly Proper!

Signs of the Times, Vol. 16, Issue 7

Etiquetteer is always interested in instructional signs that promote Perfect Propriety, and found a few in moss-hung New Orleans.

Seen in City Park, New Orleans. How sad that signs such as these are necessary.

Seen in City Park, New Orleans. How sad that signs such as these are necessary.

Behind St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. So necessary when one considers the numbers of barrooms nearby.

Behind St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. So necessary when one considers the numbers of barrooms nearby.

Inside the famous Café du Monde. Etiquetteer really does not understand the compulsion of tourists to feed pigeons. Perhaps Mary Poppins is to blame?

Inside the famous Café du Monde. Etiquetteer really does not understand the compulsion of tourists to feed pigeons. Perhaps Mary Poppins is to blame?

There goes the neighborhood . . .

There goes the neighborhood . . .

And this last gem comes from Florida, submitted by reader Andrew Parthum:

This left Etiquetteer speechless.

This left Etiquetteer speechless.

Rules of Catherine the Great, Annotated by Etiquetteer, Vol. 16, Issue 6

Etiquetteer has been absorbed to the exclusion of almost All Else in the last weeks with The Romanovs 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, a sweeping and unvarnished account of that family depraved by power and blessed by jewels. Montefiore drops many tantalizing tidbits along the way, and Etiquetteer was fascinated by a reference to Catherine the Great's rules of behavior at parties. Autocracy is hardly all fun and games; rules are needed for everything.

Thanks to the awesome power of the Internet, those rules were republished by the blog All Things Ruffnerian, and Etiquetteer will now annotate them for use in a Flawed Democracy:

RULES FOR THE BEHAVIOUR OF ALL THOSE ENTERING THESE DOORS

1. All ranks shall be left outside the doors, similarly hats, and particularly swords.

For rank, Etiquetteer would substitute "celebrity status." "Don't you know who I am?" is a question that should never be asked. Also, to ask the musical question, "does anyone really still wear a hat?" The inelegant answer is "No, it's a baseball cap." Take it off! No one cares about your Bad Hair Day. If you can't groom yourself properly, you shouldn't be out in Society.

Etiquetteer would also substitute "cellphone" and "smartphone" for sword. These engaging devices keep people from looking into each other's eyes.

2. Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the doors.

Because haughtiness is not confined to those afflicted with celebrity status. It is interesting to note that the haughtiest people are rarely those who are truly great. Indeed, haughtiness might be said to diminish greatness.

3. Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything.

That means no short ribs, and no roughhousing indoors. Etiquetteer remembers with horror the story from Sally Bedell Smith's Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House of members of the Kennedy family "played touch football in the living room" at a party hosted by Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, "breaking glasses and spilling drinks on the Savonnerie carpet. According to Oleg Cassini, 'A rare signed pair of antique chairs was demolished.'" Etiquetteer supposes it would have been worse if they'd gnawed on those antique chairs after they'd destroyed them.

4. Be seated, stand or walk as it best pleases you, regardless of others.

Happily our Flawed Democracy has not been afflicted with too much ceremony. Citizens stand when the President of the United States enters or leaves a room, and when judges enter or leave their courtrooms, but that's about it. Gentlemen ceased rising when ladies entered or left a room decades ago with the advent of Women's Lib. Etiquetteer believes in equality, but misses the graciousness.

5. Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present have not an earache or headache.

This also means, as the saying goes, that if you want conversation in the foreground, no music in the background. And let us not mistake volume for enunciation. Slurring your words more loudly doesn't make you more comprehensible, only more alarming.

6. Argue without anger or passion.

How very important! And how much our political leaders have forgotten this! Etiquetteer would dearly like to see a return to dinner-table diplomacy at all levels of society. High time we resolved our Significant Differences of Opinion by breaking bread together. Etiquetteer has probably quoted this dialogue from Advise and Consent before, but it bears repeating:

          Senator Van Ackerman: "This is no laughing matter to me, Mrs. Harrison."
          Mrs. Harrison: "Oh? Then perhaps this isn't the place to discuss it."

7. Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.

Those of us with Pet Theories and/or Strong Opinions need to monitor ourselves.* Parties are opportunities for conversation, not audiences.

8. Agree to partake of any innocent [emphasis Etiquetteer's] entertainment suggested by others.

"We could play SPIN the Botticelli, but we're not going to," says Michael in The Boys in the Band before proposing the Cruelest Party Game Ever. If the party takes a turn with which you're morally uncomfortable, make your excuses courteously and depart.

9. Eat well of good things, but drink with moderation so that each should be able always to find his legs on leaving these doors.

Body shots are not Perfectly Proper. Etiquetteer should not have to tell you this. This is also an admonition to the hosts to provide plenty of good things to eat.

10. All disputes must stay behind closed doors; and what goes in one ear should go out the other before departing through the doors.

In other words, Guaranteed Discretion is needed to create an atmosphere of Trust and Relaxation, even among those with Opposing Points of View. Ladies and gentlemen remember this.

Now, with all that in mind, let's all eat, drink, and be merry with Perfect Propriety!

*Etiquetteer says "ourselves" while looking askance at That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who could talk the ears off a yak - if he'd been invited to the same party as a yak.

Greeting Cards, Vol. 16, Issue 5

Dear Etiquetteer:

I seem to have inherited my mother's compulsion for keeping greeting cards. You know, the stacks of Happy Birthday or <insert Winter holiday here> cards that people send. When sufficient time has past, and one is tidying up, I carefully pack the cards away in a manila envelope, labeled with the occasion, and tuck them away for later enjoyment. Except I never do. I just don't look at them again. They are lovely, and many of them are quite expensive ($7 for a greeting card, oh my!) and I feel just awful putting them in the recycling, but as time passes, the collection of Greeting Cards Past is growing. What is the proper thing to do with them, once you've noted the address of the sender, added them to your list for next year, and it is time to put them away?

Dear Card Collector:

This may come as a shock, but the most Perfectly Proper thing to do with a greeting card after you've received it is whatever you choose. If you wish to save them, save them. But if, as you have observed, you save them for no purpose, then there's nothing prohibiting you from tossing them out. This is especially true of greeting cards in which the writers have written only their names and/or a basic greeting. As long as you've updated the address in your address book, toss out the cards and any Guilty Feelings you might harbor about tossing them out.

To assuage those Guilty Feelings, though, you could bundle them off to St. Jude's Ranch for Children, which has a recycled card program to support their programs and services for abused, neglected and homeless children, young adults and families.

There are those, though, who use greeting cards to share special stories, memories, or offer lengthier expressions of their good wishes for you, and these you might wish to keep as a record of your relationship with that person.

One criterion might be whether or not your biographer would find it useful in writing your biography. Etiquetteer has never quite gotten over the footnote in Richard Buckle's definitive biography of Serge Diaghilev. It seems the composer Igor Stravinsky never threw away a letter, and kept a copy of every letter he ever sent (more difficult in those days before copiers). "Biographers can only be grateful," wrote Buckle.