In Which Etiquetteer Splits His Pants, Vol. 15, Issue 5

The true test of etiquette is how well one reacts to the unexpected. When Life throws a curve ball, one must think both of the motto of the Boy Scouts, "Be prepared," and the words of Etiquetteer's beloved Congressional wife, Ellen Maury Slayden: "This is a test of breeding; keep cool." The other day Etiquetteer boarded the train home and took a vacant seat. First Etiquetteer heard a soft sound, rather difficult to describe, and then felt the train seat become a shade more comfortable. It was then that Etiquetteer came to the awful realization that that soft sound was really Etiquetteer's khakis giving way where they would create the most comic disadvantage: the seat.

The horror of the situation gave way to a rapid succession of thoughts: first, that Etiquetteer's stop on the train was not for some time, providing an opportunity for quiet contemplation of a solution; then, that Etiquetteer's short winter jacket would not conceal the damage done; gratitude for the daily habit of clean undergarments; and last, vain regret at not having begun a Post-Holiday Diet Regime.

Etiquetteer did at least Keep Calm and a Stiff Upper Lip, which helped provide enough clarity to, at last, identify a solution. Happily, Etiquetteer had some shopping in a paper shopping bag with some handles and, by holding it with both hands at the small of the back, could walk forward briskly and still conceal the Inappropriate Ventilation. While not unknown, that's still a Rare Posture, and Etiquetteer hoped to get home without exciting Unwelcome Attention. And nearly did, except for practically being tailed by a trolley of tourists for half a block, and the presence of neighbors in the foyer. But at least no one saw Anything They Oughtn't.

While the movies aren't a reliable source of etiquette advice, Etiquetteer must conclude this instructive story with the words of Igor in Young Frankenstein. When trouble comes, "Say nothing. Act casual."

smalletiquetteer

Etiquetteer Succumbs to Temptation and Gets His Comeuppance, Vol. 12, Issue 18

The late Mae West famously said "I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it." Today, unfortunately, Etiquetteer couldn't resist it, and paid the price. This morning Etiquetteer stopped by the library at a time when one of those special movie screenings for children was taking place (arranged, perhaps, for children to enjoy the library without actually having to pick up a book). Outside the screening room a table of little snacks had been set up: cups of snack mix, little trays and baskets of cookies, etc. Etiquetteer, from either peckishness or annoyance (though there is no excuse for Imperfect Propriety), casually helped himself to a large biscuit while passing the table.

With the first bite Etiquetteer sensed something wrong. Not that his Improper Grazing had been observed, but with the biscuit itself. Had some health faddist concocted it out of sawdust? Turning back to the table, Etiquetteer observed for the first time the box from whence the biscuits came. They were organic dog biscuits!

"Keep cool," Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden once observed. "This is a test of breeding." And of course when one has something in one's mouth that shouldn't be there, one removes it as unobtrusively as possible. Without attracting attention, Etiquetteer silently made his way to the restroom, where the remains of the dog biscuit were disposed of without incident.

And what do we learn from this little incident?

  1. Don't help yourself unless invited to do so.
  2. Segregate refreshments by their consuming species.
  3. Even Etiquetteer can make mistakes.

Dining in Public, Vol. 12, Issue 4

From Etiquetteer's Facebook page comes this query: Dear Etiquetteer:

Last night my family, including my husband's parents and sister (who were visiting from out of state) had the pleasure of attending dinner service on the Napa Valley Wine Train. All the lady seated behind my sister-in-law could do was complain, loudly. We didn't allow her to ruin our good time, but felt trapped! As did the lovely couple seated across from the bitter bitter woman. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of the right way to handle the situation and would like never to find myself lacking the Perfectly Proper way to handle the very uncomfortable situation she was causing. How would you recommend handling this situation, should it present itself during another evening?

Dear Entrained and Entrapped:

Etiquetteer's guiding precept has always been that No One Cares How You Feel or What You Want. Etiquetteer thinks it's a pity this Dining Virago was not so educated. One wonders why such people ever leave home, since they are so clearly unhappy away from it. Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden joined her Congressman husband on an official delegation to Mexico in 1910. Commenting on one Senator and his wife, she wrote "I wonder why they come on a trip like this, all made up of scenery and adventure, when they could get so much better pie and cereal at home."*

You and your family, however, were clearly brought up on the maxim "Don't borrow trouble," for which Etiquetteer commends you. Because let's face it, in Real Life, confrontations such as these are always messier than they are in TV sitcoms. For instance, had you leaned over and asked "Excuse me, I hate to interrupt your diatribe, but did you happen to bring any earplugs we could borrow?" you would not have been saved by a commercial break. The Fantasy of the One-Line Putdown That Works is just that, a fantasy.

The first and best recourse is to speak (quietly) to the waiter or the manager and ask if anything can be done. It's in their best interest to be sure that all their diners are enjoying themselves, not only the Dining Virago but also you and your party. They can take what action they feel is necessary to get her to pipe down, whether it's a complimentary dessert, picking up her entire check, or promising her that she'll never have the chance to complain about their service again after she's banned from returning.

Etiquetteer thinks you and your family might have put a more positive spin on the situation by sending a bottle of wine to "the lovely couple seated across from the bitter bitter woman," creating a secret community able to smile over a special bond: Endurance. Etiquetteer can just see you all toasting each other silently across the aisle while the Dining Virago obliviously keeps on ranting.

Etiquetteer wishes you and your family well on future dining excursions!

Have you had a difficult experience dining out? Etiquetteer would love to accept your queries at <queries _at_ etiquetteer dot com>.

*It should surprise no one that Etiquetteer is quoting from Washington Wife: Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden from 1897 - 1919.

Declining an Invitation to the White House, Vol. 11, Issue 2

Suddenly many people are upset because Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, the team that just won the Stanley Cup, declined an invitation to the White House to be received by the President of the United States. To hear some of the carry-on you'd think Mr. Thomas had flouted a Divine Command of the Deity of Your Choice! So you may be surprised to learn that Etiquetteer fully supports Mr. Thomas's decision not to attend this event (although he could have done so without making a statement to the press about it). The United States of America remains a democracy. Its founding cornerstone has been Liberty. Citizens have the right to accept or decline invitations from anyone as they choose, including invitations from the Chief Executive. Such invitations are not Royal Commands! Etiquetteer is fond of historical precedent in such cases, and indeed, Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden supplies it. In 1902 she wrote "That snobbish twaddle about invitations to the White House and elsewhere being 'virtually commands' is having quite a vogue lately, chiefly, of course, among those just 'arriving' socially. I wish I could reproduce the savage humor with which Senator Vest treated the subject when we discussed it before him. He said he had been declining invitations to the White House for fifteen years because he didn't want to go and had not been threatened with impeachment yet."*

Of course Senator Vest was able to decline an invitation without making a sweeping statement to the press criticizing the Nation's government as a whole. While Mr. Thomas may exercise his Freedom of Speech to say whatever he pleases, and while the press may exercise its own essential Freedom to report what Mr. Thomas says, Etiquetteer can't find it Perfectly Proper for them to have gone to all this fuss.

To conclude, Etiquetteer thinks complaints about Mr. Thomas "insulting the President" by turning down this invitation are unjustified. If one is going to complain about Mr. Thomas, one is more justified complaining about the manner in which he did so, not the mere fact that he did.

* From Washington Wife: Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden from 1897-1919, page 41, copyright 1963. Used without permission.

Etiquetteer very much hopes to see you on Wednesday, February 1, for Good Manners at the Gibson House with Etiquetteer! Please contact the House today to reserve your tickets!

Past Imperfect, Vol. 6, Issue 11


PAST IMPERFECT

Vol. 6, Issue 11, March 18, 2007

 

Many people assume that etiquette writers, not just Etiquetteer, believe that everything was better in the past than it is today. Etiquetteer is here to tell you "Not so!" Many old customs have fallen out of fashion because they became overdone and not particularly conducive to good human relations. Etiquetteer would now like to look at some of the "vices and virtues" of the past, both things that we can do without and those we would do well to bring back.

MOURNING AND MOURNING CLOTHES

Grief and sadness are common emotions when a loved one dies. Society has developed traditions and rituals to comfort the bereaved: letters of sympathy, offerings of food or flowers brought to the home, funerals and memorial services, and even mourning clothes. The latter, including armbands, memorial buttons or badges, black-bordered handkerchiefs, and of course the famous mourning veil, served two purposes: to show respect to the dead and also to warn others not to bring up sensitive subjects.

But the idea of having to wear all black for at least three years after the death of a spouse or be thought not to have loved him or her . . . well, it’s just silly. Enough people in the mental health profession have already shown how excessive mourning prevents people from resuming their daily lives. The sort-of cult of mourning in the 19th Century, complete with memorial illustrations, restrictions on where one might go and to whom one might speak there, could lead one to Distraction, and probably did.

Now Society has moved to the opposite end of the spectrum by denying grief altogether. We "celebrate the life" of the deceased instead of mourning the death, wear colors to actual funerals if we attend at all, and use the convenience of e-mail when the special effort of writing a letter is so much more appreciated by the bereaved. And black, now so fashionable, is no longer a signal of mourning. Etiquetteer has witnessed on more than one occasion one person joke with another "Wow, black! Who died?" only to hearexactly who the deceased was.

One of the innovations of which Etiquetteer heartily approves is the mourning button with the picture of the deceased on it. Frequently made in the 19th Century for public figures (Presidents Lincoln and Garfield come to mind), they are now more widely seen and more easily made than they were 150 years ago.

Etiquetteer would like to see a middle ground between these extremes: a service where one could acknowledge one’s sadness by mourning the death as well as "celebrating the life," wear mourning colors at least through the funeral (but not for an extended period unless the bereaved chooses to do so), and yet not be thought insensitive when one feels the need no longer to demonstrate mourning.

CALLING AND CALLING CARDS

"The old arbitrary Washington custom of calling has lapsed entirely, and I lay a wreath on its grave without regret . . . " said Ellen Maury Slayden as far back as 1918. The rules and regulations governing calling and leaving calling cards in the homes of friends and associates must have collapsed under their own complexity and inconvenience. Rules about who called on whom first, the time in which those calls had to be returned, members of the household for whom one (and/or one’s spouse) left cards and how many, even different messages to send by folding certain corners of the card, had to be rigidly obeyed or interpreted as slights or insults. Mrs. Slayden recorded in her journal getting a cold shoulder from someone new in town whose call she couldn’t return because she lived too far away. Not a satisfactory system at all, and rife with misunderstandings. At least it kept the engravers in business.

Now we have the Internet, which solves some of these problems, but creates new ones.

RECEIVING LINES

Etiquetteer loves a receiving line, let’s not be mistaken about that. But too much of a good thing can implode, and it’s no wonder to see this useful custom kicked to the curb. The first problem with a receiving line is having too many people in it. Etiquetteer’s beloved Ellen Maury Slayden recorded attending an afternoon reception in Washington where "there were twenty women in the receiving party ‘bunched,’ as we say in Texas, on one side of the room . . . " And many of us remember weddings with a receiving line of twelve or more people: bride, groom, four parents, and eight or so bridesmaids. This is overkill, to say the least!

The second, and perhaps more noticeable problem, is that they take a long time. And the only reason for this is the garrulousness of the people in it. A receiving line is no place for a conversation! You are not rude if you say only "How do you do," "Congratulations!" or "It’s so nice to see you again" and then pass to the next person. Really, it’s rude if you say more and hold up everyone behind you. The time for conversation is during the party. Thoughtful brides and grooms (or other guests of honor) circulate among the guests during the reception in order to talk more.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.

 

No Gifts Please, Vol. 6, Issue 4

Etiquetteer is going to kill two birds with one stone and respond to two letters simultaneously:

Dear Etiquetteer:

Two of my older friends are getting married much to the delight of all who know them. This perfectly-matched pair is planning a shortened style of formal wedding with about 50 people at the church followed by a large reception at the home of the groom. There will be no out-sized wedding party. The groom's two adult sons will assist with the seating to encourage guests to fill up the front pews with neither escorting anybody unless it's a handicapped person. Other than the standard candles on the altar lit by acolytes, the only decor will be two floral arrangements. A single harpist will play as the minister take his place, then the bride and groom with enter together from the side door. At the conclusion of the vows, the church bells will ring out as everybody exits. For the reception, there is a classical quartet, lots of champagne as well as two bars with separate tables for a buffet and for dessert, a traditional but not elaborate cake. Somewhere the groom's favorite jazz trio will replace the other musicians.

Doesn't all this sound lovely? I can think of no other wedding like this one. The one trouble spot for them is the invitation. And that is . . . obviously, they need nothing. They do not want presents sent and are at a loss to stay away from one of those lines "no gifts, please" on their engraved formal invitation. What is your suggestion? And what would be your preference for the wording on the card both to "request the pleasure" and the "no gift" part?

Also, our city has gotten as bad as any other in people not being careful about RSVPs. In situations like this (cost per person) would the little return envelope be too much? If you'd be so kind as to help out with the printing, this would be the best wedding in which I've ever been asked to participate!

Dear Etiquetteer:

My family gave my wife and me a lovely dinner party to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. They sent out lovely invitations to a guest list that we supplied. It was our wish that only their presence was our desire and no presents. We wanted the invitation to indicate this but one of the hosts didn’t think it would be polite. A few guests did bring presents, much to our embarrassment. My question is: is it proper for the invitation to indicate the desire for their presence and no presents? I realize you might be telling the guest not to spend his money but what about the feelings of the honorees?

Dear Member of the Wedding and Dear Fabulous Fiftieth:

You all are backing Etiquetteer into a corner, and Etiquetteer doesn’t like it one bit. Etiquetteer has long maintained that it’s bad manners to tell people how to spend money on one, and how not to spend money on one. Both of your situations are now very typical, especially that of the Married Couple Who Has Everything Already.

When Etiquetteer has to change a position, Etiquetteer needs an historical precedent to do so. And in this case Etiquetteer found one from a most unlikely source: William Jennings Bryan. Thrice-failed presidential candidate, renowned Populist orator, and evangelist, Bryan is now most remembered as the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes monkey trial. He is not remembered for having thrown a large party with his wife Mary to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary at their Nebraska home with "No gifts please" on the invitation, but that is exactly what they did as reported in Michael Kazin’s excellent biography, A Godly Hero. Like many, Etiquetteer believed "No gifts, please" was a recent phenomenon, but the Bryans prove it is not so.

On the other side of the coin is First Lady Nellie Taft, who celebrated her silver wedding anniversary during her husband’s presidency at the White House with a party to which 8,000 of their closest friends had been invited. Etiquetteer’s beloved Ellen Maury Slayden was there and "heard a good many rather sotto voce inquiries, 'How much did you put up?' 'Are you getting your money’s worth?' etc., that made me sorry that presents had been permitted." The Tafts were showered with an abundance of sterling silver, from olive forks to punch bowls. Ordinary American citizens sent in gifts of silver coins, which the President insisted be returned with thanks; he felt that gifts of money were "unbecoming." The tide became so much that the President was embarrassed with the largesse of the world.

But what gets Etiquetteer is the way Mrs. Taft used all this silver in later life, giving it as wedding gifts in her turn or donating pieces to charitable causes. It’s true that when one is given a gift one may do anything one likes with it – and regifting is now an uneasily accepted standard – but Etiquetteer takes exception to Mrs. Taft’s blasé attitude about it all.

So with these two examples in mind, a disgruntled Etiquetteer will have to reverse himself and allow "No gifts, please" on formal invitations. Place this instruction in the lower left corner as other instructions are (e.g. dress, R.s.v.p.). For formal weddings, one requests "the honour of your presence" for the wedding ceremony and "the pleasure of your company" for the reception.And alas, reply cards have also become standard even though they are not Perfectly Proper. Go ahead and use them, but Etiquetteer suspects the Happy Couple will still be calling their guests at the last minute to get them to respond whether they include them or not. Many people are unforgivably rude no matter how easy you make it for them.

As for being embarrassed about getting a gift at a party in your honor, Etiquetteer respectfully suggests that you only have to be grateful and send a Lovely Note. You have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.

 

Christmas Fallout, Vol. 4, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: Is it OK to use a gift card someone gave you for Christmas to get him or her a gift? Dear Clueless Christmas Shopper: Well duh, were you going to march right up to them with the gift and tell them that’s how you bought it?! Just as guests at a restaurant party have no business knowing how their host pays for the dinner, so too should recipients of any sort of present have no interest in how their gift was paid for. Honestly . . .

Dear Etiquetteer: I want some clarification of your holiday tipping advice. My hair stylist’s salon closed down a year ago, due to the rising cost of real estate in the city. He retreated to his apartment, which he vacated as a residence and is now fitted with a hairdresser’s chair. The prices stayed the same and I continued to tip him, which I realized later was probably not the best thing to have done; I’ve always heard you don’t tip the owner of a shop, and now he’s the owner. He is the only person who cuts, but he does employ an assistant. I’m loath to stop tipping him now, because he expects it and I do like his work. But I balk at the suggestion that I have to pony up with a 100% tip at the holidays, when I’ve been gratuitously gratuitying him all year round. The base cut is $50.00; would I be considered a grinch if I give him half or a little more than that? Do I have to tip him at all if he is the owner? Dear Coiffed: Oh good gracious, this blasted tipping thing just will not go away! Can you all see why Etiquetteer abhors tipping so much?! Oh dear, please forgive Etiquetteer’s fit of pique. Not the most Perfectly Proper way to begin the New Year, is it? Under these new circumstances – now that your hairdresser has become the owner and you’ve been tipping him at each appointment – Etiquetteer thinks you can forego a holiday tip. But the next time you find yourself looking for a new coiffeur, permit Etiquetteer to suggest that you do your research in advance so that you don’t start tipping an owner from the beginning.

Dear Etiquetteer: This Christmas I feel like I committed the ultimate faux pas. While we were exchanging gifts this year I realized that I’d given a gift that still had the price tag on it! Rather than let [Insert Name of Recipient Here] see the tag, I snatched the gift away to remove it, but of course I felt very awkward. I felt really embarrassed! Dear Tagged: Your letter brought Etiquetteer back to a wedding party many years ago when Etiquetteer was honored to serve as an usher for two dear friends. Etiquetteer had found a lovely and appropriate gift at [Insert Name of High-End Purveyor of De Luxe Wedding Gifts Here], where the well-dressed saleslady arranged for it to be beautifully wrapped. Imagine Etiquetteer’s terror when, seeing the bride lift the lid off the box, the receipt was the first item to come into view! Two phrases rang simultaneously in Etiquetteer’s head: Ellen Maury Slayden’s "This is a test of breeding; keep calm" and the more general advice from the real estate world "If you can’t hide it, paint it red." Hoping for a panther’s grace and daring, Etiquetteer swiftly approached the table and grabbed the errant receipt, chuckling, "Oh dear, they weren’t supposed to wrap this!" Etiquetteer can only thank God (the Deity of Etiquetteer’s Choice) that Etiquetteer was present when the gift was unwrapped. So you see that keeping your cool is half the battle. Etiquetteer applauds your presence of mind in this situation – often discovery is so startling one becomes a deer in the headlights – but hopes that you were able to inject some humor to gloss over the awkwardness.This is where the recipient of the gift has the chance to help you out by making conversation on unrelated topics while you scrape away at those annoying adhesive tags that shred on contact. Etiquetteer once had to do this for 20 minutes while a dear friend took pricetags off every piece of a china service for six. This was, of course, mitigated by the delightful circumstance of having friends who give one china services for six . . . Of course Etiquetteer knows that you’re going to use this experience to wrap your gifts more carefully next year and include "price tag removal" as a specific step in your gift-wrapping assembly line.

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer at query@etiquetteer.com!