Tomorrow, February 22, is the birthday of the Father of Our Country. To celebrate, Etiquetteer refreshes some of the maxims he put forward in George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Etiquetteer made many of these points way back in Volume 11.
It's been a long time since Etiquetteer did a column on Random Issues, and some readers have, with Delicious Irreverence, provided some interesting queries: Dear Etiquetteer:
Could you please address adopting local customs when traveling. When in New Orleans, how proper is it to return your breakfast diner waitress's greeting of "Hey, baby" in kind?
After the second coffee refill seems safest.
How do you handle office mates asking for donations?
With kid gloves that come nowhere near Etiquetteer's wallet, if you're really asking how to decline colleagues asking for donations. It's always possible to say, with a tone of Infinite Regret, "And it's such a good cause, too, but I have other charitable priorities right now." They don't need to know what that other priority is - indeed, it could be You Yourself - so don't volunteer the information.
Dear Etiquetteer: When the real estate agent arrives to show your house two hours late, and you've already scheduled the rest of your afternoon, what is best to do: order him off the stoop, or bow to his and his client's inability to pace their time properly?
Dear Intruded Upon:
Etiquetteer knows some lovely realtors, and has heard stories about the rest. Long story short, your time is just as valuable as theirs, and if they aren't able to adjust to your schedule, then they need to go back to the drawing board. Gently but firmly explain that visiting hours were determined in advance for a reason, and that no accommodation can be made at the last minute.
How about rainy day etiquette? Where to stash the umbrella, boots, and what-not.
Dear Rained Upon:
Umbrellas and boots go in the places provided for them, which one hopes are close to the entrance where one removes them. It's not always possible to unfurl an umbrella indoors to dry it, so it's especially thoughtful of homeowners to provide one of those marvelous umbrella stands that can hold about a quart of water if necessary.
Victorians always kept their whatnots in the corner, which is really the best place for them.
When one runs over a tourist during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, is it permissible to leave the dried tourist on the car until you can get to a car wash, or should it be washed away at once to prevent damage to the paint of one's car? I realize that this is more of a practical question, rather than an etiquette question, but I have always wondered . . .
Dear Laissez Les Autos Roulez:
It's queries like this that make Etiquetteer glad that New Orleans doesn't have an open carry law. But seriously . . .
Unless you want to be mistaken for a float in the parade representing Cemetery No. One, Etiquetteer advises immediate, respectful removal.
And they say "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." The press has been full of stories about the state visits of the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, to Italy and France and the cultural differences that need to be cultivated. In Rome, nude statues at the Capitoline Museum were concealed from view by white boxes to prevent the possibility of offense. In France, President Rouhani declined an invitation to a luncheon at the Elysée Palace because wine would be served; alcohol is forbidden in Islam.
The Italian government is certainly taking a drubbing from its own citizens over concealing these Robust Manifestations of Italian Culture. Etiquetteer is more forgiving, knowing that on such diplomatic occasions as state visits, avoiding embarrassment is essential to successfully managing a relationship between Two Distinct Nations. The purpose of a state visit is for one nation to show hospitality to another. This is difficult to do when a custom or tradition of the host nation gives offense, for whatever reason, to the guest nation. While selecting a press conference location with no nude statues to begin with would have been Less Troublesome, Etiquetteer can't fault the Italians for acting with an Excess of Caution. Certainly they had only the best intentions.
But Etiquetteer wishes that President Rouhani had shown more understanding in the case of the French luncheon. While a request for a halal menu was entirely Perfectly Proper, Etiquetteer would have wished for the Iranians to have accommodated consumption of the French National Beverage by those whose belief systems allowed, even though theirs did not. As a precedent, one must consider the state dinner given by President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy on July 11, 1961, for the President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan, and his daughter. While wines were offered with dinner for those who wished them, the menu was prepared without alcohol of any kind.
The fine line between not offering offense to honored guests and maintaining one's own customs and traditions is trod not only between nations, but also between families celebrating a marriage, companies conducting mergers, and home owner associations homogenizing aesthetics. Have you had such experiences? Do you anticipate them now? Etiquetteer would like to hear your queries at queries <at> etiquetteer.com.
Dear Etiquetteer: I just read your piece on the etiquette of shaking hands. It's an issue for not only shaking hands, but hugging. I am a "hugger" and receive great satisfaction from a hug from friends and relatives, but I wonder about your thoughts on the subject. Some people are put off by it and others feel quite natural with it. What do you think?
Etiquetteer has to agree with you: some people are put off by hugging, and others, ahem, embrace it. Successful Huggers have the knack of knowing their Intended Targets - uh, Recipients - well enough to know if a hug will be received in the spirit intended. If you're approaching from six feet or more away with arms outstretched and your Intended Recipient doesn't look quite as eager, you may need to curb your enthusiasm. Making eye contact before a hug will also help you gauge how to continue. A hug in greeting is more a brief clinch. It isn't a "With my body I thee worship" Expression of Affection, with Full Body Contact from neck to knees, which could go on long enough to Excite Comment . . . and possibly much else that is Not Perfectly Proper in a Social Setting.
Huggers also need to be aware of their own hygiene so that hugging doesn't linger unpleasantly. Etiquetteer wrote once about the aftereffects of a sweaty hug. Social Kissing can be just as fraught with peril, too; Etiquetteer's also provided guidance on that topic.
Etiquetteer wishes you Happy Hugging with Equally Enthusiastic Family, Friends, and Acquaintances!
Next week Etiquetteer will celebrate 15 years of writing about Perfect Propriety. What issues would you, Dear Readers, like to see Etiquetteer cover in the next 15 years? What do you consider the most challenging issues of Perfect Propriety? Etiquetteer is waiting to hear from you at queries <at> etiquetteer.com.
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."
In Baby Face, one of the greatest films of her career, Barbara Stanwyck plays a beautiful blonde from the wrong side of the tracks who uses her Frankly Feminine Charms to Get to the Top of the Ladder, engorging male passions and breaking male hearts with every rung. About halfway up, she is shown reading a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette and quoting a bit to the mail boy about how butlers are supposed to hold out the chairs of ladies at a formal dinner.
Once upon a time, to Get to the Top meant behaving the way the Upper Half did, which is why etiquette books of the period focused so heavily on exactly how the Upper Half did what they did: communicate, entertain, travel, attend church, wear clothes, court, engage, marry, bear and raise children, and, yes, divorce. Emulating Perfect Propriety was seen as the path to Upward Mobility. Etiquette books - especially those by Mrs. Post and Lilian Eichler, but also Amy Vanderbilt and Millicent Fenwick - showed the way, Gospel and road map to success.
In the intervening 80 or so years since Baby Face, what has changed? Well, Etiquetteer certainly thinks that far fewer people care about Perfect Propriety any longer, or at least about how the Upper Half Lives. (Indeed, even the Upper Half don't care to live they way they traditionally did; one has only to look at Paris Hilton to know.) Though it pains Etiquetteer to admit this, sometimes the weight of etiquette grows so great that a generation will cast it off. Louis XIV set up such rigid codes of dress and behavior at Versailles that a revolution was necessary, so everyone could start over. The custom of calling cards and weekly "at home days" grew so elaborate that, starting after World War I, people slowly stopped bothering with it. So to did the custom of delivering a calling card in person the day after a party. As early as 1948 Millicent Fenwick noted in The Vogue Book of Etiquette that the custom of the formal dinner, or "dinner of ceremony," was fading out, too.
So has, in Etiquetteer's opinion, the upper class. In its place we have the celebrity class, and with very few exceptions, celebrities are not good exemplars of Perfect Propriety. Benedict Cumberbatch is without question the Celebrity Gentleman of the 21st century. Would that others would follow suit.
Photo of Etiquetteer by JWLenswerk.
But if Society at Large isn't taking its etiquette cues from the Upper Half, what kind of guidance is being sought? Etiquetteer thinks it's less about Form and Style, and more about Respect, Sincerity, and, alas, how to deal respectfully with Those Who Have No Manners. Instead of worrying about how many forks belong on the table for a multi-course dinner, we want to know how many smartphones can be kept off it without turning off the guests. One may be sure that Mrs. Post never had to write about how to get someone to turn down their iTunes on the subway!
Etiquetteer supposes this is all more helpful and refreshing, but it's decidedly less beautiful. It's so difficult to dress for dinner when one must cook it and clean up after it, too. On the other hand, extending a warm welcome to guests remains just as important as it did years before, whether you're in the drawing room in "full canonicals" or the kitchen in a novelty apron. And expressing thanks is just as important as it was before, though you'll still hear Etiquetteer sounding the call for Lovely Note over a Lovely Email or Text.*
*It should be noted that That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much hasn't even sent out his Christmas Lovely Notes of Thanks yet . . .