Starting the New Year/French/Save the Date, Vol. 15, Issue 1

Happy New Year, readers! Allow Etiquetteer to wish you a most Perfectly Proper New Year for 2016. Alas, Etiquetteer began 2016 inauspiciously with a faux pas - at least That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much did. Sunday began with the horrifying discovery that a party invitation was not, in fact, for Sunday, but for the day before. On the other hand, it could have been the week before. Etiquetteer remembers many many years ago getting a phone call from a party guest excited about the next evening's party; Etiquetteer felt badly having to explain that the party had already taken place the previous weekend. Etiquetteer is going to have to put That Mr. Dimmick through another course of Grovelling Abjectly. In the meantime, many of us could benefit from a New Year's resolution to check and double check our calendars.

lorgnette

And speaking of faux pas, it is interesting to note how fashions in manners and language come and go. Once upon a time the crème de la crème moving around in the beau monde would sprinkle their speech and correspondence with bits of French, but these days it really isn't considered le dernier cri of the bon ton. Malhereusement, it's more likely to make an unfavorable impression, as though one was too cultured, as though one was not comme il faut. (Can one be too cultured? One has only to look at Ashley Wilkes to learn the answer to that question.)

Although it might be malentendu or passé to resume the practice now, some phrases in French get bandied around enough that those who wish to appear au fait should be aware. Etiquetteer stumbled on many of these in The Book of Good Manners, by Frederick H. Martens (1923, published by Social Culture Publications):

  • À la mode: in the fashion. Pie served à la mode means served with ice cream. To be dressed à la mode means to be dressed fashionably, not to be covered with ice cream (unless that becomes the fashion).
  • Au contraire: on the contrary.
  • Au fait: expert.
  • Au naturel: in the natural state. Now used specifically to mean going without clothes. Please do not make the blunder of using au natural.
  • Avec plaisir: with pleasure.
  • À votre santé!: to your health, a popular toast.
  • Beau monde: the world of fashion and its inhabitants.
  • Bon ton: the fashion, or fashionable.
  • Comme il faut: as it should be. Etiquetteer would say Perfectly Proper.
  • Crème de la crème: the very best people.
  • De rigeur: something not to be done without. Not to be confused with bon ton.
  • Dernier cri: the last word.
  • Divertissement: amusement or sport, something to divert one's attention. Not to be confused with a liaison.
  • Double entendre: A naughty interpretation of an otherwise innocent word or phrase. Some 19th century etiquette books suggested that ladies did not even recognize double entendres.
  • En déshabille or en petite tenue: in undress. Today this would be a grand way to say "bathrobe" or "pajamas." Not to be confused with au naturel, though Etiquetteer imagines that one might follow the other at a liaison.
  • En route: on the way.
  • Esprit de corps: team spirit.
  • Faux pas: A mistake or error.
  • Fille de joie: a courtesan or a "lady of easy virtue," or, really, not a lady.
  • Flaneur: lounger.
  • Gauche: awkward. Usually applied to someone's manners in public if they appear uncertain what to do.
  • Grande dame: great society lady.
  • Homme du monde: a man of fashion.
  • Hors de combat: not in a condition to fight. Not to be confused with fille de joie.
  • Je ne sais quoi: something indefinite that makes a difference.
  • Laissez-faire: let things take their course.
  • Les enfants terribles: misbehaving children, or those who always manage to do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
  • Liaison: an alliance or an illicit connection, possibly with a fille de joie or an homme du monde, but most unlikely with a grande dame.
  • L'inconnu: the unknown, possibly fatal after a liaison. Check with your doctor.
  • Mal de mer: seasickness. Wags will sometimes refer to mal de belle-mère for mother-in-law trouble.
  • Malentendu: a mistake.
  • Malheureusement: unhappily.
  • Passé: out of style.

gloves

Etiquetteer encourages you to save March 31, 2016, for the annual benefit of The Gibson House Museum, at which William Clendaniel will be honored for his work with Mount Auburn Cemetery, Massachusetts Historical Society, Friends of the Boston Public Garden, and the Trustees of Reservations. Etiquetteer is delighted to be serving as master of ceremonies for this occasion. More details to come, but some information may be found on the Gibson House event page.

smalletiquetteer

2015: A Year in Review, Vol. 14, Issue 47

Like any other year, 2015 held its share of Issues of Perfect Propriety - or the lack of it - in the news. Yes, people are still behaving badly everywhere, sometime astonishly so. ENTERTAINING AT HOME

January saw one British family invoice another when their child failed to attend a birthday party. Etiquetteer wrote about this issue here, but the most Perfectly Proper way to deal with no-shows is to stop sending them invitations. Certainly one doesn't make a scene involving one's children, or the children of others. A wedding guest in Minnesota also got a bill from a Bridal Couple when they failed to attend the wedding. As frustrating and expensive as no-shows are, it's not Perfectly Proper to bill them.

THE WEATHER

New England was hammered with record-shattering blizzards in winter, which led one sexagenarian female to attack another with a snow blower. As the police chief involved said, “Emotions may run high during a historic weather event like the Blizzard we just endured, but that is no excuse for violence.” Etiquetteer couldn't agree more. Indeed, it inspired Etiquetteer to write on blizzard etiquette. And conditions deteriorated so much that later on Etiquetteer had to write even more.

RESTAURANTS AND FOOD

This year also saw the rise of a terrible practice, that of making multiple dinner reservations at different restaurants for the same time. While this increases one individual's options, it's discourteous to other diners, and disastrous to restaurants, who count on filling every seat to pay their bills. Stop it at once! Another restaurant issue to hit the news was the number of people claiming "allergies" for preferential treatment. And speaking of people who are precious about their food, even the Thanksgiving table is a battleground now. Etiquetteer rather wishes people would just be grateful there's something to eat . . .

TOURISTS

The behavior of tourists made the news this year. American tourists were caught carving their names into the Colosseum in Rome. The twenty-something California women managed one initial each before getting caught. Remember, take only photos, leave only footprints. But don't take photos of someone's bedrooms. Harvard University had to issue new rules for tourists to protect the privacy of their students. And you might want to think about taking photos at the 9/11 Memorial in New York. One writer called out tourist behavior there, especially around selfie sticks.

CLOTHING AND FASHION

Anno Domini 2015 saw the rise of "athleisure wear" - shudder - which has led children to reject denim for public wear in favor of sweatpants.  There was also the Suitsy, the business suit onesie. This article explains, rather fascinatingly, why we're dressing so casually now.

Also, musicians are taking a stand about their standard uniforms of white-tie or black-tie formal attire. In another direction, see-through wedding dresses are being promoted by designers. Of course Etiquetteer thinks they're Perfectly Proper - if you're getting married at the Folies Bergere. Another fashion trend that needs to end is the sloppy manbun, now also available as a hairpiece. Sadly.

First Lady Michelle Obama made the news when she didn't cover her hair on a brief visit to Riyadh to meet King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Her allegedly bold and courageous stance in not wearing a headscarf was, in fact, Perfectly Proper diplomatic protocol, as was shown by photographs of previous First Ladies and Female World Leaders like Angela Merkel, also without headscarves while meeting Saudi dignitaries. The Duchess of Cambridge made a fashion choice that brought coverage for a different reason: wearing a bright red gown for a state dinner in honor of China. Since red is the national color of China, that was not just Perfectly Proper, but also Deftly Diplomatic.

Higher Education is supposed to teach students about making Appropriate Life Choices, such as wearing shoes that will not make you fall over. Etiquetteer felt alternately sorry and embarrassed for this young woman who floundered through her graduation because of her shoes. Conversely, ladies in flats were turned away from screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. Please, ladies and film festivals, safety first!

EXHIBITIONISM

Under the guise of asking a question of Senator Rick Santorum, Virginia Eleasor let out an incoherent rant against President Obama, accusing him of nuking Charleston. This led Etiquetteer to ask questioners at public events whether they really want to ask questions or make their own speeches.

AIR TRAVEL

Regarding air travel, The Boston Globe reported on the rising phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who, when flying, refuse to sit next to women not their wives on religious grounds. Later in the year The New York Times wrote about the increasingly fraught sport of seat-swapping on airplanes. One man no doubt wanted to switch seats after his seatmate repeatedly stabbed him with a pen because he was snoring. Violence against fellow passengers is never Perfectly Proper. Etiquetteer would have put that seatmate on a no-fly list.

THE THEATRE

Stories about bad behavior in theatres continued to make the news in 2015, including Madonna Herself, who was not invited backstage after a performance of Hamilton because the cast saw her texting throughout Act II. But even Madonna was upstaged by the young man who went onstage before a performance to recharge his cellphone on the set! And even that Astonishing Event was eclipsed by the woman who went backstage to ask the actors where the restroom was during a performance.

Benedict Cumberbatch, a True Gentleman, appealed to his fans in a Most Perfectly Proper Way not to use devices during performances.

CHILDREN

This year Etiquetteer tried out a March Madness-style survey of Pet Peeves. The winner, from the Table Manners/Dining Out category: Ill-Mannered Children of Complacent Parents. And in fact, there were some related news stories. A little girl's meltdown at a White House function led Etiquetteer to wish more parents used babysitters, for instance. But the champion news story on this topic - and perhaps for the entire year - has to go to the incident at Marcy's Diner, when the owner yelled at a crying toddler who wouldn't shut up.

GENERALLY IMPROPER BEHAVIOR

Anno Domini 2015 began with a story about a woman in Florida shaving her - ahem - "bikini area" while operating a motor vehicle. While Etiquetteer understand the desire to be completely groomed before arriving at one's destination, Etiquetteer longs for the day when it was understood that ladies and gentlemen were completely groomed before they left the house.

Both Vice President Joe Biden and actor John Travolta came in for criticism for getting too "up close and personal" for greetings with Ladies Not Their Wives.

A Florida fraternity got itself into a colossal amount of trouble at its spring formal when drunk fraternity boys spit on wounded veterans, stole their American flags, and urinated on them. It should be needless to say that these aren't the values any fraternity is supposed to inculcate into its members.

Thirty people got in a fight over whether or not someone cut in line to use a waffle maker. Sometimes it's best not to escalate the situation. Sometimes it's best to stay in a hotel with a proper restaurant with a proper cook to make the waffles.

Perfect Propriety and pets moved uneasily in a Brooklyn building where dog waste in stairwell and elevators was becoming an issue.

And finally, a South Carolina politician used his holiday greetings to express his unhappiness over a vote on displaying the Confederate flag by enclosing this message: “May you take this joyous time as an opportunity to ask forgiveness of all your sins, such as betrayal.” Rather like getting a lump of coal in the mail.

And with that, allow Etiquetteer to wish you a Happy and Perfectly Proper New Year in 2016!

smalletiquetteer

Fruitcake, Vol. 14, Issue 44

Dear Etiquetteer: I have bought two fruitcakes for a residential building party and am horrified to discover that both may contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The third fruitcake source charges $57 for express delivery on top of $100 for two cakes, so that is not an option. My question is do I bring these cakes to the party? If I do, should I tell people that they may contain trans fat?  Should I bring an alternative dessert which is trans fat free.  I am sure that others will be bringing desserts as well.

Dear Fruitcaked:

The type of party you describe sounds an awful lot like a neighborhood potluck. The whole point of a potluck is that the assembly "takes pot luck:" whatever is brought is there to be enjoyed, whether plain or fancy, kosher, vegan, halal, paleo, macrobiotic, artificially sweetened, lactose intolerant, pre-processed, or partially hydrogenated. So Etiquetteer thinks it Perfectly Proper to bring those Possibly Trans Fat Enhanced Fruitcakes.

A year ago one of Etiquetteer's suggested New Year's Resolutions was "Resolve not to be so insistent about your diet when you’re away from home." A holiday party is the perfect time not to be insistent. Etiquetteer also covered the topic of Diet vs. Hospitality, which could apply here.

Etiquetteer wishes you and your fellow partygoers a Perfectly Proper Time.

Teacup

Entertaining at Home: Brunch, Vol. 14, Issue 37

There are times when one despairs that anything civilized will happen again, and then there are moments of such perfect Perfect Propriety that one feels refreshed to Keep Going. Having attended a Sunday brunch in the home of friends, Etiquetteer now feels it's possible to Keep Going. The late Boris Lermontov once observed that "A great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit." The occasion passed off so effortlessly that Etiquetteer believes the hosts substituted forethought for agony, which made everything "go." On arrival, all the guests were greeted cordially in friendship and immediately offered something to drink, in approved Dorothy Draper style. On the coffee table over mimosas one could enjoy either madeleines (and obligatory references to Proust) powdered with sugar, or savory puffs filled with cheese. Or both. Etiquetteer definitely enjoyed both.

Brunch should not really be a very formal meal, and the company was quite friendly over service à la française* of a lavish menu. First we were served a course of pâté de campagne with cornichons and small savory cheese crackers. This was followed by a course of oysters on the half shell, which was in turn followed by cuplets of bacon containing poached eggs, served with a green salad and breakfast potatoes. To conclude, we were offered a French toast, fluffy and piping hot, incorporating blueberries and pecans.

A menu, of course, is not as important an element of a party as the company assembled. And here, too, the discernment of the hosts was evident. Everyone at the table had similar interests but varying areas of expertise, so that all had something unique to contribute to the conversation that the others didn't know. As a result, the conversation never flagged, always the sign of a good party.

With forethought, each of us can arrange a meal for guests at home very like this. Knowing the interests of friends, relatives, and colleagues, one can create knowledgeable groups for mutually stimulating conversation. Becoming familiar with recipes and kitchen equipment, one can judge what menu items work well together, and how to time their preparation so that one doesn't miss out on too much good talk. And, because sometimes things do go wrong, having a backup plan that begins with laughter (so reassuring to company) will help one feel that there's a solution for everything.

As the holiday season approaches, Etiquetteer very much hopes that you will consider opening your home and your heart to those you care for most, during the holidays and afterward.

plate

*Most Americans know service à la française as "family style," when diners help themselves from dishes on the table. Etiquetteer recognizes that there are those who find it Unpardonably Pretentious to sprinkle little bits of French about in their conversation, but Etiquetteer prefers to think of it as merely an homage to the Edwardians and the late Mame Dennis Burnside. Besides, it is a much less harmful behavior than explaining exactly why one is excusing oneself to visit the restroom.

Invitations to Fund-Raisers, Vol. 14, Issue 33

Dear Etiquetteer: I understand that replying to invitations is Perfectly Proper. But I receive a number of invitations to fund-raising events, some from organizations I strongly support and some from organizations I rarely or never support. Do I need to RSVP when I'm not going to an event?

Dear Invited:

There's a difference between a strictly social invitation and an invitation to a fund-raiser. One is invited to the first solely for the pleasure of one's company, but to the latter for the potential of one's largesse. Other etiquette writers have suggested that one need not respond to invitations for gallery openings or for Home Retail Opportunities - to buy, for instance, jewelry or kitchen supplies - from a friend who facilitates buying parties in private homes. No matter how sociable the event, its real purpose is for one to spend money. Etiquetteer would suggest that this, too, applies to fund-raising events, though their sociability becomes more and more impacted with the accretion of speeches and live auctions.

But as with everything else, there are exceptions. If you are invited personally by a friend to buy tickets to fill a table at some big affair, a Gentle Decline after the first appeal will save you from second, third, and fourth appeals.

You may wish to use the reply card to send a request to be dropped from their invitation lists (as opposed to their mailing lists altogether), writing "I prefer to support your organization in absentia."

Teacup

How to Respond to Hospitality, Vol. 14, Issue 25

Dear Etiquetteer: Can you tell me whether you think people who have been good guests at a dinner party or cocktail party (separate answers I think) - brought a hostess gift, behaved well, etc. - should also email or call the next day to say thanks? If they don't, were they unhappy with the party?

Dear Hosting:

When a Lovely Note of Thanks has not been received, it's always more charitable to assume Incompetence rather than Malice. Possibly your guests were taken ill, swept up in current events, anxious at the thought of finding something original to say about your party (which is completely unnecessary), or just too lazy to find your zip code. Regardless, their failure to express gratitude for your hospitality is no reflection on the hospitality you provided.

Etiquetteer may be the Lone Holdout in considering the Lovely Note more important than the hostess gift, but the expression of thanks afterward means ten times as much as the "payment for services rendered" sometimes implied by that bottle of wine. Few things reassure a host or hostess as much as the confirmation from guests of a "job well done," that one's efforts have not only been recognized, but appreciated. Too many people, Etiquetteer would suggest, feel daunted by the need to express themselves originally. But writing a Lovely Note certainly doesn't take as much effort as picking out a bottle of wine. (Etiquetteer can just hear the oenophiles shuddering as they read this.)

You are more accommodating than Etiquetteer is in terms of how you'd allow these Lovely Notes to be delivered, suggesting email and telephone as options without even considering a handwritten note - which even today Etiquetteer is loath to refer to as "old-fashioned." Communications unavoidably evolve with technology; this is not necessarily bad, but it's made many people careless. While it was once the only way to communicate at all, now - with the near-universal adoption of the Internet - handwritten correspondence now signifies a special effort to express sincerity and appreciation. This is why Etiquetteer continues to think it's the best way to convey thanks for hospitality received.

Etiquetteer hopes that you will not let the neglect of your guests cause you further anxiety, and that you'll set them a good example with your own Lovely Notes after they entertain you in turn.

Penpoint

Thoughts on Fund-Raising Events, Vol. 14, Issue 18

Earlier this winter the Boston Globe published a piece on "gala fatigue," the weariness faced by members of the business community at having to attend night after night of fund-raising dinners that blur into similarity. Etiquetteer, who has both planned and attended his share of fund-raisers, read it with interest, and considered what might be done to Put the Fun Back in Fund-Raising. Most fund-raising organizations planning events operate on the mistaken notion that people attend them because they want to support and learn more about their cause. Etiquetteer, perhaps cynically, would suggest that people attend them because they want to get a tax deduction for having a good time with their friends and, incidentally, support something worthy. All the speeches - the endless, endless speeches - get in the way of that good time. The growing number of "set-piece" remarks has seen the podium colonize every aspect of a dinner, from dessert (where they belong) through every course of the meal, starting with the salad. This effectively eliminates any opportunity to converse with fellow diners, and more often than not leads guests to leave the table to seek refuge among the silent auction items. Not only does this make table talk difficult for those who remain, it also creates difficulties for the waiters, whose already difficult task of nimbly weaving among tables with heavy trays becomes more complicated when having to dodge oblivious guests standing in the way and chairs that have been left out as obstacles.

Another aspect is the "rubber chicken" problem, the assumptions that chicken is the most universally accepted entrée protein, and that hotel kitchens routinely produce bland, uninspired menus. Both are untrue. Etiquetteer will never forget attending a black-tie dinner for 1,000 people several years ago at which brisket was served as the main course. Brisket. Brisket! Savory in presentation and delightful in its novelty, Etiquetteer thinks more gala committees should look beyond chicken to the unexpected. And while hotel kitchens have a bland reputation for a reason, that's mostly history. Great strides are made at every event to get guests to realize they're facing something delicious.

Of course these days too many people are too fussy about their food. While Etiquetteer certainly appreciates modern medicine - even the late Diana Vreeland acknowledged the benefits of penicillin, as other writers have pointed out - it's allowed too many people to disguise mere preferences as "allergies." Etiquetteer wants to serve them all a heaping helping of Shut Up and Eat.

It's interesting to note how, in the moment, some sort of souvenir of the evening becomes meaningful. It's not always what it is, but how it's presented that makes it stand out. At one black-tie evening, Etiquetteer noticed a run on thematic charms that had been used to tie the napkins as part of the table setting. One lady commandeered those of her dinner companions to make a necklace. One another occasion, guests were each offered a small black velvet bag with a surprise inside on leaving the dining room. Etiquetteer will confess to not being a fan of the "swag bag" at formal events - especially when they turn out to be almost all promotional literature - but admits that that's a case of Personal Preference, not Perfect Propriety.

So, what does Etiquetteer recommend?

  • In addition to a dollar goal, make creating positive memories for your guests a priority.
  • Preserve time in the evening for guests to talk to each other.
  • Halve the spoken program. Halve it. Create other ways to communicate your story. Be ruthless.
  • Reconsider the menu and serve something other than chicken.
  • Inject the unexpected. Whether it's a surprise guest, an unusual trinket, a special performance, or a big announcement for your organization, let Astonishment take a role in your evening.

Have fun, and best wishes for a successful event!

champersinvite

Etiquetteer's Spring Madness of Pet Peeves is still on! Voting for Round III ends this weekend, and the champion pet peeves in each division have yet to be named. Join the fun and vote here!

The Price of Hospitality, Vol. 14, Issue 3

It's one thing to dream idly of exacting vengeance on Those Who Have Wronged One, but it is never Perfectly Proper to follow through, as Julie Lawrence of Cornwall is discovering, Etiquetteer hopes to her sorrow. Ms. Lawrence held a birthday party for her child. And just as at parties for grownups, someone who said he was coming didn't come after all. In this case it was five-year-old Alex Nash, who was already scheduled to spend time with his grandparents that day. Now double bookings happen, and when discovered they involve a certain amount of groveling from the Absentee Guest and tolerant understanding from the Neglected Host (who may choose to use caution when issuing any future invitations), if the social relationship is to continue.

Ms. Lawrence, for whatever reason, chose instead of send an invoice for the cost of entertaining Young Master Nash to his parents. You will not be surprised to learn that Etiquetteer has a Big Problem with this, for a few reasons. First of all, how on earth is this going to affect the ongoing social relationship of Young Master Nash and the Unnamed Birthday Child? How embarrassing for both of them, especially since they will continue to have to see each other at school whether or not their friendship has survived this Social Mishap. For Heaven's sake, won't someone think of the children?!

Second, hospitality is supposed to be freely given, without expectation of reciprocity. Though recipients of hospitality are moved by Perfect Propriety to reciprocate, this should not be expected. For hospitality to be freely given, in this case, means accepting the expense of Absent Guests with Good Humor. Etiquetteer understands how frustrating it is spending money on guests who don't show up, but if one is not willing and able to suffer absentees more gracefully, one should not be entertaining socially. And to describe oneself as "out of pocket" suggests that one is Entertaining Beyond One's Means.

And lastly, for this to be paraded so publicly - well, Etiquetteer can see the entire community questioning Ms. Lawrence's judgement and ability to raise a child by behaving this way.

The Nash family, however, comes in for its share of disapproval, since it appears they didn't try to contact Ms. Lawrence before the party to say that Young Master Nash would be unable to attend.

Under the circumstances, it doesn't look like these families have any interest in Social Reconciliation, but if they do it will involve Lovely Notes of Contrition on both sides.

Long story short, don't make a scene.

Un-invitation, Vol. 14, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: For a long time I've given a big party every year to celebrate something fun, but this year I've decided to do something different for myself that won't be a party. What's my obligation to tell people they won't be hearing from me as usual? It feels weird to tell people, but I also want to be thoughtful for folks to make other plans if they want to. What's the rule?

Dear Unhosting:

Your query brought to mind two things almost at once. The first was the voice of a Dear Friend, who delights repeating the old saw "When you assume, you make an ass of you and me" when Situations of This Sort arise. The other was Washington author and journalist Sally Quinn and her 1997 book The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining. Etiquetteer recalls La Quinn writing about her annual New Year's Eve party, but that also some years she and her husband Ben Bradlee would just go off to the country place instead and not host it. This led to some confusion from guests who, out of force of habit, just showed up at their dark town house and found nothing happening.

It's the responsibility of your guests not to assume there's a party if they haven't received an invitation. There is no social requirement to issue an un-invitation*, a term of Etiquetteer's invention that means "an announcement of an event that will not take place." That said, if you want to "control your own narrative" and ensure that people don't start creating Gossip, it makes sense to email your usual guest list to say that your plans have changed and that what they have come to expect will not, in fact, be on the calendar. Etiquetteer imagines that such an announcement would be helpful for those who travel.

*Etiquetteer was all set to call this an "unvitation," but that term has already been invented and defined by the cast of Seinfeld.

New Year's Eve, Vol. 1, Issue 29

This column was originally published December 30, 2002. The Old Year is about to pass from us, and Etiquetteer, chilling champagne and starching a shirtfront, feels compelled to share a few thoughts and instructions for New Year’s Eve, the most universal and accessible holiday of all.

Poor dear depressed Oscar Levant once said “Scratch the fake tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.” Sadly, Etiquetteer knows many people who feel just that way about New Year’s Eve. A much-maligned occasion, many people dismiss it as a manufactured holiday meaning nothing and falsely glamorous. In a world that reveres Britney Spears, Abercrombie & Fitch, and game shows like “Russian Roulette,” Etiquetteer will take his glamour where he can find it, thank you very much!

Besides, New Year’s Eve is the one holiday that everyone on earth can celebrate together. All races, colors, creeds, and orientations use the same calendar to function in daily life, so why not bring us all together for a global occasion?! Etiquetteer thinks New Year’s Eve has the capacity to create world peace.

New York City has given the world the two most enduring versions of how New Year’s Eve is celebrated. While Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians syncopate in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for elegantly dressed and coiffed high society types swirling through a blaze of streamers, confetti, party hats and tiaras, the excitable masses squeeze themselves into Times Square, shrieking and waving at television cameras until the ball drops. Rowdiness is not unknown in either location -- Etiquetteer knows of one lady, now quite elderly, who lost her shoes one New Year’s Eve in Times Square, so compressed by the crowd was she -- and for many that enhances their enjoyment. Etiquetteer can only go figure.

But Etiquetteer will not hold you to the standard of Gotham, however glamorous it may be, to celebrate this Occasion. Make your own glamour in your own Perfectly Proper way! Whether you are gathered around the dinner table, concert stage, hot tub, pulpit, coffee maker, hookah, or piano, spend this holiday with people you care for deeply. More than all the tenacious gift-giving of Christmas, tonight is a night to remind the people you love how special they’ve been to you in the past year. Which, if you pay attention, is what the lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” are all about. That’s why it’s sung at midnight.

And you had best stay up until midnight to sing it! Etiquetteer doesn’t care if you go to bed at exactly 12:00:30, but the point of New Year’s Eve is participating at the exact second the Old Year passes. Ringing in the New Year at 7:00 PM just because it's midnight somewhere in the world doesn't cut it; if it's not midnight where you are, it just isn't midnight.

And please, dress appropriately. If you're cavorting with the rabble in Times Square, combat gear will protect your person from the weather and God knows what else. Otherwise, believe it or not, black tie is not required - check with your hostess first.

That said, Etiquetteer dearly wants you to break out a tiara for the evening whatever you’re wearing (even if it’s nothing at all in the hot tub). “I do not pretend to understand,” says Uncle Paxton in Clemence Dane’s delightful novel The Flower Girls, “why tiaras should make so much difference to my enjoyment of the evening, but they did. Certain objects are romantic on their own account. A tiara is one of them.” Whether you rush to the vault for the diamonds or the drugstore for the foil-coated cardboard, tonight is the night for this un-American but oh-so-much-fun accessory.

And now, should auld acquaintance be forgot, Etiquetteer fondly and sincerely wishes you a New Year of Peace, Prosperity, and Perfect Propriety.

The Etiquette of Prohibition, Vol. 13, Issue 57

Etiquetteer delivered these remarks at the 2013 Repeal Day Celebration at the Gibson House Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Among other things, the madness of Prohibition created a Culture of Alcohol Concealment, leading people to find ingenious ways to secrete liquor in their homes or on their persons. Images survive of hollow canes, fake books, and even shot vials concealed in high-heeled shoes so that people could travel with their tipple unrevealed. In the 21st century, already awash with alcohol, similar devices are used to get around outrageous liquor prices at sports and concert venues. These include hollow flip flops, a necktie flask, and even a “wine rack,” which is a sports bra with tubing.

Prohibition left a permanent mark on American manners, illustrated uncompromisingly in a little etiquette book called No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats, first published in 1933, the final year of Prohibition. The last chapter, headed "Our Plastered Friends," begins "When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante's education. Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well." Can you imagine?! This is not the way Best Society is supposed to conduct itself. But Miss Moats goes on to detail the ten different types of drunks and how to make the best of their bad situations (often using one's mad money to abandon them and take a taxi home. Miss Moats paints a worst-case scenario from the beginning. "If you're going out very often, you might as well be prepared to think quickly and be ready to exercise your ingenuity at any time. You may be called upon to do anything form catching the bottles that your escort, in his exuberance, may chance to throw, to burrowing in the sawdust for him." (You must remember that often the floors of gin joints and other dives were sprinkled with sawdust.)

And going out was what people did. Prohibition saw entertaining at home decline (though of course it still went on) in favor of the jazzy rise of café society. Willa Cather famously described the phenomenon in 1924, saying "Nobody stays at home any more." And that meant men and women drinking together in public, whereas before Prohibition, saloons were for men only. At home, one was less likely to be entertained at a traditional seated dinner of several courses as at that brand-new gathering, the cocktail party. Ladies and gentlemen just standing around drinking liquor without a meal, or perhaps any food at all, being offered -- revolutionary!

Miss Moats makes it sound easy: "Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn't much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied."

One of the places they went in Boston was the famous Cocoanut Grove on Piedmont Street, which opened in October, 1927. But in spite of some shady connections, the Grove was on the up and up. They didn't serve hard liquor, but would provide setups, trays of siphons and glasses, so you could discreetly add your own booze from your flask under the table. It was often better to bring your own to some places. In The Greeks Had a Word For Them, a gentleman at a speak asks "Well, what do you have that won't kill us, blind us, or burn holes in our clothes?" The brutal Dinah Brand in Dashiell Hammett's equally brutal Red Harvest said that someone's liquor tasted like it was drained off a corpse. Other places would get around the law by serving booze in teacups.

Tolerance for drunken behavior became more accepted, too. Again, we hear from Miss Moats: "There was once a time when a man who got drunk in a lady's drawing room was never invited to that house again. If he showed the same lack of control in another home, he ran the risk of having every door closed to him. Now a hostess who insists that all her guests remain sober would find that she was giving parties to a chosen few, and very dull ones at that. She takes it for granted that the majority of her guests will be wavering before the evening is over." A Paul Cadmus painting of 1939, “Seeing the New Year In,” shows just such an occasion, with drunken, careless intellectuals coming apart at the seams. It’s a mean and tawdry descent.

One of the most astonishing ways that Prohibition changed America was the sudden appearance and acceptance of young women drinking in public. And it was this that led Pauline Morton Sabin, an aristocratic heiress to the Morton Salt fortune, to begin to campaign for Repeal. She said "Girls of a generation ago would not have ventured into a saloon. Girls did not drink; it was not considered 'nice.' But today girls and boys drink, at parties and everywhere, then stop casually at a speakeasy on the way home." And indeed, a Topeka police chief observed "The girls simply won't go out with the boys who haven't got flasks to offer." But a girl still had to hang on to her reputation, as Miss Moats makes clear in No Nice Girl Swears. "A great many people have come to believe in the single moral standard, but few have been converted to a single drinking standard. A drunken woman is still looked upon with disgust and she is certainly more objectionable than a drunken man. Liquor generally hits her in one of three ways: she gets boisterous and wants to play games, or she gets maudlin, or, more often, she grows desperately amorous. Whatever the effect, she is dangerous."

To which Etiquetteer can only conclude, "Hotcha!"

Etiquetteer's Advice to 21st Century Brides, Vol. 13, Issue 53

Dear Etiquetteer: My beloved eldest niece - she who resembles me more than either of her parents - is getting married almost a year from now. So far she has save-the-date cards ordered, but as her mother had an awful upbringing in terms of manners, expectations, etc., I know she will not be able guide the bride-to-be. What are some of the pitfalls of which a bride-to-be should be wary in 2014-2015?

Dear Aunt Bridey:

A Young Woman approaching the altar has many pitfalls to avoid, including many within herself. The saddest and most obvious is the delusion that one's wedding is just as important to everyone else in the entire world as it is to oneself. The next is that everyone in the entire world is going to spend every cent they have gratifying her every whim; this is what Etiquetteer calls the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. Etiquetteer hates to disillusion these women (actually, that's not true; Etiquetteer is fiercely eager to shred their Veils of Deliberate Illusion), but even one's fiancé is not likely as interested in the wedding as the bride. In fact, no one cares about the bride. They care about the bride caring about them. Surprise them all, and make your wedding guests the focus of your wedding!

Etiquetteer has some ideas about Brides Today and Perfect Propriety. Dear Bride:

  1. Be a giver, not a perpetual taker. No one likes satisfying the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. No one owes you the wedding of your dreams.
  2. Ask yourself if this is really about you and your mother and/or mother-in-law fighting to see who can come out on top.
  3. Ask yourself if you want a perfect wedding, or if you really just want to boss people around. Be honest. If the latter, get the ladder and elope.
  4. Think carefully about the experience your wedding guests are going to have and make absolutely sure that your wedding will be a party they'll remember for the right reasons.
  5. Make the conscious decision that you're going to have a good time with all these people, not have an anxious time trying to avoid them so you can be with your fiancé/husband. After all, you'll have him for the rest of your life!
  6. It's a wedding, not a chorus line. Choose the number of friends you want for bridal attendants, not vice versa. An even number of attendants is not necessary - good heavens, attendants themselves are not necessary! (And you'd be surprised how many of your friends will secretly thank you for sparing them the burden.)
  7. Don't be so selfish that you force your attendants to buy hideous dresses they'll never wear again.
  8. Don't skimp on a gift for each of your attendants, and don't let your fiancé skimp either. They're your friends after all, yes?
  9. Consider skipping the vulgarity of a bachelorette trip to Las Vegas and instead hosting a traditional bridesmaids luncheon the week before the wedding.
  10. Expect to have a tantrum, and expect to apologize afterward for it.
  11. Under no circumstances should you plan to do anything on the day of the wedding but be the bride. This means no assembly of rice bags or souvenirs or table centerpieces, no cooking, no nothing.
  12. Do not publicize information about your bridal registry until people ask, and then send it to them privately. NEVER include registry information on a save-the-date card or invitation. People do still want to believe that they've been invited for the Pleasure of their Company, and not for the Generosity of their Purses.
  13. Lay in some good stationery now and send your Lovely Notes of thanks as gifts are received. You may NOT wait until after the honeymoon, and you certainly are NOT given until the first anniversary to send these.
  14. Keep it simple. The budget for ostentatious little touches might be better spent on upgrading the food.
  15. Most important, plan to speak to every wedding guest personally to thank them for attending. They have taken a lot of time, trouble, and treasure to celebrate with you, and they expect to get to speak with you. They deserve your attention. Etiquetteer, of course, remains devoted to the idea of a receiving line - while recognizing that they are routinely abused by wedding guests (not always elderly ladies) who expect to have long detailed conversations with the Happy Couple. Another solution is to circulate among the tables during the wedding banquet.

Now, Aunt Bridey, Etiquetteer feels the need to advise you not to insinuate yourself too aggressively into the plans for your niece's wedding. If you and she are so truly alike and already have a strong relationship, Etiquetteer predicts that she will reach out to you to be engaged in some way in the planning. But it would not be Perfectly Proper to usurp the place of the mother of the bride, regardless of how accurate your assessment of her abilities is. You have a beautiful opportunity to set a good example by hosting a meal in honor of the Happy Couple's engagement for your own set of guests, with all the proper accoutrements. But let Etiquetteer be clear that this should not take place later than three months before the wedding, and it is certainly not a bridal shower. Things get busy enough the closer one gets to the Big Day.

Etiquetteer wishes joy to the Happy Couple, and peace to all involved!

Reacting to Offensive Comments, Vol. 13, Issue 39

Dear Etiquetteer: What do you say when someone makes inappropriate comments without creating a scene?

Dear Etiquetteer:

How does one politely yet emphatically interrupt conversation to deal with other participants who have dropped rude, crass, ignorant, racist or homophobic remarks?

Dear Offended Auditor(s):

We are blessed to live in a land that affords Freedom of Speech. The surprising advantage to this is learning how hateful people can be through what they say, which gives you the freedom to avoid them ever afterward. Etiquetteer wishes dearly that the memory of who said "I think if a man has opinions like that he should keep them to himself" in what movie would come back, but it is nevertheless good advice when one has Controversial Opinions about Other People, Beliefs, Practices, Behaviors, or Places.

Before getting involved, it's very important that you ask yourself honestly what outcome you expect. Do you expect to change this person's point of view? Do you want to warn them that someone who belongs to one of the groups being disparaged is nearby and could be offended? Do you want merely to change the topic? Do you just want to explain why your beliefs are different? Do you want to be sure they know that you think they are a Bad Person Unfit for Polite Society? Because let Etiquetteer tell you, if the answer to that last question is Yes, the most Perfectly Proper thing for you to do is to Remove Yourself from that person at once. Etiquetteer's Dear Mother wisely said "When you lose your temper, you lose your point." If you let anger overmaster you, you defend your point of view poorly.

As a general rule, it is safest not to respond to total strangers. With acquaintances and friends, there is slightly more leeway to offer Gentle Correction. With family . . . well, family dynamics are most challenging. While bound together by blood, differences in generation, region, and education do make themselves felt. Proceed with caution.

Let's establish the situation, which affects in part if and how you should react:

  • Are you in public, and are the offenders total strangers? If so, say nothing. That will surely create a scene.
  • Is this person just a Provocative Contrarian waving a red cape at a bull for his or her own entertainment? Stay away. You will always lose an argument with such people, who live only to humiliate others.
  • Are you a guest at a party overhearing a stranger? Say nothing, or speak to your host or hostess quietly.
  • Are you in a group of friends or acquaintances enjoying conversation? If it's necessary to prevent a scene, take the person aside - "Adolf, there's something I particularly want to ask you about" - and suggest Ever So Gently that they're making a bad impression and that more neutral topics are better for the occasion.
  • Are you in your own home or are you the host of a gathering at which these remarks are made? If so, it may be necessary for you to say a Quiet Word that the topic in question is forbidden in your house.

Irrepressible Elsa Maxwell recorded a Perfectly Proper example of the latter in her book I Married the World when the woman most known to History as Consuelo Vanderbilt had to react to an insult at her dinner table. It seems that the Earl of Carnarvon, her houseguest along with La Maxwell, suddenly popped out with "the French were a lot of frogs, anyway" in a discussion about postwar Europe. Alas for him, he had forgotten that his hostess was no longer Duchess of Marlborough but had been Madame Jacques Balsan for several years! La Maxwell related: "As Madame Balsan is married to a Frenchman and devoted to France the fat was in the fire. Icily, firmly and irrevocably the ultimatum was delivered to [the Earl]: 'Will you kindly leave my table and my house this instant,' Mme. Balsan demanded. Whereupon, his dinner half eaten, he left the room, went upstairs and had his bags packed and left the house.'"* Which just goes to show that it isn't Perfectly Proper to bite the hand that feeds you. Etiquetteer at least gives the Earl credit for recognizing his Stupendous Blunder and actually leaving the house without trying to have a Tedious Discussion about Feelings.

Etiquetteer will conclude by observing that sometimes Icy Silence communicates more effectively than any words.

Dear Etiquetteer:

When a friends posts something on a social network that you find offensive, is it proper to say anything? Is it simply proper to tell them they have offended you and why?

Dear Internetworked:

It is astonishing how people will toss off the most offensive comments online that they'd at least think twice about before uttering in person. To avoid making a scene (see above), Etiquetteer prefers sending a private message via the Social Media Being Used to explain, in as neutral and brief a way as possible, how what was communicated offended you. Depending on the Offensive Comment, you might include the possibility that they weren't aware their comment could be intepreted in an offensive way. You might also encourage them to delete it. But a flame war should be avoided.

Etiquetteer recommends NOT leaving a comment under the offensive post, which would be likely to prompt a public Airing of Dirty Laundry. Your goal is not to embarrass the other person (Etiquetteer hopes) but to express your own offense.

* Elsa Maxwell, quoted in Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, but Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, p. 479.

The Woes of a Travel Agent, Vol. 13, Issue 37

Dear Etiquetteer: I work in the travel industry, and my colleagues and I provide excellent service for our clients. Two recent incidents made me want to write you to ask "Since when did it become OK to tell people that their jobs are meaningless?"

Not long ago one of my colleagues was seated at an industry event when someone at the table said he could not understand why people use a travel agency when they can go online and "get it cheaper." Well, let me tell you, she told him why in no uncertain terms why people go to travel agencies. She was charming about it, but there was no question when she was finished. She was just great.

It happened again last night, but to me. A well-dressed woman approached me at a party and asked what I did. When I told her she asked if I knew a colleague, and when I told her did she replied: "It amazes me any of you people are still in business." I thanked her for concern, told her that, frankly, I had a good year, but lamented having to answer some form of that question so frequently. "Well, it's no wonder. I really am amazed you still exist." She just kept going. Even if were true, it would be even worse. How completely offensive to force a complete stranger to justify their livelihood, in a casual conversation. Perhaps she considers good manners as obsolete as travel agents.

This is something people in my industry have to address in almost every social situation, and I must say, it's exhausting. I've even had cab drivers, in casual conversation will say things like this. Is it really "perfectly proper" to suggest to someone you've only just met that their livelihood is obsolete, and demand they justify their professional existence? It always seems, at the very least, rude, and at worst, somewhat threatening and insulting.

Dear Justified:

At the very least it's Taking a Liberty to offer an Unsolicited Opinion like that. One wonders if blacksmiths and thatchers had to run the same sort of Challenging Party Chat in their days. Unfortunately few people have any internal monologue any longer, much less sensitivity to the feelings of others. Questions of This Sort might be marginally less offensive if they were couched in concern for your own well-being, such as "What are you doing to retain market share in the face of the rapid growth of the online travel industry?" But only marginally.

Etiquetteer suspects what you really want to know is how to get out of conversations like this, and the answer is really a sort of verbal Bunburying. You remember Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, yes? Algernon's fictional friend in the country, Bunbury, who he had to go visit whenever he had to get out of an invitation, is what you require, while also making a point about the stability of your industry. Respond thus: "Happily not everyone feels the same way you do! We're having a very successful year. Now please excuse me, I must go greet one of my friendliest clients." And then walk away without waiting for a response; that will communicate that you've taken offense.

Should you wish to engage such a person in conversation - and anything is possible - draw out the other person's travel practices, and then turn the conversation to specific destinations mentioned by that person.

Etiquetteer knows personally the values both of booking online and working with an agent, and wishes you and your colleagues well as you champion your industry by providing excellent service to satisfied clients.

How Not to Tip, Vol. 13, Issue 36

First of all, Etiquetteer is writing about restaurant tipping only, and not the myriad of other service industries in which tipping is conducted. Let's establish that Etiquetteer has never been a fan of tipping. It is, however, the prevailing system in the restaurant industry, and regardless of how widely it's disliked, it isn't going away anytime soon. This means adapting to the prevailing tipping system of 15-20% of the total bill, depending on who you talk to. (Etiquetteer says 15%; other writers, and almost all restaurant server blogs, say 20%.) This also means tipping on the full amount of the bill if you are using a discount, coupon, or gift card. It is considered a kindness, when paying by credit card, to tip in cash so that the staff don't have to claim it separately when their shifts are over.

Bad service is the most legitimate reason not to tip fully, or not to tip at all. Etiquetteer encourages you not to be petty over brief delays in service - well, really, Etiquetteer encourages you not to be petty. Now if a waiter forgets an entire order for a member of your party (and this has happened to Etiquetteer), if a waiter spills a strawberry margarita on your head, etc., then you have sufficient grounds. Etiquetteer acknowledges that bad service happens, and that there are waiters and waitresses (Etiquetteer dislikes the term "server," but recognizes that that is an individual choice) who consistently perform poorly. Before tipping less than the standard percentage, consider also the circumstances. If the restaurant is full to bursting (think New York Saturday nights before the theatre, or Sunday anywhere after church - see below), delays in service are understandable; allowances must be made.

Quite possibly the worst, and certainly the most offensive, excuse not to leave a tip is proselytizing. Recently Etiquetteer discovered Sundays Are the Worst, a heart-breaking and angering blog about how poorly a segment of those who profess Christianity treat those who serve them. Pastor Chad Roberts and his congregation have created what might be the most innovative way ever to minister to a community in need; read how it came about here. Etiquetteer could spit tacks at some of the behavior exhibited - so much so that readers will have to peruse for themselves rather than read examples here. The Word of God may feed the soul, but it doesn't sustain our bodies as well as those who leave tracts instead of tips might light to think.

It's also worth pointing out that in a nation in which All Are Created Equal, it ill becomes anyone of any religion to behave as though they are "better" than anyone serving them. This doesn't mean that we all have become Best Friends Forever with those serving us, but it does mean acknowledging our Common Humanity.

Entertaining with Allergies, Vol. 13, Issue 33

Dear Etiquetteer: We value our friends almost as much as we value our cat, and don't wish to cause discomfort - or, on the other hand, exclude people. How should we decide the question of whether or not to invite persons with cat allergies to our abode?

Dear Catted:

By letting the Afflicted decide to accept or decline your invitation themselves. Allergies can sometimes be controlled sufficiently by medication, suppressing the allergic reactions enough to allow party attendance. Indeed, Etiquetteer himself has acquired with age an allergic reaction to Certain Felines, and knows to apply antihistamines before arriving.* But this is very much an individual choice, and if your Afflicted Friends feel it necessary to send regrets, you must accept them with compassionate understanding.

The allergies of your Afflicted Friends to your Feline Familiar, however, provide you the opportunity to entertain them in other ways, such as a backyard barbecue or a museum tour or a restaurant dinner. You're still the hosts entertaining your friends, but in locations that eliminate or minimize their discomfort.

*Etiquetteer is not a doctor, and doesn't even play one on TV. Consult your physician about possible solutions to allergic reactions that will work best for you.

How an Introvert May Party, Vol. 13, Issue 24

Dear Etiquetteer: What's you best advice for introverts at parties?

Dear Introvert:

First of all, don't stay away from the party! This is doubly true when your host is a close friend or relative, who may well understand that large gatherings make you uncomfortable at times. If the invitation is for something small, like a dinner party for eight people, the degree of comfort might be greater.

Before the party, there are a couple things you can do to make yourself feel more prepared. Usually it isn't Perfectly Proper to ask who the other guests are going to be; this is because the pleasure of the host's company is supposed to be a sufficient reason to accept the invitation. But under these circumstances, Etiquetteer will allow you to ask, at the time you accept the invitation, if mutual friends will also be there. Knowing that there will be at least one or two people there that you already know can help a lot.

You may also catch up on the news of the day before the party by reading that day's newspaper or one of the news websites. This will give you a knowledge base to contribute to the conversation. If you and the hosts share a common interest, it's likely that others at the party will, too.

If you're really feeling anxious, ask how you can help. Passing hors d'oeuvres, for instance, still requires you to move throughout the room, but doesn't really require a lot of small talk. But even helping to gather dirty glasses or discarded paper napkins gives you something to do and helps out the host. But do ask first; hosts can be fussy about how they like things done.

For large parties, roaming does help relieve the pressure of introversion. Tour the public rooms of the house. Etiquetteer, who occasionally suffers spasms of Party Overwhelm, particularly enjoys being entertained by friends who have a library to which retreat is possible during open houses. This is such a relief when the well of small talk has run dry, or when it just isn't possible to stand up one more moment.

Do NOT bring a good book or spend all night on your smartphone texting (or pretending to text) people who aren't there. That's insulting to the host.

Finally, another introvert might also be there who needs reassurance that they aren't the Only Introvert at the Ball. Here you have a common bond for conversation!

Now go forth and party, and be sure to send a Lovely Note the next day.

Possibly Contradictory Issues About Dieting and Hospitality, Vol. 13, Issue 9

When is one's Diet more important than Offered Hospitality? When is Hospitality more important than Diet? Sometimes the issues are clear, and sometimes they are not. Religious Diets and Fatal Allergies usually trump Hospitality, Personal Preference usually shouldn't, with just about everything else, including Weight Loss and Doctor's Directive, wandering in the middle ground. Etiquetteer didn't get very far in this article about the dangers of artificial sweetener because of the story that began it. A grandmother, who just happens to be a researcher of food sweeteners, told a hostess not to serve her little granddaughter any birthday cake at a birthday party because it was made with an artificial sweetener. Let's leave aside the food safety issues for a moment and consider the etiquette of the situation. You've been invited into someone's home for a party, which automatically means that some trouble has been taken to entertain you, and questioning the trouble your hostess has taken for you enough to suggest that it's unsafe to eat. And on top of that, you're telling a hostess not to serve a little girl a slice of birthday cake at a birthday party when everyone else is going to have cake?! This is where Etiquetteer would like to serve up a heaping helping of Shut Up and Eat! Only that wouldn't be very Perfectly Proper, now would it?

A private home is not a restaurant, and it is not realistic for 21st-century hosts and hostesses (the overwhelming majority of whom haven't hired a cook) to cater as specifically as some guests require. You can eat what you want at home. Adhere as closely as you can to your diet when you're dining out, but please keep from overemphasizing it. Very many hosts make a point of accommodating vegetarians, which is a generous and gracious thing for them to do, by soliciting that information from their guests in advance.

Some related stories: the late Letitia Baldrige, in her diamonds-and-bruises memoir A Lady, First, told the story of one Kennedy White House state dinner when President Kennedy noticed a couple sitting near him weren't eating anything? "Is the dinner all right?" he asked, to be greeted cheerfully by the reply "We're Mormons, so we can't take alcohol." It turned out that every dish on the menu had alcohol in it! But this Mormon couple were clearly going to make the best of it with rolls and mints, and wouldn't have said anything if the President hadn't asked.

The late Gloria Swanson, famous in her later years as a vegetarian, would bring her own sandwich to dinner parties when invited out (whether to a home or a restaurant). Of course this works best on occasions when there's a staff to slip it to on arrival with the instructions "When you bring the entree, just slip this on a plate for me. I'm on a diet." The point is that Gloria knew enough not to inconvenience her hosts with her dietary needs and came prepared. She also didn't make a big fuss about it.

And then there's the late Ethel Merman, who brought a ham sandwich to Jule Styne's Passover Seder, as recounted in Arthur Laurents's wonderful memoir Original Story By Arthur Laurents. Jule Styne threw it on the floor and said "Ethel, you're offending the waiters!" Which just goes to show that there are limits. Indeed, Etiquetteer has written before about how it's not a good idea, even with a spirit of compassion and multiculturalism, to invite Orthodox Jews to Easter dinner and serve them a ham.

So . . . back to the children's birthday party with the Artificially Sweetened Cake. In this case, Etiquetteer thinks Hospitality trumps Diet. At a children's party Etiquetteer is most concerned about the children, and children, especially young ones, are eager to fit in. What needs to be saved in this situation? Three things: the little girl's experience as a guest, the dignity of the hostess, and the responsibilities of the little girl's grandmother, who, although Etiquetteer can't really approve of what was reported, is doing her job as a Protective Grandparent. Rather than say anything to the hostess, Etiquetteer could almost wish that the grandmother had simply told her granddaughter that she couldn't have any cake, even if it was served to her, and to make do with other refreshments. That way the little girl is still included as an equal with the other children, the hostess's feelings have been spared, and the grandmother's role as guardian is maintained. And if the grandmother is committed to eradicating Artificially Sweetened Cakes, she can always reciprocate with an invitation to her own home and serve a cake made with the Sweetener of Her Choice and nonchalantly raise the issue of what her research is uncovering about artificial sweeteners.

Etiquetteer feels sure you've encountered such an issue before, and would love to hear about it at queries <at> etiquetteer dot com.

More on Hostess Gifts, Vol. 13, Issue 3

Readers over at Etiquetteer's Facebook page have more questions about hostess gifts: Dear Etiquetteer:

Is the gift to the hostess given to the hostess for her use only, or is it usually to be shared with the entire party? I've heard that gifts of food and/or wine are quietly given to the hostess with the idea being that the food or wine may not suit the evening's menu but enjoyed later after the guests have left. What do you think?

Dear Gifting:

Etiquetteer thinks discerning guests give hostess gifts as actual gifts, to be used at the discretion of the host or hostess. Reasons abound for this:

  • The guest may actually have chosen the gift for the private enjoyment of the host or hostess.
  • The gift might not actually fit in with the refreshments already planned.
  • The host or hostess might want to spare the feelings of other guests who did not bring a gift.

If the hosts included in the invitation "Please bring a bottle of wine," however, Etiquetteer will bet they intend to serve it at the party.

Etiquetteer would suggest one exception. Should a child appear with a gift of food or drink to your party, be sure to share it and exclaim over it, no matter what it is. It's not always easy for children at a party of (perhaps) mostly grownups, and your attention and gratitude to them will make them feel more at ease. Which is really what Perfectly Proper hosts and hostesses do for guests of all ages.

Dear Etiquetteer:

And I would further suggest that if you're bringing flowers, bring a flowering plant, an arrangement, or cut flowers already in some kind of vase. The last thing I as a host want to be doing is searching out an appropriate vase, cutting the stems, arranging the flowers, and so on, when I want to be greeting guests and/or putting the finishing touches on the meal. (Or quietly having a nervous breakdown in the next room.)

Dear Flora: The great Miss Manners herself, Judith Martin, covered this exact issue in her marvelous Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, and recommended keeping a vase full of water in the pantry just in case. But Etiquetteer will confess to loving a Floral Tribute, even if it does create some additional hustle-bustle at a party. The hustle-bustle that gets Etiquetteer is the guests who call (or even worse, text message) at exactly the time the party is supposed to begin with requests for directions or an update on why they aren't there yet.

Hostess Gifts, Vol. 13, Issue 2

Dear Etiquetteer: What is the proper etiquette for what to bring to a dinner party?  Does one always simply ask what to bring or perhaps just a nice bottle of wine? Does one ask what one can bring if it is not mentioned in the invitation?

Dear Invited:

Call Etiquetteer old-fashioned, but Etiquetteer prefers to maintain that a Lovely Note of Thanks after a dinner party is much more essential, and Perfectly Proper, than a hostess gift. That said, flowers are the safest choice for a gift, with wine running a close second. Etiquetteer ranks them in this order because the number of people who are allergic to flowers is less than the number of people who don't drink wine.

As you point out, sometimes hosts will specify what they would like to guests to bring; honor that as closely as possible. If hosts don't include a preference in their invitation, by all means ask if you're so inclined. But be warned: you might get more of an assignment than you bargained for. Etiquetteer vividly remembers asking one hostess "What may I bring?" to be given the reply "Oh, the dessert!" This was more work than Etiquetteer wanted to do, but having asked in the first place, Etiquetteer gritted his teeth and baked a cake. Etiquetteer still thinks of this as a bait-and-switch invitation; having been invited to a dinner party, it actually turned out to be a potluck.

Hosts should also be prepared for this question, and Etiquetteer encourages general instructions rather than specifics, e.g. "Oh, just a bottle of red you like that will go with roast" rather than "a couple bottles of Chateau de la Tour de Bleah 2008." This gives the guests the opportunity to stay within whatever budget they have.

But Etiquetteer really thinks the best response to that query is "Please bring a smile and a couple good stories!" A dinner guests "sings for his supper" best with a contribution not of a bottle, but of one's camaraderie and good humor.