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

Perfect Propriety on Public Transportation, Vol. 14, Issue 38

Doesn't it seem to be the common refrain of etiquette columnists - and, sometimes, the elderly, who have seen so much already - that things are just getting worse and worse? Well, in the words of the late Sylvia Fowler, "Here I am, girls! Move over." Etiquetteer needs to sound off about how things are just getting worse and worse, this time on public transportation. Etiquetteer has noticed a degeneration of courtesy, and can't really blame it all on last winter's dreadful weather. Once upon a time, passengers standing in the door would step out of the way to allow other passengers to exit. And by "step out of the way," Etiquetteer means "step completely outside the car and to the side so that the doorway was entirely open to exiting passengers." Within the last year, Etiquetteer has observed with frustration the growing number of Passengers In the Way Who Won't Move at All. At best they'll compress themselves against the side - not too helpful if they're wearing a backpack - but more often they just stand there, placid as bulls, leaving exiting passengers to squeeze between them to Freedom. Even worse are those passengers who walk into the train and stop right there in the entrance, regardless of the number of people behind them who want to get in, too, and of available space further inside the car.

Now of course Etiquetteer understands why everyone wants to stand near the door: because they can disembark at their stop without anyone blocking their way. What frustrates Etiquetteer is the number of passengers traveling more than, say, four stops who defiantly stand in the door, forcing everyone to squeeze by them. Etiquetteer encourages Public Transportation Entities to mark out floor space in its vehicles as Space to Clear for Exiting Passengers.

The only tool of Perfect Propriety that Etiquetteer can offer is a brisk, crisp "Excuse me, please" or "Comin' out, please!" when moving about the vehicle. It's admittedly passive-aggressive to put more force than necessary getting past Passengers In the Way, so Etiquetteer can't endorse it, no matter how satisfying it may feel.

And another thing. Once upon a time it used to be such an intrusion when the audio leaking from a fellow passenger's earbuds disrupted the relative silence of public transport.* Now, alas, our civilization has reached a place where passengers aren't even bothering with earbuds and openly - loudly - watching videos or playing children's games on their smartphones regardless of anyone else's comfort. Was no one else taught what Etiquetteer learned at Dear Mother's knee, "Your right to listen stops where my ears begin?" Passengers using devices to entertain themselves on the Long Commute Home must use earbuds or earphones. How you choose to entertain yourself can be torture to those who cannot escape your presence.

Public transportation passengers will go far toward furthering World Peace by considering more the impact they have on fellow passengers with their voices, devices, and baggage.

smalletiquetteer

Are you taken about by public manners? Please drop Etiquetteer a line at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.

*Once upon a time, you weren't supposed to talk at all in order not to disturb others.

Man-spreading *shudder*, Vol. 13, Issue 61

A reader has encouraged Etiquetteer to speak out on the issue of men sprawling beyond the limits of their seats on public transporation, which has been given the Vulgar Appellation of "man-spreading." Indeed, this issue has become such a Menace to Public Decency that the MTA has inaugurated a campaign to curb it. A gentleman does not take up someone else's space. And that should be quite sufficient.

Really, Etiquetteer compares this Ostentatious Behavior to blaring one's car radio (or do we have to call it "sound system" now?) outside the limits of one's car, or revving one's motor to call attention.

In short, Etiquetteer considers Excessive Sprawl advertising one's shortcomings.

A Loss of Temper, Vol. 13, Issue 42

Etiquetteer, of course, is the soul of Perfect Propriety, but it comes at a price: daily battle with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who carries on either like a Rank Parvenu or the most Impatient Curmudgeon. Recently Etiquetteer lost a battle, and That Mr. Dimmick is still paying the price. Etiquetteer is now breaking out of the prison into which That Mr. Dimmick has cast him to tell the story. "Hell," as Sartre famously observed in his play No Exit, "is other people." Perfect Propriety is either the key to the exit or a useful blindfold. It is an essential tool in daily life, because there will always be people who don't care at all about how they impact others. Always. This is why we have etiquette, to make dealing with Those People easier and less demeaning for ourselves.

It brings us to a bus with two loud children and an angry mother. While That Mr. Dimmick was speaking quietly with a friend near the back of the bus, two little girls and two adult women with them boarded at the next stop. The little girls ran to the back row, immediately behind That Mr. Dimmick, and continued their conversation VERY loudly, with what one would call Outside Voices. Really, it became nearly impossible to hear one's own conversation. And after a few minutes of this, in a fit of impatience, That Mr. Dimmick burst out with "Young ladies, ENOUGH!" There was no thought about results or consequences, just a complete inability to bear one more moment.

Etiquetteer's Dear Mother has always said "When you lose your temper, you lose your point." And alas for That Mr. Dimmick, Dear Mother was once again correct. That Outburst of Temper roused the Maternal Wrath of the mother sitting closest, who immediately challenged any interference. She actually said "This is not a library!" and suggested that we move! She should have been apologizing for the fact that those children were making a public nuisance. (That Mr. Dimmick was so astonished by her that he was unable to respond "It's not a playground either! Why aren't you teaching those girls to use their inside voices?! You're a bad mother if you don't care!")

Of course Etiquetteer understood why she reacted that way; no one likes to be called out publicly. Etiquetteer would never have addressed misbehaving children directly. One speaks to the parents or guardians. Etiquetteer would have turned to the mother and asked "Would you please ask the young ladies to use their inside voices? They probably aren't considering how loud they are inside." That mother probably would still have suggested Etiquetteer move to another seat, but at least Etiquetteer would be able to sleep nights, secure in the knowledge of having acted with Perfect Propriety. Because That Mr. Dimmick no longer had a leg to stand on. You can't go about complaining about the behavior of others if your own behavior is cause for concern.

Long story short, the bad behavior of others never excuses one's own bad behavior. But this story does raise other questions:

Why are we not all of us taught about consideration for others? Why are so many people standing in the doorway of the subway or bus, blocking the people who need to get by them? Why are so many people talking or texting (or eating!) through live performances in theatres, cinemas, and concert halls? Why are so many people blasting music so loudly through their headphones and earbuds that the lyrics are distinctly heard outside? Why are so many people standing two abreast on the escalator, preventing others from moving past them? Why are so many people eager to tell their friends how to spend their money on them with elaborate gift registries, or even bald requests for cash instead?

Why have we stopped caring about the impact that we have on others in daily life, whether friends or strangers?

That's the question that keeps Etiquetteer awake at night, and there just doesn't seem to be a Perfectly Proper answer.

Seven Actions for Perfect Propriety in Public Life in the New Year, Vol. 12, Issue 2

Here we are, embarked on a New Year, and Etiquetteer is working hard to maintain a Feeling of Hope for increasing Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer has identified seven areas -- some simple, some quixotic -- where action should be taken. At once. 1. Homeowner associations (HOAs) need to write exceptions into their governing documents allowing homeowners to display the American flag on or from their properties without being fined or censured. Every year an HOA makes the news when it sues or fines a homeowner who displays an American flag on his or her property against the HOA rules about decorations and displays. These stories are even more poignant when the flag is tattered or in otherwise less-than-perfect condition, usually because of its association with a family member who died in service to this nation. If you live in an HOA, take the initiative now to modify your bylaws to permit display of the American flag on one's property.

2. Anyone who has charge of an escalator, whether it's in a shopping mall, transportation hub, government or office building, or any other public place, needs to be sure that every rider knows that standing is on the right, and passing is on the left. This can be achieved with signage or a painted line down the center.

3. Retailers need to stop colonizing private life and pandering to our baser instincts by scheduling outrageous sales events on holidays - and we need to stop letting them do it by buying into this manufactured "excitement." Etiquetteer was outraged that some retailers actually scheduled some sales to begin on Thanksgiving Day Itself, and appalled viewing some of the video footage of the Black Friday mélee. Etiquetteer has extreme difficulty reconciling this with the True Spirit of Christmas. If it was up to Etiquetteer -- which, of course, it ought to be -- Black Friday sales would not be allowed to begin until 10:00 AM on Friday. Even if the retailers don't, Etiquetteer wants you to make the commitment to refrain from shopping on holidays.

4. Unfortunately, Western civilization has reached such a low level of sloth, selfishness, or contempt that more and more people don't care about being properly dressed in public. Indeed, many don't even know what proper dress is. With great reluctance, Etiquetteer must endorse the use of instructional signage, such as "No Visible Undergarments" and "No Sleepwear" so that standards can be reinforced.

5. Theatres and concert halls need to enforce more vigorously the rule not to use recording devices of any kind (cameras, recorders, smartphones, etc.) during concerts. Anyone who has ever had their view of a performance blocked by rows of upraised arms with iPhones will appreciate this. Etiquetteer believes that violators should be evicted, which means that ushers will need to be more vigilant and prowl the aisles during performances more often. (It is interesting to muse on how differently Woodstock might have affected Western culture if everyone there had had a smartphone or videocamera. Etiquetteer is mighty relieved they didn't.)

6. The battle between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must stop. To quote Stu Ackerman, "There is only 'we.' 'Them' is a hallucination born of fear." Everyone has the same goal: to get wherever they're going as quickly as possible. Etiquetteer would like them to get there as safely as possible, too. And this means being aware of one's own situation and of other travelers around one. For pedestrians, it means looking left, right, and left again before walking across the street -- and only at intersections. For drivers, it means knowing where one is going before getting in the car and relying on an often-faulty GPS. For cyclists, it means awareness that both pedestrians and drivers, through no fault of their own, will have to cross the bike lane. For all it means putting away one's electronic devices so that one can travel with full concentration and without distraction! Etiquetteer's heart has leapt into his mouth more than once seeing a pedestrian blithely walk into an intersection while staring intently at a smartphone screen, or a driver making a sharp left turn with one hand on the wheel and cellphone held to the ear. In summary, no one group of travelers is evil, as many would like to think. Rather, there are impatient and inattentive travelers in each group. Etiquetteer urges you to represent the best aspects of your particular Mode of Travel.

7. If parents are not going to enforce Perfect Propriety in their children when dining out, restaurants are going to start having to do it for them by either asking them to leave, being sure they know not to come back until the children can behave, or banning children altogether. While hastily acknowledging the very many good and attentive parents who understand and train their children well, Etiquetteer must note that the legions of oblivious and ineffective parents make dining out difficult for everyone.* The stories from waiters and waitresses (one need only search the Web) can curl one's hair.

And that, as they say, is that. Etiquetteer welcomes your Perfectly Proper queries resulting from these recommendations at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.

*It's worth noting, too, that every time Etiquetteer sees a news story about Chuck E. Cheese, it's because grownups started a brawl there.

Talkative Strangers and Wedding Gifts, Vol. 5, Issue 17

EXAMPLES FROM THE DAILY LIFE OF ETIQUETTEER: Many people in the world have a need to talk. But Etiquetteer has no need to listen. Two recent experiences reminded Etiquetteer that, frequently, silence is golden.On Easter Sunday Etiquetteer found himself traveling by subway to an afternoon party. While innocently standing on the platform reading American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, an urgent young woman asked Etiquettteer the time. The time Etiquetteer gave her, however, was insufficient to send her away. "Oh my goodness, I’m late for church! And not that I go every Sunday, but the music is so good at the beginning of the service . . . " You can probably see where this is leading, but not the references to her boyfriend and her inability to pay her mortgage, which came about ten minutes later. Etiquetteer tried doggedly to continue reading, but concentration on the printed page was near impossible with this persistent flow of personal information. At the suggestion of a question, Etiquetteer saw an opening: "Oh I’m sorry, I’ve been reading my book and I wasn’t paying attention." Alas, this didn’t stop her, but the train did. (No, Etiquetteer didn't throw her under it.)Not long after that, Etiquetteer was enjoying the daily newspaper and a Cobb salad at the bar of a popular restaurant. Anyone who lunches at a restaurant bar knows that a certain amount of camaraderie between other diners is unavoidable, even welcome. But Etiquetteer finds it too much to ask to have to give up both paper and salad to focus fully on a total stranger. You see, an elderly man sitting next to Etiquetteer found his conversational opening with Etiquetteer’s lunch. "Say, that’s some salad!" he said. "Yes, it’s very good." Etiquetteer replied. "Now what all do they put in there?" he persisted. "Tomatoes, cheese – I’ll bet that’s bleu cheese – and turkey . . . " "No, it’s chicken." "OH, chicken! Oh, that’s good." Good heavens, Etiquetteer thought, must we discuss all the ingredients of this salad while I’m trying to eat it? This continued for no little time, until "Boy, the sandwiches we used to get at the [insert name of Defunct Cafeteria here]. Gosh . . . " and he just kept going on and on. Etiquetteer, exasperated, finally had to turn fully back to the newspaper and simply not respond. It was the only way to finish lunch without indigestion and still get back to the office on time.Heaven knows both of these people were harmless, but also clueless. A person with his nose in a book or newspaper should not look as though they are ready to strike up a conversation, and yet how often do we hear stories of just that happening? This may lead Etiquetteer to get an iPod . . .

Dear Etiquetteer:My husband and I found ourselves with opposing thoughts. (This rarely happens, so it's headline news around here.) One of us says that a wedding invitation can be answered with the regrets card plus a lovely congratulatory (or cute, depending on the couple) greeting card. The other one of us says no, that's what you do when an announcement is sent; an invitation obligates you to send a gift whether you're attending the wedding or not. If it makes any difference, one of us works at the same place (we couldn't even say "works with") the groom and we have never met the bride. What's correct?Dear Gifting:Now let Etiquetteer make this perfectly clear: a wedding invitation is not an invoice. If you and your husband feel you are close enough to his colleague, then by all means get the Happy Couple a gift. But only if you feel moved to do so. Otherwise send the reply card and a heartfelt message of congratulations.

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