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

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.

Blizzard Etiquette, Vol. 14, Issue 4

With the latest blizzard having ravaged the Northeast, Etiquetteer thinks it's time for a few tips on Perfect Propriety during Heavily Inclement Weather:

  • Don't dramatize the situation with all these mashup words* like "stormaggedon" and "snowpocalypse," etc. It's a blizzard. Blizzards happen. Heaven forbid Etiquetteer restrict anyone's Freedom of Speech, but really. Blizzards also don't have names assigned to them by television networks. Just run along to the National Weather Service and see what they have to say. Incidentally, they'd do well to dramatize the weather less by not typing their bulletins in ALL CAPS.
  • Don't rush. Allow yourself a lot of extra time to and from your destination, whether you're traveling on foot, on skis, or by auto. Be patient; there will be delays, no matter how you're traveling.
  • Drive carefully. You never know when someone will have to walk in the street because the sidewalks haven't been shoveled. Etiquetteer will only allow you to honk at them if they're texting at the same time.
  • It will happen that a shoveled sidewalk is not wide enough for two people to pass, regardless of any local ordinance. Etiquetteer awards precedence to the party closest to exiting the Narrows, or to the person who is not texting at the same time. Those who are unaware of what's going on around them deserve what they get.
  • If someone stands aside for you to pass, thank them kindly. Otherwise you increase the bitterness and resentment already caused by the weather. That old saw about Good Behavior being its own reward is highly overrated.
  • It is not uncommon - though it is illegal, and therefore not Perfectly Proper - for drivers who park on the street to "mark" or "save" a parking space they've cleared of snow - admittedly a vigorous undertaking - with some sort of street refuse like a trash barrel or an old chair. While deploring the practice, Etiquetteer refrains from getting involved by removing those markers. Remember, safety first! No one wants to lose teeth to some Vindictive Motorist.
  • Wear something simple and straightforward for winter work and sports. Etiquetteer was for some reason reminded of Gloria Upson's description of her newlywed apartment in Auntie Mame: " . . . I don't mean just some little hole-in-the-wall, but a really nice place with some style to it . . . " Consider Etiquetteer's interpretation above: vintage snowsuit, white scarf, and gray stocking cap with white leather work gloves. No fuss, no frills, nor rips and tears either. This is certainly one of those occasions when a bow tie is not Perfectly Proper. No one wants to be thought a parvenu while wielding a snow shovel . . .

Etiquetteer will conclude that, at times of Heavy Weather like this, Safety and Perfect Propriety go hand in hand.

*Actually, the best mashup word to come out of this blizzard is "snowmanhattan." Etiquetteer takes his on the rocks.

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!"

A Pre-Valentine's Warning from Etiquetteer, Vol. 13, Issue 19

With St. Valentine's Day on its way tomorrow, Etiquetteer feels it necessary - strictly in the name of Perfect Propriety - to advise you against Popping the Question Publicly. Fictionally we have the example of Vicki Lester and Norman Maine, seen here in the George Cukor film of A Star Is Born:

Now you'll notice that the situation was saved beautifully by Our Heroine who, seeing the embarrassment of her beloved, called out "Oh no, that's much too public a proposal to say no to! I accept!" And those who know the story know exactly what that got her . . .

Cruel Reality shows a different outcome:

But if you are really intent on doing this, Etiquetteer has some questions to ask first:

  • How comfortable is your beloved in the spotlight? Are you choosing to propose in public because she likes having attention called to herself, or because you want to call attention to yourself?
  • Are the manner and location of your proposal what you think she might expect of a marriage proposal? (Reviewing that compilation, and recognizing that Etiquetteer might be succumbing to stereotypes, Etiquetteer finds it hard to believe that most women want to entertain proposals of marriage at sporting events or the mall.)
  • Are you 110% sure that your beloved will say yes? And even then, Etiquetteer thinks you should reconsider.
  • Do you have a Graceful Exit planned in the (to you unlikely) event that your proposal is declined? Even if you're 110% sure your beloved will accept, plan one.

Etiquetteer asks these questions not only for your benefit and that of your beloved, but also for the Embarrassed Spectators who, if they don't want to laugh in your face, will want to turn their backs. Please, Etiquetteer begs you, consider your plans very carefully.

Now of course Etiquetteer expects to hear from several people who did witness Successful Public Proposals of Marriage, and that's just wonderful. Etiquetteer is delighted that you had that experience. Etiquetteer rather hopes that Those Who Popped the Question evaluated their situations intelligently.

You may be sure that Etiquetteer will have Shields Up on St. Valentine's Day, and if one of Cupid's little arrows gets in the way, Etiquetteer will use it as a swizzle stick for a martini.

No One Is a [Traffic] Island, Vol. 12, Issue 15

This afternoon Etiquetteer nearly witnessed a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian on a city street. Etiquetteer heard some sort of suspicious noise, turned around, and there across the street about 50 feet back a woman was sitting up in the street yelling "It's a crawswawk! It's a crawswawk!" while a man in cycling garb was standing over her and beginning to raise his voice, too. And indeed, the woman was sitting in a crosswalk at an intersection with a stoplight. The point of impact was about five feet from the sidewalk. As several others were going to the aid of the woman, Etiquetteer felt no need to become involved directly - too much help can be as bad as too little, and quite a cluster of people was starting to form - but Etiquetteer could picture a few different scenarios:

CYCLIST SCENARIO: While the woman was crossing the street during a red light, the cyclist, Master of the Universe, hit her, disregarding the rule "Share the road, share the red light."

PEDESTRIAN SCENARIO: With the blithe certainty exhibited by more than a few pedestrians that all vehicular traffic will stop whenever someone walks into a crosswalk regardless of signals or signs, the woman began crossing the street and was hit by the cyclist who actually had the right of way.

IDIOTS SCENARIO: Neither of them was looking where they were going, regardless of who had the right of way, and they are equally at fault.

Etiquetteer hopes that neither party sustained grievous injuries, but hopes that they, and you, will exhibit greater care on the streets. Because the moral of the story is, "Watch where you're going, whether you have the right of way or not."