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!

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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.

Two Current Events, Vol. 11, Issue 1

Two items in the news recently came to Etiquetteer's attention, each disturbing in its own way, and each worthy of comment. First, let's turn attention to Patron X, the gentleman whose smartphone stopped the New York Philharmonic mid-Mahler and enraged both the audience and the conductor. First, Etiquetteer has only praise for conductor Alan Gilbert. Not only did he sensibly stop the performance, later in the week he graciously accepted the personal apology of Patron X. Other artists of a more, shall we say, "artistic" temperament might have swooped down like a flock of harpies and banned the offender forever from concerts. It is to Mr. Gilbert's credit that he has accepted this man's sincere apology, and even to express sympathy for his predicament.

The situation could not have been more humiliating. Patron X was sitting in the front row of the concert hall with a new iPhone (received the day before from his company) that he only partly knew how to work. When the iPhone alarm clock went off, Patron X was near powerless to stop the noise. Etiquetteer believes that the contrition of Patron X is genuine and forgives him for this horrifying lapse of Perfect Propriety. But the entire experience boldly underscores the unquestioned necessity of powering off all personal electronic devices during a live performance of any kind. Not just to "silent" mode or "vibrate," but OFF. There is nothing so urgent that you need to know about it in the middle of a performance, and if it IS that urgent, maybe you shouldn't even be there. Power off completely and experience the performance completely! Dividing your attention will diminish your pleasure, and could eliminate the pleasure of others distracted by you.

When speaking in public, Etiquetteer begins with a "ritual power-down," so that everyone in the audience can switch off their cell phones and other paraphernalia together, making a group commitment to Perfect Propriety and Mutual Respect.

Then there's the Caddo Parish official trying to ban the wearing of pajamas in public:

Etiquetteer cannot claim to have seen people (of any age) cavorting about in their nightclothes, so perhaps this Lapse of Decency is only a local problem. What bothers Etiquetteer more is the careless attitude of offenders. Shreveport resident Khiry Tisdern is quoted saying "I'm an American, and I can wear my clothes anywhere I want. I'm a grown man. I pay my own bills, so I can wear my clothes the way I want." Mr. Tisdern may be a grown man, but he's not a grown-up. Grown-ups don't wear their pajamas in public.*

Even worse is the slovenly attitude of mother-of-three Tracy Carter, who says "... they're covering everything. I've got a three-year-old, a five-year-old and a 12-year-old to deal with." Her implication that Motherhood is so difficult that her family should be excused from putting on street clothes is an insult to parents everywhere who work hard to raise their children to behave and be strong, contributing members of Society. Etiquetteer's contempt for Ms. Carter cannot be stated too clearly.

This proves, too, that Perfect Propriety cannot be legislated. But because one has the Freedom to do something does not mean that one should do something.

*Some wag will certainly ask "Well, what about a pajama brunch?" And Etiquetteer will Heave a Weary Sigh and explain what is Perfectly Obvious: "If one is attending a pajama brunch in a private home, that falls under the definition of a costume party. If one is attending a pajama brunch in a restaurant, one attends in street clothes to avoid appearing like one is Trying Too Hard. If one is waiting tables at a restaurant's pajama brunch and one has to wear pajamas, they become one's uniform for the shift."

Etiquetteer hopes to greet you in person on February 1, 2012, at the Gibson House Museum for "Good Manners at the Gibson House with Etiquetteer."

The Clothes of a Gentleman, Vol. 8, Issue 6

Dear Etiquetteer: I enjoy wearing white tie to the opera, despite the snide comments from the sartorially challenged. My problem is finding the appropriate tie. I was taught that since white tie is highly formal, the tie should be restrained and have very little flare. My old tie is nearly worn out, and the only white bows available are practically the size and shape of Luna moths. Am I overly restrictive in what I think look appropriate for white tie (and on me for that matter) or is this another failure of the American clothing industry? There is no rush for this question; the opera company has gone on hiatus due to "the current economic situation."

And, by the way, what is appropriate (non-funeral) attire for those mourning the loss of a close friend? Is there such a thing?

Dear Tied:

Etiquetteer thinks you have not been searching broadly on-line for a new white tie. If you visit Beau Ties Ltd. and order your choice of bow ties in "Very Slim Line," your need for an absence of flair will be met with Perfect Propriety.

Etiquetteer also enjoys white tie. But in an age where only ambassadors, conductors, magicians, and community theatre choruses wear it, Etiquetteer must regretfully advise caution. If you are the only gentleman in the audience so attired, you may not be making the impression you wish. Parvenus, more than ever, are to be shunned. And you would appear even more so wearing white tie in the balconies. White tie belongs without question in the orchestra or the boxes, but not above them. "Dress Circle," alas, is a distinction in name only.

Emily Post, may she rest in peace, used to refer to a "brilliant opera night" when the ruling matrons decided among themselves that extra jewelry would be worn, usually if someone was giving a ball that night. This reminds Etiquetteer, of course, of Regina Beaufort in The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's greatest novel, departing at some point before the end of the third act, thereby signalling the start of her ball after the performance.

As for mourning clothes outside a funeral, the custom has all but disappeared. The original purpose of mourning clothes was to deflect unwelcome attention, but Etiquetteer has to wonder if your purpose is really to show respect for the dead. Gentlemen used to wear a black armband over their right coatsleeve during mourning, which would now be considered ostentatious. Just wearing black won't do, since it's still considered so hip and edgy by so many. (Ladies could also be mistaken for bridesmaids, to Etiquetteer's continued chagrin.) And most people today are too oblivious to color distinctions even to recognize half-mourning, which is the absence of blue, red, yellow, and green.

The only thing Etiquetteer can recommend that would be universally recognized as a gesture of mourning is the memorial button, often seen with a picture of the deceased, handed out at so many funerals. To wear such a button on your lapel ought to let even the most thick-headed lout know that you're mourning someone who died recently. And by recently, Etiquetteer means "within the last month." For good or ill, usually the former, it's no longer customary to wear mourning after the funeral. 

Dear Etiquetteer:

What is your opinion about wearing a bow tie with a sweater?

Dear Sweating:

Would it surprise you to learn that Etiquetteer doesn't really have an opinion? Etiquetteer can't really find anything wrong with wearing a bow tie with a sweater, nor a requirement that one must. So by all means, tie one on! As a guideline, not a rule, Etiquetteer would suggest pairing bow ties with crew neck sweaters and neckties with V-neck sweaters.

Etiquetteer has a new address for all your manners queries, queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.

Houseguests/Current Events, Vol. 7, Issue 13

Dear Etiquetteer:

On a recent vacation trip to a far away place, I stayed in the home of a good friend and colleague.  While I was there, another professional colleague called my host and insisted on knowing with whom I was traveling and what the sleeping arrangements were.  My host was, of course, perfectly proper, and we all had a good laugh about it.  My question is, am I entitled to include this story when recounting my travels either to friends or to colleagues?  May I tell the story in the inquiring colleague's presence if I don't actually name him?

 

Dear Traveling Man: 

 

Etiquetteer commends the discretion of your host in not divulging any of his domestic details; clearly it was None of a Busybody’s Business. 

 

No one loves a good story more than Etiquetteer, and this does indeed sound like a very good one! But even so, it’s more Perfectly Proper to keep this one to yourself. Good stories have a way of traveling on their own, picking up extra embellishments along the way. Should the original Busybody ever hear of it, which is more of a Possibility than most people care to consider, it would only reflect badly on your host having divulged a confidential conversation.

 

Stories of This Sort are best Filed for Future Reference. Thanks to your host, you’ve just learned an important characteristic of your Busybody professional colleague that can help you evaluate his reactions in professional settings. 

 

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Etiquetteer has been doing his best not to get too involved in the 2008 political campaigns and resulting candidate faux pas. Etiquetteer feels sure that Barack Obama hasn’t done much to court the Militant Feminist Vote, but he made a SERIOUS misstep last week by referring to WXYZ-TV reporter Peggy Agar as “sweetie.” Terms of Endearment are, by definition, those we use with people who are close to us. And while we all know how close politicians like to be to the press during campaigns, “sweetie” is TOO close. Another way for men to gauge their behavior: if you wouldn’t say it to a man, you cannot say it to a woman. 

 

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Etiquetteer was horrified to read in the Duluth News Tribune on May 10 about an insensitive lawsuit. Jeffery Ely hit a dog with his car, killing it. He then sued the dog’s owners, Niki and Daniel Munthe, for damages to his car. No matter how wronged one feels in such a situation, no matter how justified, one’s own sense of Perfect Propriety should prevent one from filing such a lawsuit. Honestly! What was he thinking? “Your dog dented my car as I was running it over so you should pay to fix my car?” Clearly Mr. Ely cares more about money than his reputation OR the feelings of others.

 

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From the “Children Must Be Seen and Not Heard” Department, Etiquetteer was delighted to hear that the Red Thai Restaurant of Portland, Oregon, has begun banning children younger than six years of age from its establishment. If more parents knew how to control their “precious snowflakes” in public such a ban might not be necessary. After hearing from a colleague that she saw a woman breast-feeding* her infant at a theatre performance (!) Etiquettteer understands that parents don’t understand where their children are welcome and where they are not. It is insensitive to others in the audience to bring a babe in arms to a live concert or performance where they could start howling any moment. It is equally rude to dine at a “grown-up” restaurant with young children who haven’t yet been taught to use inside voices, silverware, or to keep their seats. Parents of Young Children, take note! 

 

*You may be surprised to learn that Etiquetteer has no trouble at all with breastfeeding in public. This necessary function can be handled discreetly and modestly in restaurants, vehicles, and other public places. But in places of assembly, such as theatres, concert halls, or churches, it distracts too much from the program one is supposed to be watching.

Tipping, Vol. 7, Issue 11

Dear Etiquetteer:

I went to a concert last night at [Insert Name of Popular New England Concert Hall Here] and tipped my usherette $2. She seemed very surprised. Is tipping ushers/usherettes at concerts or at the opera still appropriate? Thank you.Dear Tippety Tip Tip:Etiquetteer believes the custom of tipping an usher for showing one to one’s seat did not cross the Atlantic from Europe to the New World. While Etiquetteer has never known this to take place in the United States, reference has been made to it on the “other side,” particularly Paris. Etiquetteer’s beloved Cornelia Otis Skinner writes about the “harpies” or “vultures” she had to tip at the Comédie Française during the 1920s in her delicious memoir Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. (While for decades ushering in the United States was a profession only for men, in France it seems to have fallen exclusively into the province of women.) And in the 1936 film version of Camille, sharp-eyed viewers will notice the resigned shrug of the lady usher when handed an inadequate tip by the Baron de Varville. So if you’re left of the Atlantic, by all means tip your attendant. And if on the right, keep your two dollars handy for the coat check.Lawsuits related to tipping have made the news quite a bit in 2008 already. Starbucks lost a class-action lawsuit by baristas who had to share their tips with shift supervisors. American Airlines lost another class-action lawsuit brought by skycaps who were deprived of significant income when the airline began charging $2.00 to check a bag curbside, but didn’t explain that it wasn’t a tip. Unfortunately for the skycaps, American Airlines has now posted signs at Logan Airport, Boston, that tipping is prohibited.Etiquetteer deplores tipping anyway, but is disgusted by management “skimming” tips from employees who are often underpaid. As long as tipping has to be part of the American economy, it might at least be transacted honestly. And related to that, Etiquetteer was surprised to hear from waiters and waitresses how often they have to claim tips given on credit cards, and how often tips are “pooled:” shared equally among all waiters and waitresses on a shift, whether they’re any good or not. If you want to be sure that a superior waiter or waitress is completely tipped, please tip in cash.

Hell Is Other People: Etiquetteer’s Experience, Vol. 6, Issue 35

To continue with the theme of "Hell is other people," Etiquetteer feels compelled to share some of his own recent experiences:

In daily life Etiquetteer works on a large university campus, one feature of which is a large number of restrooms. One day not too long ago Etiquetteer entered a men’s room with some urgency and was disgusted – disgusted! – to find the toilet seat running with someone’s urine. Quite possibly that is the most cruelly inconsiderate thing one man can do to another: urinate without lifting the seat. Etiquetteer thinks it’s even worse than not flushing. At least that’s corrected simply! It’s the easiest thing in the world to lift a toilet seat. The squeamish can even do so with their shoes rather than soil their dainty hands.

The squeamish have another bad behavior Etiquetteer has seen on the rise, too. Snowdrifts of paper towels now appear near the men’s room door, discarded by exiting users who didn’t want to touch the doorknob with their bare hands. Littering is not the way to solve this problem! If you must do this, pocket that paper towel and throw it away in the office,not on the floor. Littering in this way – in any way – shows contempt for the other people in your community. They deserve your respect, and you deserve better yourself.

Etiquetteer, of course, recognizes that the squeamish have a point. Not everyone chooses to wash their hands after Performing a Bodily Function. Omitting this essential function of Perfect Propriety really isn’t an option. Your mother may not be watching over your shoulder, but anyone else in the restroom is aware. The time lapse from flush to exit is apparent to all! Please, spend 30 seconds purifying your filthy hands before leaving the room.

Etiquetteer has a couple special messages for members of the audience at last week’s "Night of Stars" gala presented byBoston Ballet:

To the woman across the aisle: If you absolutely must unwrap a cough drop while in the theatre, please use your intelligence to do so during applause, when it won’t disrupt those around you. As it was, those in your vicinity were vexed in the extreme. Your ability to stretch out all that crinkling to two minutes per cough drop defied all reason. Unless you can show more thoughtfulness to others, Etiquettteer suggests you stay home.

To the audible man: During a ballet, it’s not uncommon for a female dancer to part her legs. In fact, it’s quite usual. Female dancers have even been known to part their legs while being lifted by their partners into the air. This movement during any kind of dance is so ordinary that folks ceased commenting about it, oh, about 150 years ago . . . and certainly not in a voice audible seven to ten rows away! Please remember that a theatre is not a stadium, and also that people attend ballet performances to see ballet, not listen to the opinions of total strangers.

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

 

The Brawl at Symphony Hall, Vol. 6, Issue 19

No doubt many readers are eager for Etiquetteer to comment on the "brawl at Symphony Hall" that occurred on Wednesday, May 9, 2007. Needless to say Etiquetteer is Absolulely Appalled at what happened and would ban the two men in question from Symphony Hall for life.

In summary, Michael Hallam and his female companion were talking throughout the first two numbers of the Boston Pops. Matthew Ellinger and his female companion, sitting behind them, were understandably annoyed, and Mr. Ellinger shushed them more than once. With Hallam still talking, Ellinger reported him to an usher. He then "tapped" or "struck" Hallam (depending on who tells the story) with his program. Hallam then threw the first punch. As they say on fark.com, "Hilarity ensued."

This Hallam Person bears the principal responsibility for dragging Boston through the mud like this. When someone in a theatre asks you to be quiet, that is exactly what you should do! You don’t have to be embarrassed that you’ve inconvenienced someone else, but Etiquetteer thinks it helps if you are. Hallam then branded himself Unfit for Polite Society by threatening to throw Ellinger over the balcony and then, of course, punching him in the face.

Mr. Ellinger’s error, unfortunately, was making physical contact with Hallam. Up until then he had done everything appropriate by shushing Hallam and then notifying an usher. But one never ever touches someone one is confronting. Physical contact is easily misinterpreted; just look at how one side of this argument uses the word "tapped" and the other "struck."

Etiquetteer has long felt that the White Middle Class is Giving Up when it comes to Perfect Propriety, and this sad incident seems like another Nail in the Coffin. What struck Etiquetteer first, however, in looking at the photos, was how badly everyone was dressed. Not one man sitting in or near the brawlers was wearing a jacket and tie. And Etiquetteer doesn’t care at all that they were sitting in the second balcony. This is a concert hall, not a bear garden, and Proper Dress should be worn. A crisply-pressed shirt is not enough. And of course now the Unspoken Rules must be spoken: no denim, no athletic or athletic-looking clothes or shoes, and No Visible Underwear. And it’s not just the Young and Untutored showing up like this. Etiquetteer has seen on many occasions Those Old Enough to Know Better appear at Symphony Hall improperly dressed. Ladies in sneakers with scoop-neck cotton tops, old gentlemen wearing plaid flannel shirts with jeans, anybody in a down jacket with a hood – this is Letting Down the Side.

Did conductor Keith Lockhart behave with Perfect Propriety by halting the concert until the brawlers were removed? There are two schools of thought here, each with its merits, but Etiquetteer is inclined to say that he did. The Stiff Upper Lip folks would say "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Continuing with the concert would, perhaps, have called less attention to the Bad Manners in the Balcony. Under the circumstances – loud screaming having called all attention to the balcony – to keep playing would have seemed to Etiquetteer like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Mr. Lockhart showed respect to his musicians, the audience, and to the music itself, by halting the performance.

As Etiquetteer said, the brawlers should be banned from Symphony Hall for life. Both of them should be sentenced to community service as theatre ushers. Now if only there was a way to ban that Little Old Lady Who Rattles Bangle Bracelets and Cough Drops . . .

 

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Theatre Etiquette, Vol. 6, Issue 3

The late Arthur Friedman, respected theatre critic of the Boston Herald, did not suffer fools gladly, especially in the theatre. Arthur taught Etiquetteer a great deal about Perfect Propriety in the audience during years of productions, but recently Etiquetteer was brought back to a Lyric Stage Company performance of A Shaina Maidel in their old tiny theatre on Charles Street. Those who remember the old Lyric will recall a stage level with the first row of seats (on three sides), making front-row patrons part of the set whether they wanted to be or not. Sitting in the front row with Arthur, Etiquetteer suddenly felt it necessary to consult the program. Arthur stopped this at once , explaining later that not only was it disrespectful to the actors to ignore them visibly when they were less than eight feet away, but also distracting to others in the audience who could not help but see you as part of the scene.

Arthur’s lesson flashed vividly before Etiquetteer at a recent performance of See What You Wanna See at the new Lyric Stage. The new theatre also has a stage at floor level and seats on three sides, but now there are more seats and they are arranged in amphitheater or stadium style. The other important thing to know is that the actors enter and exit through the aisles. So you can imagine the distraction during an important scene in Act I when a woman got up from her seat in Stage Right, walked to stage level, walked in front of everyone in her section, and left the theatre! Keep in mind that the actors were only about six feet from her. It was impossible not to notice her either, since her pale pastel sweater caught all the lights. Her reentry a little later from another part of the theatre created just as much distraction.

Audience etiquette is deteriorating, and even performers as distinguished as Patti Lupone are noticing. In a recent New York Times article about certain New York theatres permitting food at seats, Ms. Lupone remembered watching a front-row popcorn fight while performing in Sweeney Todd. Etiquetteer had hoped civilization had evolved beyond the Elizabethan bear garden, but we seem to be slipping back. So here are Etiquetteer’s Very Basic Guidelines for Audience Propriety:

  1. Be on time. Bostonian audiences are particularly prone to tardiness, and Etiquetteer is mighty tired of hearing people blame it on parking and traffic. Allow extra time, and no more excuses. This is especially true if you’re seated in the center of the row!
  2. For heaven’s sake, go to the bathroom before the performance starts! Etiquetteer should not have to tell you this.
  3. Sit down and stay seated. Do not leave your seat for any reason once the show has started. If you suddenly feel like you have to visit the restroom, hold it. In the words of Judy Tenuta, "Suffer!"
  4. Refreshments are not Perfectly Proper in the theatre. Popcorn, soda, Junior Mints, etc., might be fine in a cinema, but not the theatre or concert hall. Cough drops, of course, are sometimes necessary. You’ll distract others less by having them easy to get at. This does not mean in a special zippered compartment in your purse under your seat.
  5. If you’re sitting in the first three rows, you are part of the performance because everyone else in the theatre can see you. You show respect to performers and audience by notcalling attention to yourself.

Thank you for letting Etiquetteer rant a bit. Now go and sin no more.By the way, Arthur Friedman could also be a saucy tease. He once offered Etiquetteer $100 to go onstage and sit in a chair that was part of the set. Needless to say, Etiquetteer’s Perfect Propriety cannot be bought!

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Random Issues, Vol. 4, Issue 10

Dear Etiquetteer: My husband and I need some clarifications on the "proper" amount to spend on a wedding gift. Now that we’re in our forties, we don’t go to many weddings, so we may be a bit out of it. He thinks we should spend at least $100-150 on a gift. I think that’s a bit high, and that $50-75 should do, especially since we are on a budget. Am I just in a time warp (or a cheap skate)? Dear Gifting: This may sound awfully sentimental, but Etiquetteer thinks you should give what your heart dictates. When you find the perfect wedding gift for your friends, get it, whether it's $50 or $150, or even $1,500. The value of the gift is more than money, and one hopes that the Happy Couple will value it the more because it comes from you and your husband.

Dear Etiquetteer: I have a friend who just moved back to Massachusetts. Before he moved out of state, he and his partner had a commitment ceremony, which I attended and gave gifts. Now that they’re back, they’re planning an official marriage ceremony. Should there be another invitation, am I obligated to give another gift? At this point, I'm putting the cart before the rolling stone, but I was curious, and figured you'd be the right person to ask. Dear Generous: While the last Mae West was known to say "Too much of a good thing is wonderful," Etiquetteer will have to trump her with the more prosaic "Once is enough." Should you be invited to the wedding, attend with a Happy Heart and send a Lovely Note. Your social obligation will then be complete.

Dear Etiquetteer: A friend and I recently decided to go to a play. I offered to buy the tickets because I could get a special two-for-one discount and we could get better seats than we could normally afford. My friend forgot to show up for the play even though we had discussed a time to meet at the theatre the night before. My winter coat had a great fourth-row orchestra seat all to itself. Should I still follow up with my friend to ask her to pay for her ticket? We’ve discussed buying tickets to an upcoming show and an alternative would be to ask her to purchase two tickets at comparable price instead of reimbursing me for the show she missed. I’d appreciate your advice on how to handle this one.Dear Played:Your winter coat has historic company. J. Bruce Ismay, after he retired from public life once the Titanic inquiries were done, was known to purchase two tickets for concerts at the Wigmore Hall. That way he could keep his coat with him and no doubt avoid waiting in that long coat check line at the end of the concert.By all means your friend should fulfill her obligation to pay for the ticket purchased at her instruction. If the two of you agree that she should do so by purchasing seats for a future theatre night for the two of you, that’s Perfectly Proper. But should you prefer cash reimbursement, you are within your rights to insist on it.

Dear Etiquetteer:What do you think the conventional wisdom is regarding calling or e-mailing to ask about the status of a job application? I interviewed over three weeks ago for a professional position with a religious order and have heard nothing since then, even though I sent thank-you letters to the Mother Superior and the others with whom I interviewed.Any wording advice, if you even think I should? I don’t want to sound anxious or desperate, but I am interested in getting an idea of how much longer I’m going to have to wait for an answer.Dear Dangling at the End of the Rosary:After three weeks, Etiquetteer does not find it At All Improper to contact a potential employer with whom one has interviewed to find out the status of the search. You may telephone or e-mail, whichever is attuned most to their corporate culture. Etiquetteer encourages you to remember that companies only care about you in terms of what you can do for them and to tailor your communication accordingly, such as:Dear Sr. Olive Inamartini:It was a pleasure to speak with you three weeks ago about the position of Grand Panjandrum of the Cloister of St. Fistula, and I am e-mailing today to find out how the search is progressing and if I can offer any additional information to you or the search committee. I remain very interested in the position and look forward to hearing from you.

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

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The Year 2005 In Review, Vol. 4 Issue 1

 
     
  Anno Domini MMV brought more than a few etiquette issues to headlines large and small, to Etiquetteer’s combined amusement and chagrin. Etiquetteer will now share just a few with you. The scandal of choice for most champions of Perfect Propriety would have to be the Flip Flop Flap, which ignited when the Northwestern University’s championship women’s lacrosse team showed up at the White House in July for a photo op with President Bush wearing (gasp!) flip flops and (probably) no pantyhose! One lacrosse player, Kate Darmody, was quoted in USA Today saying "I tried to think of something that would go well with my outfit and at the same time not be that uncomfortable. But at the same time not disrespect the White House." Alas, Miss Darmody failed at that task, just as much as that AIDS activist who showed up in a T-shirt for a meeting with President Clinton all those years ago. What gets Etiquetteer even more is that one young lacrosse player admitted to wearing flip flops decorated with rhinestones . . . how Redneck Riviera can one get? No matter how liberal your politics, it’s Most Proper to dress conservatively for a visit to the White House.Once upon a time Etiquetteer could have advised you to wear "church clothes," but seeing what some people are wearing to church these days, "business attire" may be safer. On the other hand, seeing what some people are wearing to work these days, Etiquetteer is forced to spell out "crisply tailored two-piece suit with blouse, hose, appropriate heels, white kid gloves, and Navy Red or Cherries in the Snow lipstick." It shouldn’t be necessary to be that specific . . . In other 2005 etiquette news, Etiquetteer and many irritated theatregoers applauded the BBC report that actor Richard Griffiths lashed out at a cellphone user during a November performance of the play "Heroes" in London’s West End. "Could the person whose mobile phone it is please leave? The 750 people here would be fully justified in suing you for ruining their afternoon," he reportedly said from the stage during the last act. Had Etiquetteer been there he would have led a standing ovation.Weddings bring out the worst in people, not least celebrities. In this case, we have newlyweds Robert Downey, Jr. and his bride Susan Levin against "Buckaroo Banzai" co-star Ellen Barkin and her husband, Revlon executive Ron Perelman. Time reported that Barkin and Perelman rescinded their invitation to Downey and Levin to hold their late-summer wedding at the Barkin/Perelman estate because the bride and groom wanted to include press photographers. After the relocated wedding took place, Le Downey suggested that the Perelmans had given them "somewhat less" than their best wishes. Etiquetteer thinks they all behaved badly, but especially the Downeys, who should have shown more respect for their erstwhile hosts, even if it was their wedding. They should all go sit in opposite corners until they repent and make up. Privately, Etiquetteer was told of a Mother of the Groom who attended her son’s wedding in a "champagne-colored" evening gown that was really just as white as the bride’s dress. It’s mighty bad form to upstage the bride, especially if you’re the mother of the groom! Remember, that lovely girl you may think is Not Good Enough For Your Precious Son will be in daily contact with your grandchildren. Treat her well now before she cuts you out of their lives altogether . . . On the higher education front, Columbia University saw the start of a clandestine "Night of Nakedness" party, reported by the New York Sun, which led Etiquetteer to hope that the coat check was administered carefully. Everyone knows of Etiquetteer’s revulsion for Reference to Bodily Function, so Etiquetteer knows you’ll understand the horror when kind friends pointed out to Etiquetteer the latest antics of train wreck former singer Bobby Brown. Apparently on one episode of his reality TV show "Being Bobby Brown," he described – oh, how can Etiquetteer put this – having to assist his wife, singer Whitney Houston, with a Bodily Function Best Not Described or Even Referenced on National Televison. AUGH! Very very bad! Last but my no means least, Etiquetteer really does have to give kudos to Michael Brown and the political cronies of FEMA for demonstrating once and for all just how bad being "fashionably late" really is. And they didn’t bring enough party favors, either! Let this be a lesson to you all to be prompter in 2006 . . . And with that Etiquetteer wishes all of you a New Year of Health, Happiness, Prosperity, and of course Perfect Propriety.