Father’s Day, Vol. 5, Issue 22

Infant Etiquetteer with Dear Father, January, 1964

Not too long ago, Etiquetteer was sitting near a young white man on a city bus. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a black design on it of a huge stereo speaker containing the words "****ing champs." One might not think that profane apparel would spark memories of one’s father, but then one wouldn’t be bargaining on Etiquetteer.

The late Governor Earl Long of Louisiana was not a man known for his erudition or refinement . . . and that’s an understatement. But he did say something memorable about the state of the arts in Louisiana: ‘If you ain’t got culture, you ain’t got s**t." When Etiquetteer was a callow youth flirting with rebellion, he had a T-shirt with this "witty" quotation on it. Etiquetteer happily wore it down to breakfast one morning, expecting to wear it for a day of toil in the family business. But Etiquetteer’s dear father was having none of it . . . oh no! Etiquetteer was given the option of either changing clothes, and at once, or of wearing the T-shirt inside-out all day. And this is how Etiquetteer learned about how a gentleman presents himself in public, a very valuable lesson.

Of course Dear Father taught all the lessons one expects from a father trying to raise a gentleman: how to shine shoes, the value of a handkerchief ("one to show and one to blow"), proper evening clothes ("a bow tie or no tie"), respect for one’s elders, and courtesy to the ladies, especially when in a bad mood. A cranky Young Etiquetteer once asked his mother what was for dinner and got a jovial "Roast boy!" in response. Etiquetteer’s less-than-appreciative comeback was overheard and corrected by Dear Father in no uncertain terms.

Undoubtedly Dear Father felt that the world could be as beautiful as we choose to make it ourselves. We can only do this if we keep from putting ugliness into it. Etiquetteer did not always share Dear Father’s idealism. "We must concentrate on lovely, pure, and virtuous things," Dear Father wrote in a letter about 25 years ago. Etiquetteer, then a cynical teen, hooted with derision getting that letter. "Oh, this is not what the real world is!" Etiquetteer remembers saying. Now, with the passing of years, the decline of public discourse and the white middle class’s embrace of ghetto culture, Etiquetteer knows just how right Dear Father was to keep his focus on that ideal. Etiquetteer hereby offers a humble apology for not getting it right until now.

Nowadays we are used to seeing zealots wield Christianity as a bludgeon to direct the behavior of others rather than themselves. Etiquetteer’s Dear Father never fell into that trap, thankfully, and provided the best lesson any father, any parent, could: teaching by example. Once when a supermarket cashier gave us change without actually taking our money, Dear Father led the way back to the supermarket as soon as he realized what happened. How many people would be bothered to be so honest now? And this is only one instance of many Etiquetteer could relate.

In conclusion, Etiquetteer could offer no better summary than "Every day he did his best whatever the task." There could be no better example of Perfect Propriety than that.



A Gentleman’s Clothes and A Tricky Note, Vol. 4, Issue 13

Dear Etiquetteer: I favor the pocket square, and have always noted the "tips out after 6:00 PM" rule. I further favor proper attire on airplanes, in the perhaps foolish notion that one receives better regard and attention from the waiter. However, when one is crossing the Atlantic or otherwise shuffling time zones, when does "tips out" actually take effect? In other words, when is six o’clock in the evening really six o’clock in the evening? Is there a condition in which it is acceptable to have tips out prior to six o’clock, and thus spare oneself the spectacle of public readjustment?Dear Tipped Out:You will be interested to know – as Etiquetteer was when he found out – that during the day the pocket square is considered optional and not required with a suit or sport jacket. When you do wear one, make sure that it doesn’t bear the least suggestion of a spot or stain, and be careful it doesn’t look too perfect. Resembling a mannequin has never been Perfectly Proper.You may always spare yourself the spectacle of public readjustment of any portion of your apparel by retreating to the nearest men’s room, even on an airplane. Let’s not hear any more about that. As for timing, Etiquetteer will allow you to put your tips out when the stewardess brings the first rounds of evening martinis.

Dear Etiquetteer:Alas, is there no opportunity to wear one’s tuxedo to the theatre/symphony any longer? Not even to opening/closing night? I fear the only suitable venue left may be a party chez Etiquetteer - it is bittersweet.Dear Dressing:You will know it’s completely safe to wear your dinner clothes to the theatre or the symphony when you are invited to do so, either to the performance itself or to some madcap party afterward. Otherwise, Etiquetteer advises you to appear with a dark suit, an elegant tie, and a happy heart.

Dear Etiquetteer:A tragedy has struck our family and I'm at a loss to express my sympathy. A cousin's wife has just given birth to a baby diagnosed as Downs Syndrome. I'm told by those close to the couple that problems were foreseen prior to birth but they preferred not to share the information.Obviously, they have not had time to send birth announcements, etc., as the parents have been at the children's hospital where many tests are being performed. Those of us of the extended family want to show our support by the gifts bought months ago which, of course, we will send and by a note of love and concern. Etiquetteer, you have always been able to compose beautiful sensitive notes. Please give us some advice this time. Dear Concerned Cousin: Etiquetteer’s heart goes out to your cousin’s family. Children born with what are euphemistically termed "special needs" are welcomed with open arms and loving hearts into families all over the world, but they do present challenges to every family member. These new parents will certainly need your support in the years ahead.As you write to your cousins, please do not assume that they look on the birth of their child or its condition as a tragedy, especially since they were aware of the possibility that the baby might be born with this condition. In your note, say how pleased you are that the baby was delivered safely, that the mother is healthy, that you look forward to seeing the baby when they are home from the hospital, and that you are praying for each and all of them as they adjust to the new circumstances and responsibilities of parenthood. And please follow up again in a couple months with another note that you are still thinking of them. Etiquetteer knows it will be appreciated.

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Reader Response, Vol. 2, Issue 13

On Condolences: Maybe my upbringing was rigid, but I was always trained that one never, ever sent a commercial sympathy card; the handwritten letter was mandatory. As you know, people think they need to be creative, and this need really needs to be extirpated when it comes to this arena. Personal anecdotes aside -- which are wonderful if you have them, but often are unavailable because you are comforting someone you know over a loss of someone you don't know -- there is a good reason why expressions of sympathy in writing and in person are ritualistic and formulaic: because it is all really quite beyond words. That is precisely why rituals and formulas were invented: as code to express the inexpressible, the unfathomable. Now, if we could only bring back some form of mourning clothing to warn innocents that someone in grief is in their midst. Since black is the new black, and is politically incorrect as mourning, I nominate good old gray, white and lavender/dull purple. Once indicating half mourning, it’s now a color combination one rarely sees (therefore hard to be confused with anything else) and actually looks good on most people, regardless of their "season." 

On Call Waiting: I take exception to the your answer regarding Call Waiting. Although I agree that one must do one’s best not to interrupt the conversation at hand, there are always exceptions. As the mother of small children I occasionally need medical advice. Call Waiting allows me to rest assured that the return call from their pediatrician is not missed. That said, when awaiting such a call, I always preface any personal conversation with the caveat that another call may come in and I will have to take it. I also never initiate a call. So I suppose I both agree and disagree with you!

On Bad Toys for Good Children: My husband adamantly disagrees with your advice! He thinks since our child is only four, if we don't want a certain toy, we should go ahead and say so! We kind of did when he was a baby and we have an [Evil Toy I] free home. Now if we could just get rid of [Evil Toy II]! Ugh! Even his babysitter gave him a one for Christmas. Now she is so sick of the boys fighting with them she doesn't want our son to bring his when he goes to her house. It's a fine line parents have to walk when it comes to appropriate toys! Etiquetteer responds: That’s true, but your husband needs to remember that nobody cares what you want or how you feel.

On Etiquette Books: I suppose for some of us (and I daresay we are a particular crew), one is loyal to one's "first" etiquette book. For me, Amy Vanderbilt's Etiquette will always have pride of place. (I speak only of the editions published before her death, of course.) I have read and re-read it over the years. It was my favorite high school graduation gift, though I had of course been aware of it for years as it had a prominent perch in our home library. Miss Vanderbilt had her own way of creating characters. I have never forgotten such ruffians as "the hatless and gloveless man" and "the tieless man." I must confess that Miss Manners is a siren, but in her way, Miss Vanderbilt remains my muse.

On Cummerbunds: NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Heaven forfend!!!! A cummerbund’s pleats go up!!!! They are for opera tickets and as our ancestors used to say tongue-in-cheek: "Up to catch the soup."Etiquetteer responds: With a certain amount of horror, Etiquetteer is forced to concede. If our sainted ancestors were using their cummerbunds as bibs and file cabinets, one can see why the Brahmins don’t run things any more. All the more reason to forego it for a Proper Waistcoat.

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer! Click on "Contact" below and e-mail your question for a later column.

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Etiquetteer's next regular column will appear on the weekend of May 3. Whether something additional appears between now and then, Etiquetteer hopes that you'll spend a Perfectly Proper Religious Holiday of Your Choice.

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