No Really, No One Cares About Your Children, Vol. 13, Issue 15

Remember that child who was crawling all over that expensive modern sculpture that looks like a stack of shelves? Unfortunately the parents are not feeling as guilty and ashamed as they ought to be, and have given a rather self-serving and defensive interview to the London Evening Standard, making the disingenuous claim that their little girl was just being "anti-establishment." While Etiquetteer supposes this could be taking the "All response is valid" mantra of the contemporary art world to an extreme, that position was belied the decidedly establishment-looking school uniforms the "anti-establishment" daughter was wearing when photographed for the newspaper with her family. Kait Bolongaro, the child's mother, outrageously brags about other statues her children have climbed, and then says "It’s not right, but they were just interested. Their only crime was to be seduced by a ladder of jewel-coloured shelving. Sissi has always been anti-establishment but she would never hurt anybody." This statement is perfectly ridiculous. One can easily be seduced by a work of art without having to touch it, much less physically climb or inhabit it. And have you not noticed how people add the word "just" to an offense to try to minimize its impact, to make what is unacceptable sound simple and excusable?

Etiquetteer strongly suggests a course in remedial parenting for Ms. Bolongaro and her husband Stuart Trevor. They clearly do not understand how essential it is to raise children to respect the property of others.

No One Cares About Your Children in Public, Vol. 13, Issue 10

Since there seems to be some doubt on the subject, Etiquetteer would like to clarify that no one cares about your children. Especially when they are misbehaving out in public. No one cares! And no one cares especially if you, as a parent, do not care about the impact your children have on other people and/or their belongings. What, you are probably asking yourself, launched Etiquetteer into this tiny tirade? The answer, dear readers, is this article, with photos, of parents blissfully unconcerned about their child climbing all over what is apparently a multi-million dollar work of art at the Tate Modern. One of the parents responded, "You obviously don't understand kids." To which Etiquetteer protests that the parents don't understand them. Children want a place to play! This is why there are places for children to play that are specifically for playing. This is why we have parks with jungle gyms. This is why we have playgrounds with swings. This is why we have traffic with . . . wait, no . . . no, that's not helping. Don't send the children to play in traffic.

Parents who fail to set boundaries for their children outside the home fail to teach them respect for other people. This is most often seen in restaurants, where parents of Children Too Young to Know Better are allowed to get away with terrible behavior, which usually has to be cleaned up by a long-suffering waiter or waitress who is insufficiently tipped. Parents, think honestly about the impression your family makes when you're out and about. It takes a village to raise a child, the old saying goes, and you want to be sure the villagers aren't coming after your Precious Snowflakes with tar, torches, and pitchforks.

Of course, when you look at the artwork on which the child was climbing, an obvious solution presents itself. A reasonable facsimile can be purchased from West Elm or some other stark and severe home furnishings catalog and installed in the nursery at home. Problem solved.

Punctuality, Vol. 13, Issue 8

"Punctuality is the politeness of kings," often attributed to Louis XVIII*, really lays out the most basic Perfect Propriety for kings and commoners. Arriving on time and prepared, whether it's for a party or a meeting, shows respect to the other participants (whose productivity may depend on one's punctuality) - and also for one's hostess's soufflé, which could be ruined for all. So Etiquetteer read with interest this article about the four habits of punctual people. It really is astonishing how many people don't allow themselves enough time to get from one place to another, allow for delays, or, new to this century, rely on a Global Positioning System that is not 100% accurate en route without checking a map first.

This story also vividly brought to mind an incident from Etiquetteer's early life in the work world, which Etiquetteer has told so often you may have heard it before. A weekly management meeting would routinely begin up to 20 minutes late in this company because managers (who perhaps just didn't want to attend the meeting anyway) couldn't remember the time. Eager Young Etiquetteer, taught courtesy at his mother's knee, was assigned to record the minutes to these meetings, and began listing in the attendance at the top those who had been tardy. Within two weeks, everyone appeared promptly and the productivity and brevity of the meetings improved. But Eager Young Etiquetteer continued to list the tardies, who would occasionally appear for one reason or another.

And then the day came for which, apparently, many people had been waiting. Eager Young Etiquetteer Himself was tardy. It happened very innocently! At lunch with a colleague at a restaurant perhaps too distant from the office, the waitress was too slow with the check, and traffic was encountered returning to the office. Eager Young Etiquetteer and the colleague rushed to the conference room, only to discover that the door was locked! There was nothing to do but knock on the door. And much merriment ensued when Shamefaced Young Etiquetteer had to mark himself down as a tardy.

And the moral is this: good punctuality, like good housekeeping, is what goes unnoticed.

*Etiquetteer somehow prefers to remember him as the Comte de Provence, the younger brother and sometime Dauphin to Louis XVI.

At Random, Vol. 13, Issue 6

Now that the milestone of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has passed, Etiquetteer certainly hopes that you've finished all your Lovely Notes of Thanks from all the gifts and invitations you received. And Etiquetteer hopes you've received a sheaf of them in return for the gifts and entertainment you shared.

In bleak and bare January, it is pleasant to think of the spring to come and the blossoms that will appear in one's garden. So it's also helpful to remember that Oscar Wilde made the green carnation popular in his day. Gentlemen who wore a green carnation were instantly recognizable as "men of the Wilde sort," which made introductions of the like-minded so much safer and convenient. Remember this next St. Patrick's Day, now less than two months away.

Etiquetteer is getting mighty tired of people who do not understand that in this country, on escalators we stand on the right and pass on the left, and we certainly do not stand next to each other talking and blocking the way for others to pass us. Stop it at once!

Many people find it difficult to feel Perfectly Proper in subzero temperatures for the simple reasons that a) they're extremely cold and b) bulky winter wear obstructs movement, and sometimes vision as well. We can't all be Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago, more's the pity - PETA would be after their fur coats with their paintball guns in a flash - but concentrating on Perfect Posture can help transport us to a nice warm drawing room in our minds.

When Hospitalized Overseas, Vol. 13, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: You are such a well-traveled and well-mannered person, I write you to seek your wise guidance as to how to respond correctly to unexpected situations.

1) Imagine Madame in an overseas hospital operating room. She is lying on her right side with her left arm held up out of the way by a restraint, and anesthetized from the chest down, but wide awake and conversing with the surgeon during the operation.

The surgeon, while cutting into Madame, informs her of his progress, to wit: “I am now cutting through all the fat in your butt.” What, pray tell, is the appropriate repartee?

2) Madame brought along with her to the hospital her extendable “grabber/reacher” thing. It's called a PikStik, and the name is on it. There followed some smirks from the nurses.

Upon inquiry, one of the male nurses, blushing, informed Madame that “Pik” was the local dialect word for “external male genitalia”, and that the idea that such equipment could be doubled in length upon command was a concept that was appealing to many. The blushing and snickering persisted with each new staff member to see Madame’s reacher.

Any thoughts as to the proper response?

Dear Patient:

Indeed, one must be patient in a Country Other Than One's Own when interacting within its healthcare system. And it is most important to the retain the sympathies of the healthcare personnel with whom one interacts. That need not come at the expense of one's dignity.

Humor, however, relieves many an awkward situation, and each of these might benefit from a bit of levity. While under the knife, Madame might have responded to the doctor, "I guess it's too late to go on that diet now." In the second, a Victorian etiquette manual (Etiquetteer is gnashing his teeth to remember which one) said that "a lady does not even recognize a double entendre." Alas, we are none of us Victorians . . . still, one can do more with a pointed or coy glance and a raised eyebrow than with any words. But truly, as a hospital patient, one is excused from conversation on the grounds that one just isn't in the best of health and needs to catch up on one's sleep.

Allow Etiquetteer to wish Madame a Swift and Perfectly Proper recovery!

Random Issues and Commentary, Vol. 12, Issue 5

Dear Etiquetteer: When someone sees a bit of food on your face, or a smudge or something else that shouldn't be there, should they tell you about it? Even if it's small?

Dear Smudged:

The question isn't the size of the apparent Impediment to Perfection, but the ability to do something about it. For instance, Etiquetteer has on more than one occasion come home from a party with a dark green bit of spanikopita on his teeth, which would have been easy to remove had someone quietly said, "Etiquetteer, you have a bit of spinach in your teeth." On the other hand, Etiquetteer, like many men, occasionally cuts himself shaving. When the answer to "You have something on your chin" is "It's a scab; I cut myself shaving," you've overstepped.

Etiquetteer should hasten to add that it's impertinent of a gentleman to inform a lady who is a stranger to him of anything out of place about her. These days such "helpfulness" is too easily misconstrued as harrassment.

Unfortunately, the threat of being expelled from Best Society no longer deters people from behaving badly in public. Several instances have appeared in the news today:

  • Students at Tufts University were reprimanded for excessive drunkenness and public urination at the Tufts Winter Bash at a Boston hotel. Do you know why Emily Post, Lillian Eichler, Amy Vanderbilt, and other 20th-century etiquette writers never had to specify that ladies and gentlemen never urinated in plain view? BECAUSE PEOPLE KNEW BETTER. Etiquetteer blames Woodstock. If it were up to Etiquetteer, these students would be expelled. In the meantime, Etiquetteer hopes that Tufts will choose a less violent name for their winter dance than "bash."
  • Some good clean fraternity fun veered into Imperfect Propriety when a University of Michigan fraternity was suspended indefinitely for using a semi-nude photo in a party invitation. The photo features a row of ten Pi Kappa Alpha brothers wearing only a very thin American flag. While Etiquetteer chooses not to doubt the intentions of these young men - although one of them does appear to be enjoying himself a bit too much - Etiquetteer does have to disapprove. You see, the photo was used in a party invitation to a sorority, and this Image of Implied Nudity can easily be construed as Forcing One's Attention on a Lady, which as we know is Simply Not Done. A photograph of the brothers fully dressed would not have been offensive. Etiquetteer hopes this Error in Judgment will be rectified soon.
  • The Black Mental Health Alliance has launched an ad campaign emphasizing the legal penalties of sagging. For those who might be unaware, sagging is the practice of wearing one's pants below the waist, often to such a degree that they are completely below the buttocks - exposing undergarments, and often more. Etiquetteer agrees with rapper Tamara Bubble, quoted as saying "Sagging should stop now. Girls don’t like it and people don’t take you seriously in general. You can’t get job with it. If you go to court with it, you’re probably going to lose your case. In all aspects of life, it’s not healthy." But even Etiquetteer questions the penalties mentioned: a $300 fine and up to three years in jail. Etiquetteer can only imagine the hue and cry there would be if such a campaign was put into place for those who wear pajamas in public* - a practice that is carried out by too many people of all races.
  • Then there's the report of Judy H. Viger, the 33-year-old mother who hired strippers for her son's sixteenth birthday party. CAUTION: The linked article includes what most people would call a "Not Safe For Work image" and what Etiquetteer calls Most Indelicate. From the article: "The dancers stripped to thong underwear and bras and gave lap dances to some of the teenagers." The article also mentions that this party was held at a bowling alley, and it isn't clear that it was in a private lane. Ms. Viger has been arrested, and Etiquetteer would like to see her sentenced to public service working with victims of sexual abuse.

And that should be Quite Enough from Etiquetteer tonight! Now go forward and sin no more.

*Of course Etiquetteer exempts those going to or from a pajama brunch, but it is advisable not to run errands along the way.

Dining in Public, Vol. 12, Issue 4

From Etiquetteer's Facebook page comes this query: Dear Etiquetteer:

Last night my family, including my husband's parents and sister (who were visiting from out of state) had the pleasure of attending dinner service on the Napa Valley Wine Train. All the lady seated behind my sister-in-law could do was complain, loudly. We didn't allow her to ruin our good time, but felt trapped! As did the lovely couple seated across from the bitter bitter woman. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of the right way to handle the situation and would like never to find myself lacking the Perfectly Proper way to handle the very uncomfortable situation she was causing. How would you recommend handling this situation, should it present itself during another evening?

Dear Entrained and Entrapped:

Etiquetteer's guiding precept has always been that No One Cares How You Feel or What You Want. Etiquetteer thinks it's a pity this Dining Virago was not so educated. One wonders why such people ever leave home, since they are so clearly unhappy away from it. Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden joined her Congressman husband on an official delegation to Mexico in 1910. Commenting on one Senator and his wife, she wrote "I wonder why they come on a trip like this, all made up of scenery and adventure, when they could get so much better pie and cereal at home."*

You and your family, however, were clearly brought up on the maxim "Don't borrow trouble," for which Etiquetteer commends you. Because let's face it, in Real Life, confrontations such as these are always messier than they are in TV sitcoms. For instance, had you leaned over and asked "Excuse me, I hate to interrupt your diatribe, but did you happen to bring any earplugs we could borrow?" you would not have been saved by a commercial break. The Fantasy of the One-Line Putdown That Works is just that, a fantasy.

The first and best recourse is to speak (quietly) to the waiter or the manager and ask if anything can be done. It's in their best interest to be sure that all their diners are enjoying themselves, not only the Dining Virago but also you and your party. They can take what action they feel is necessary to get her to pipe down, whether it's a complimentary dessert, picking up her entire check, or promising her that she'll never have the chance to complain about their service again after she's banned from returning.

Etiquetteer thinks you and your family might have put a more positive spin on the situation by sending a bottle of wine to "the lovely couple seated across from the bitter bitter woman," creating a secret community able to smile over a special bond: Endurance. Etiquetteer can just see you all toasting each other silently across the aisle while the Dining Virago obliviously keeps on ranting.

Etiquetteer wishes you and your family well on future dining excursions!

Have you had a difficult experience dining out? Etiquetteer would love to accept your queries at <queries _at_ etiquetteer dot com>.

*It should surprise no one that Etiquetteer is quoting from Washington Wife: Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden from 1897 - 1919.

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.

The War on Christmas, Vol. 11, Issue 19

For some time Etiquetteer has had a presence on Facebook, which is the source of today's query: Dear Etiquetteer:

What does Etiquetteer think of the people who are griping about being told "Happy Holidays" instead of Merry Christmas? I think people should just take the salutation at face value, and not get ornery about how it's given!

Dear Greeted:

Etiquetteer, with increasing dismay, has seen something that is really quite trivial become a flashpoint for annoyance. Really, some people take offense at any other holiday greeting but the one that they celebrate themselves. And yet in a democratic society which enjoys Freedom of Religion, it's inevitable that one will encounter at least 12 people who Choose Another Holiday Than One's Own.

You may not be responsible for the behavior of other people, but you are certainly responsible for your own. There's nothing to stop you from replying "And a Merry Christmas to you!" What Etiquetteer finds tedious is lengthening what is supposed to be a brief greeting -- "Merry Christmas!" "And a happy holiday to you, too!" --  into a drawn-out discussion about what holidays one does or does not celebrate and why. It doesn't matter! Can't you all just wish each other well without getting lost in a Quagmire of Specificity?

Actually, for social and professional acquaintances, Etiquetteer does understand. Knowing what holidays a person celebrates helps others to understand that person. Responding to "Happy Holidays!" with "Thank you, I'm looking forward to a beautiful Christmas this year" establishes oneself as a Christmas celebrant* without offering offense. Nor should offense be taken. Further discussion, however, easily becomes unctuous and should be avoided.

Those who truly wish, as the saying goes, "to keep the Christ in Christmas," do so best by receiving greetings other than "Merry Christmas," with Christlike forbearance, in the spirit in which they were intended.

Another issue which Etiquetteer has watched with increasing dismay is the bitter battle between those advocating for and against the display of nativity scenes on public property throughout the United States. This honest disagreement has led many Christians to behave in ways other than what is espoused in Christian doctrine. What is the best way to display Christian values or virtues? Is it insisting on Christian precedence in a nation that enjoys Freedom of Religion? Is it by emphasizing the display aspects of an important holiday over its intended message? Opinions vary widely.

Etiquetteer has come to believe that the best way to display a nativity scene in public is in one's behavior. This is done by treating all one encounters, regardless of sameness to or difference from oneself, with kindness and forgiveness. It also means obeying established rules of behavior, both written and unwritten. For instance, the able-bodied should not be parking in places reserved for the handicapped, bargain hunters should not be switching price tags, and no one should be cutting in line.

Now, let's get on with everyone celebrating the Holidays of Their Choice!

*So many non-Christians celebrate Christmas, Etiquetteer can't really assume that saying you celebrate Christmas establishes you as a Christian.

St. Patrick's Day, Vol 11, Issue 7

Today is St. Patrick's Day, when everyone can claim to be Irish. Perfect Propriety takes a bigger hit on St. Patrick's Day than any other day in the American calendar, what with so many people using its parades and whatnot as a cover for Excess Alcohol Consumption. Etiquetteer has a few observations to make:

  • Mixed greens are suitable for a salad, but not your St. Patrick's Day "Wearin' of the Green." Please don't wear clashing shades of green. Kelly, olive, chartreuse, and day-glo look vile together. Remember, only blue-greens with blue-greens, and yellow-greens with yellow-greens.
  • In the last 30 years St. Patrick's Day has become a forum for homophobia in some communities. So let us not forget that it was the late Oscar Wilde who made the green carnation boutonniere a symbol for men of "the Wilde sort." "That sort" can now wear their carnations with a difference.
  • As the child of a Southern community with no Irish heritage, Etiquetteer grew up with only two St. Patrick's Day traditions: 1) wear green, and 2) pinch people who are not wearing green. And yet the tradition of pinching is unknown in certain Irish-American communities. If you're determined to go around pinching the greenless on St. Patrick's Day, remember that it's all in fun! Don't inflict pain, and don't let that be your purpose.
  • It's been suggested that the Irish should be exempt from pinching. Etiquetteer suggests that Irish who forget to wear green on St. Patrick's Day should be pinched twice.
  • If you're not wearing green, do not claim that you have on green undergarments. This is only an invitation for Rude Questions to prove your honesty, and quite possibly an Indecent Assault. (Of course, if that's what you really want, Etiquetteer has to wonder why you're even reading an etiquette column in the first place.)
  • Etiquetteer was taught early on, once moving North, that the only thing one must not do on St. Patrick's Day is wear orange. In some communities such attire is an invitation to violence. Etiquetteer hopes all the Syracuse University alumni will be safe today.
Finally, Public Drunkenness is overrated, and it is certainly not Perfectly Proper. Please drink with Perfect Propriety this St. Patrick's Day by obeying all local laws and law enforcement.
Etiquetteer will be delighted to take your questions about all Problems of Manners at queries <at> etiquetteer dot com.

Hacked Hand-Me-Downs, Vol. 10, Issue 5

Dear Etiqueteer: I have a question about hand-me-downs - a particularly thorny issue to begin with.

In my family, infant clothing is passed down. It is commonly understood and practiced without discussion. My daughter, Effie, is currently in line between two of my cousins who are sisters. We will call them Abby and BeBe. Their daughters are Cici and Deedee, respectively. Cici is a year old, Effie is four months old, and Deedee is currently wearing newborn sizes. In theory, this works very well.

In practice, to be short, it does not. Cici's clothing is generally off-season. Whether the print is sunflowers or snowmen matters less than whether it is a sundress or snowsuit. More importantly, the clothing is not wearable. It is stained, tattered, threadbare, and paint is peeling off of snaps. Goodwill and Salvation Army would not sell clothing so worn. I do not use this clothing. Currently, everything Abby has given me is in a box in the closet.

On one occasion, Abby borrowed a bib from me. She had it for only a few hours and returned it stained.

To further complicate things, Abby is pregnant. This child would very reasonably follow Deedee. The clothing that I pass on to BeBe would be passed on to Abby again within a matter of months.

BeBe and I take very good care of our things. The clothing that I pass on to BeBe is nearly new. When I see Deedee, I can tell that BeBe is treating these hand-me-downs as well as if they were freshly store-bought. We have also both received very nice gifts, and so our daughters each have beautiful clothing.

I get rags from Abby. Because the only hand-me-downs Effie gets are those previously worn by Cici, she effectively does not have hand-me-downs. Therefore, everything passed from Effie to Deedee is new. Everything BeBe passes down after Deedee has outgrown it, I'm sure, will still be in very good condition.

There is a social issue with Abby as well, in that she constantly requests my professional services without hesitating to point out that they are not worth what I am asking. When I stopped discounting, she stopped patronizing- but not requesting.

I am not at all comfortable with that clothing being passed on to Abby, who clearly lacks appreciation for a variety of things. I am also sad to know that anything she gets will be ruined.

I have another friend who is pregnant, but passing clothing to her would mean that BeBe would not get my hand-me-downs. Deedee would instead only get Cici's clothing. I would not wish on BeBe what I am I trying to escape.

It is important to note that my husband and I have decided that Effie will be our only child.

Question One: What to do with the box.

Question Two: How to avoid receiving more.

Question Three: What to do with my hand-me-downs.

I have been struggling with this for weeks now. Thank you.

Dear Gigi:

Let's see if Etiquetteer can untangle the path of the baby clothes through your Family of Alphabetical Pseudonyms. Three cousins share hand-me-downs as needed. Currently they begin with Abby, for her year-old daughter Cici; then to you, Gigi, for your four-month-old daughter Effie; and then to BeBe for her newborn daughter Deedee. They will then return to Abby for her expected newborn (probably Heeheeheeheehee).

Because the hand-me-downs you're receiving from Abby are no longer fit to wear, Etiquetteer assumes that you are having to buy new baby clothes and/or acquire hand-me-downs from another source which will then go into the family's collective bassinet. You resent the expense and the necessity for this, and would like to spare BeBe your troubles by eliminating Abby from this silently operating Family Tradition.

Etiquetteer suggests ending this Family Tradition because it is not equally respected by all the participants. Since you and your husband are not planning to have any more children, pass on the box to BeBe (Question One) and declare to all that you are Out of the Loop (Question Two). This then becomes BeBe's problem, to manage with her sister Abby in any way she sees fit. Which means that you should say nothing about it evermore unless BeBe asks you.

As for your own hand-me-downs (Question Three), since they're yours, direct them where you think they will be most appreciated and cared for: either to BeBe or to your friend, or divide the lot and send some to each.

And should you and your husband end up having another child - which has been known to happen - make it clear from the beginning that you won't resume the Family Tradition.

Random Issues, Vol. 9, Issue 2

Dear Etiquetteer:
Last night, I took a dear friend as my guest to an expensive art gallery dinner, held in honor of a newly opened show. It was meant to be a special treat for us, as my friend is just emerging into social life again, after a devastating divorce.
Unfortunately, we were seated at a table of loud, bawdy drunks, who had come as a group, and found each other hilarious. After attempting polite introductions and brief small talk with our fellow diners, we two girlfriends tried to converse quietly together. But conversation was rendered impossible by the group's rude comments, and shenanigans such as dinner rolls being thrown across the table.
The room was otherwise full, and no alternative seats were available. The gallery owner ignored the situation. I was mortified to subject my friend to such obnoxious buffoonery. She is not native to the US, and the group even mocked the pronunciation of her name. We left as soon as the dessert had been served.
What on earth can one do to rescue such an evening, short of leaving as soon as possible? I apologized to my friend for the disastrous experience. As her her host, what else should I have done?
Dear Subjected:
Etiquetteer can only respond to you with the deepest compassion. The only thing worse than dining with "a table of loud, bawdy drunks, who had come as a group, and found each other hilarious" is dining with "a table of loud, bawdy drunks, who had come as a group, and found each other hilarious" who are your closest friends of whom you expected better.
The best way to guarantee your enjoyment at the sort of dinner you describe, which sounds suspiciously like a fund-raiser, is to round up enough friends and acquaintances to fill a table. As you have sadly learned, when Money is the only criterion for entrée, ladies and gentlemen are not safe from Bad Manners. (The roll-throwing tempted Etiquetteer to hope that perhaps these drunken bawds had once read P.G. Wodehouse, but this does not really seem likely. There are restaurants that cater to the roll-throwing crowd, like Lambert's Café, a more likely influence.)
It seems that you did everything possible at the time to salvage the evening, except speaking directly with the gallery owner. You indicate that s/he was ignoring the situation; you had the power to call it to his/her attention in no uncertain terms, by beckoning, or at worst, leaving your table and going to him/her. Another temporary solution might have been to take your dessert into the lobby.
Now that this ghastly dinner is behind you, Etiquetteer encourages you to create a new social opportunity for your newly-divorced friend: a dinner party in your own home given in her honor, with your own friends whose Perfect Propriety you know well enough in advance. You may also correspond with the gallery owner and sever any possible future connection with that organization.

Dear Etiquetteer:
I am a new, part-time teacher at my school.  I teach music in a building that is away from the main building and I very rarely socialize with other teachers; I'm just not around them much and don't eat lunch with them or chat in the teacher's lounge.  I received an invitation to a bridal shower for one of my coworkers.  He is getting married soon and I only know him by his last name.  I met his wife at the Christmas staff party, but can't remember her name.

What should I do about this shower?  I don't want to go, because I don't know the groom at all, and I know the bride even less.  Do I have to send a gift if I wimp out on attending?

Dear Teaching:
Undoubtedly this invitation was sent to all school faculty as a courtesy, and the groom didn't want you (or others) to feel left out. At least, that's how Etiquetteer could explain this situation charitably. (Whoever heard of a groom inviting professional colleagues to his fiancée's bridal shower?!) You need not attend, or send a gift, but please do send a Lovely Note of Congratulations to the Happy Couple on your most Perfectly Proper stationery.

Perfect Propriety at Holiday Meals, Vol. 8, Issue 24

A dear friend of Etiquetteer's forwarded recently two rather dispiriting (but unintentionally very funny) articles about family holiday dinners sabotaged by bad behavior. The first was a letter with dinner assignments and cooking instructions for a family Thanksgiving; the overprecise hostess just comes off as bossy. The second gives a list of family horror stories; be sure to read the last one, when a man kicks out his abusive in-laws on Christmas Eve! These stories got Etiquetteer to thinking about some basic rules for the holidays:

  1. It's a dinner table, not a Roman arena: the Winter Holidays - Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas Kwanzaa - are designed for us to come together in a spirit of Gratitude, Festivity, and most of all Love. Theoretically, we love our families and our friends. In practice, however, we all know that Love needs help when it's abraded by the desire to settle old scores or rehash long-ago arguments. Unfortunately, the stereotypical American mother-in-law who thought her offspring could have done better is the best example of this. Remember Etiquetteer's basic precept: no one cares what you want or how you feel. This is not the time, and if someone brings up an unwelcome topic or tries to rib you into a response, just reply "This really isn't the time" and change the subject.
  2. Keep the conversation light: Professor Henry Higgins instructed Eliza Doolittle to discuss only "the weather and everybody's health," with disastrous results. Rather than confine table talk to only two topics, Etiquetteer will only restrict you from discussing Politics, Religion, and of course Reference to Bodily Functions. Please also keep from pressing someone's hot buttons, too! We all have them; there's no use denying it. And they are unique. If you know someone will be set off by mentioning how the church was redecorated, say, or that Oprah Winfrey decided to end her talk show, don't do it.
  3. Shut up and eat!: Reading that second piece, Etiquetteer flushed with shame reading about the elderly mother circling the buffet for sweet potatoes and marshmallows. One year when Etiquetteer was very young and not yet versed in the ways of Perfect Propriety, his lovely grandmother made lamb for Thanksgiving. Young Etiquetteer huffily refused to taste a morsel; one had turkey on Thanksgiving! If you can't find your favorite dish, too bad. When you get home, you can make it for yourself.
  4. Roll with the punches: Perfect Propriety does not mean Perfection. One responds to Imperfection with Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer was appalled, and sorry for the recipients, reading that first letter with all the Thanksgiving cooking instructions. When one hosts a holiday meal that is really a potluck, one cannot expect One's Own Perfection out of the guests - who are also theoretically People You Love. If someone brings yams instead of mashed potatoes, or forgets a serving spoon, or anything, your negative reaction could mar the day more than their omission. Don't make them feel bad with a hissy-fit or snarkiness.
In the end, if you cannot approach the Festive Board with Love and Sincerity, perhaps it is better for you to be alone.
Due to distance and the proximity of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Etiquetteer has not celebrated the former with his family for 30 years. In the interim Etiquetteer has been welcomed into the homes of friends or the families of friends. So very very often the Warmth of Fellowship we crave at the holidays has been found around these tables. On Thanksgiving Day, which this year will be spent with cousins through the Mayflower, you may be sure Etiquetteer will lift a glass in thanks all the households where he has been made welcome.
Etiquetteer knows you are eager to resolve some question of Perfect Propriety before the rest of the Winter Holidays come! Please send your queries to <queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com>.

Unwanted In-Laws and Current Events, Vol. 8, Issue 8

Dear Etiquetteer: We live near my husband's brother, who is constantly inviting or letting my mother- and father-in-law invite themselves.  We (my husband, two kids, and I) are always faced with the "threat" of their every other month visits.  These visits usually last at least five days.  The events involved are excruciating to me.

What should I or my husband tell my brother-in-law and his parents to make them understand this is totally inappropriate?

We have invited them one time in seven years.  All the other visits, which have been every other month for the last seven years, have been them inviting themselves and no one saying anything.  Or my brother and sister-in-law inviting them for some reason.

Bear in mind that I have a special needs son who is 11 and my daughter is very active; she is six.  I home school my son as of about two weeks ago.  We live in the country and my husband could be losing his job.   Things are not perfect right now but it doesn't help to have people in your face that you would rather not see at all - ever!

Dear Daughter-in-Law:

You are correct to note that someone has to say something about this situation to solve it. Nearly everyone thinks that etiquette has a way to make problems disappear without them having to say or do anything. Unfortunately, since humans are involved, that's not possible. And Etiquetteer knows, to his sorrow, that the longer one seethes silently, the worse a problem becomes.

First of all, and this is true in any marriage, if it's his family, he does the talking, not you, and vice versa. On the other hand, you may find out that your husband isn't as opposed to these frequent visits as you are. Etiquetteer can't assume that he shares your revulsion for his family, although he may. Etiquetteer predicts a frank conversation between the two of you. Whatever the result, it's his family, and he has to deal with them. 

Etiquetteer hopes that your brother-in-law is not actually inviting people for multi-day visits into your own home! Only you and your husband have that privilege. 

All you have the power to change is your own participation and, in consultation with your husband, the participation of your children in these visits. If members of your husband's family want to get together outside your house, that's not your business. But Etiquetteer sees no reason for you to join them more than once over the course of five days. 

Now, how are you going to change the expectations of your in-laws, who are used to seeing you and your children a great deal after seven years? Etiquetteer recommends that you start not being available. Oscar Wilde created "Bunburying" in The Importance of Being Earnest, the subterfuge of leaving town to visit a fictional sick friend (in this case named Bunbury.) Etiquetteer doesn't think you need to go to those lengths, but you can create special activities with one or both of your children, or your own friends, that keeps you from joining your in-laws. Send your husband alone with the excuse that you'd already made other plans, or he can bring the kids and say you "need some time alone being worn out taking care of the children." If he doesn't want to go either, he can tell his brother that all of you have other plans, every night of the week, if necessary. 

You have probably already figured out that your in-laws are with you for life, until death or divorce severs your relationship with them. Rather than rely on those two courses (the first immoral and illegal if you arrange it, the second painful for your children), Etiquetteer very much hopes that you can stake out your own territory in your family life.

 

Etiquetteer has seen a lot in the news over the last week worthy of notice and comment:

Etiquetteer has seen a lot in the news over the last week worthy of notice and comment:

Etiquetteer applauds the Bill Duncan Opportunity School of Lakeland, Florida, for suspending Jonathan Locked, Jr. for deliberately disruptive flatulence. Unfortunately Young Master Locked's father is appealing the suspension, apparently believing that the punishment went too far. Etiquetteer cannot agree, and regrets that Mr. Locked isn't using this suspension to teach his son to respect the authority of teachers and school principals, respect for education and his classmates, and of course Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer can only hope that the Locked family eats fewer beans after this unfortunate, um, outburst.

In Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, a pastor and a congregant got in trouble with the law for shooting an arrow in church during a service. Reading the article Etiquetteer certainly got the impression that the pastor is more devoted to using props to illustrate the Word than the Word itself. This sort of sensationalism, plus the way the pastor evicted an objecting congregant, violates every sense of Perfect Propriety to Etiquetteer.

Also in church news, Etiquetteer was very interested to read about the innovations of Rev. Anne Gardner's iSermon Sundays at Phillips Academy. Certainly technology and References to Popular Culture will follow us everywhere, and Etiquetteer really has no objection. What raised Etiquetteer's hackles was the fact that Academy students were eating breakfast in the pews during church! Forgive Etiquetteer for sounding just a bit old-fashioned, but eating in church is NOT approaching worship of the Deity of One's Choice with Perfectly Proper undivided attention. Stop it at once!

Etiquetteer could not but agree with the Daily Telegraph's list of ten first date faux pas

Finally, Etiquetteer was both touched and amused to read the obituary of Stella Trafford last week. "The Grande Dame of Boston Parks," who was unafraid to wield a hoe or take on City Hall, received from her stepdaughter what Etiquetteer thinks is the ideal epitaph for a Working Lady to the Manner Born: "She died with her pearls on."

Etiquetteer has a new address for all your etiquette questions, queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.

Belching, Vol. 8, Issue 7

Dear Etiquetteer: My sister, who is a beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished young woman, burps. She burps loudly, often, and without covering her mouth. She doesn't say, "excuse me," after the fact. She doesn't excuse herself to the restroom (or another private place) beforehand. In response, my family and I have said things starting at, "Your doctor could probably get something to help with your digestion," to, "That is rude. Please don't burp at the table."

Her response to the former is that she doesn't have any health problem that causes the burps, and to the latter, "I do what I want!"

Again, she is a young woman who has enough background to appreciate just how rude her actions are. She is highly educated and reasonably cultured. We don't understand where her dismissive attitude regarding eructation. Privately, it is uncomfortable. Around company and in public, it is mortifying. How can we address the seriousness of our concern and inappropriateness of her dismissive response?

Dear Digesting in Silence:

Your sister seems to have taken as her role model Princess Fiona in Shrek, which is most unfortunate. Etiquetteer has said often that "No one cares what you want or how you feel," and this certainly applies to your sister! Her willful eructation will surely obscure the beauty, intelligence, and accomplishments you mention, while also making her the darling of eleven-year-old boys everywhere. (But Etiquetteer must question how Reasonably Cultured a woman can be if she behaves this way. Certainly no woman willfully belching like that could be called a lady.)

Etiquetteer fears nothing will curb her evil behavior until she loses a job or a lover over it. Etiquetteer can just imagine her ripping out a large BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAPP while interviewing for a job she wants, and then being shown the door. 

Etiquetteer has also heard much of the rivalry of sisters, both in life and in film. Possibly you are not the best person to give your sister direction. That said, there isn't any reason for you to accept her deliberately rude behavior. If you're in public with others and she belches in your presence, just leave the area as unostentatiously as you can. If she continues to burp at your own table, stop inviting her. Yes, even for functions at which all the family is present. Or, and here you will see Etiquetteer's Dark Side, set a place for her in the kitchen while everyone else dines in the dining room. Undoubtedly she'll take exception to this, and you can gently explain that the dining room is only for those who know how to behave like grown-ups at the table. 

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

Entertaining at Home, Vol. 8, Issue 4

Dear Etiquetteer: My partner and I love to cook and entertain. We also love to be cooked for and entertained, yet it seems we've attracted friends who like to enjoy our hospitality more than extend theirs. I haven't exactly kept count, but we know couples who've been our guests much more than we've been theirs. I enjoy their company, but I'm feeling resistant to inviting them over to our house yet again since I don't wish to continue a non-reciprocal pattern. I know their house is neat enough and their cooking is good enough, so I don't know what's holding them back from inviting us. Their alternative to eating at our house always seems to be eating out. But we prefer a home-cooked meal-- and we don't always want it to be ours! I know it's probably rude to say, "couldn't you invite us over to your house for a change?" but I don't know what to do.

Dear Harriet Craig:

Your letter reminds Etiquetteer of the redoubtable Marie Dressler as faded stage star Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight. Reminiscing about her long string of past lovers and their gifts, she complained "I could only take what they had."

Here, you can only take what hospitality your friends offer, even though it isn't quite what you'd prefer. It might not be Perfectly Proper to speculate on why they would rather dine out with you than in their own homes. The most neutral assumption is personal preference. It might also be that what you think of as a joy they find a chore; they could be preserving their own hostly equilibrium by staying out of the kitchen themselves. All that said, they aren't out of line inviting you out to dinner, as long as they're picking up the whole bill at least some of the time.

When the imbalance of hospitality becomes inseparable from the idea of welcoming these friends into your home again, then your invitations need to cease. Those feelings will only poison your heart against them; Etiquetteer has seen it happen before. You could also suggest activities that don't involve food, like going to the movies or other cultural attractions.  But like you, Etiquetteer values a home-based social life. When worse comes to worst, make new friends who share your values of home entertaining.

It cannot have failed to have come to your attention that the economy is, um, not as robust as it used to be. New, reduced circumstances are affecting hundreds of thousands of people who may be retreating from social life because they can't afford their old standard. Etiquetteer would argue that a social life is even more necessary now; we must band together in adversity! But heading off to Mocambo, Romanoff's, Chasen's, the Stork, 21, or the Cocoanut Grove four nights a week for dining and dancing won't do, nor will laying out filet mignon, Scotch, and all the delicacies for a dinner party at home.

Never has there been a better time for Etiquetteer to trot out that familiar quotation from the real estate industry, "If you can't hide it, paint it red and call it a feature." In this case, make Poverty your theme with a Poverty Pasta night. Assign ingredients one per guest: pasta, sauce, garlic bread, red wine, cheese, etc. (The presence of non-essential items like green salad and dessert automatically upgrades the evening to Gentility Pasta.) Nobody should have to spend more than $10, and everyone ends up with a delicious pasta dinner, convivial company, and no tipping. Etiquetteer recommends the traditional red-and-white checked tablecloth surmounted by candles in straw-covered Chianti bottles, décor once standard in Italian restaurants and now only seen in black-and-white movies. Opera fans can put on a recording of La Boheme to complete an atmosphere of genial poverty. 

All Etiquetteer can add to that is a hearty "Bon appétit!"

Etiquetteer has a beautiful new address for all your queries about manners, morals, and Perfect Propriety in the 21st century, queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com. Etiquetteer eagerly hopes to hear from you soon!

Hell Is Other People, Vol. 6, Issue 33

Jean-Paul Sartre once famously opined (Etiquetteer thinks it was in No Exit) that "Hell is other people." Etiquetteer cordially invites you to share what behavior of other people irritates you. Please drop a line to query <at> etiquetteer.com

Dear Etiquetteer:

What do you think about people who use their cell phones to carry on long and very loudconversations in public places, such as on trains and buses, or in restaurants? Or even on airlines when they are allowed.

And there is the public HEALTH risk of drivers so preoccupied with their calls that they run over pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s referred to as DWD: driving while distracted.

Dear Tintinnabulaphobic:

People like these, Etiquetteer has decided, must have low self-esteem and feel the need to call attention to themselves, and therefore making themselves more important. That the attention is negative doesn’t seem to make a difference. It would be easy to peg this behavior as lower-class, but many offenders have graduated from the finest business schools (AHEM!).

Etiquetteer remembers, from the dim past of 1994, his first trip to Los Angeles. Cell phones were just beginning to become available to the public, and Etiquetteer and his friends were agog to see peopleactually talking on the phone right there on the street!

Let’s just say the honeymoon is over.

You have the power to disconcert public cell phone yakkers by asking them personal questions about their phone calls. Proceed with caution; Etiquetteer disclaims all responsibility if they beat you up.

DWD is certainly becoming more of a problem. Last year Etiquetteer referred to a young woman in the Midwest who killed a man while she was simultaneously driving and downloading ringtones. And Etiquetteer will never forget riding in a car driven by a friend who was operating the car, the phone, and a personal digital assistance at the same time. Please drivers, hang up and drive!

Dear Etiquetteer:

For almost 50 years I've been friends with a man from my home state. We email infrequently, but I always manage to see him on the rare occasions when I return for a visit. My situation is that he keeps sending me email of a religious nature, long silly stories about how prayer has saved a grieving family, etc, or how the rainbows will come out if you just believe. He is a devout Baptist; I am an atheist, though he doesn't actually know this. Not only have I jettisoned my faith, I consider religion a pernicious deception of the gullible and an obstacle to the general love of mankind. As one can imagine, his emails make me acutely uncomfortable.

My problem is: do I (gently and tactfully) request that he stop sending me these ludicrous messages, stressing the fact that I would rather hear about what he's doing and thinking, or do I remain silent and simply erase the damned things?

Dear Persecuted and Scornful:

You can finesse the whole thing without even mentioning your change of religious beliefs. Ask your friend to take you off his distribution list (Etiquetteer assumes that he is sending his e-mail messages to more friends than yourself) because you find your mailbox so full of general communications such as this that you can’t keep up with specific e-mail from friends. (Once upon a time such specific communications were known as "letters" and they came in the mailbox.) Tell your friend that you still want to hear from him, but enjoy much more e-mail messages that he’s written himself.

This is a good place for Etiquetteer to remind everyone that the best way to forward humor, religious, or political posts (once referred to as "chain mail" when the postman delivered it) is to bcc: all the recipients and put your own e-mail address in the To: field. You not only preserve the privacy of your correspondents, but you also eliminate the possibility of annoying flame wars.

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