Dear Etiquetteer: Occasionally my nose will suddenly start running, from any one of a number of causes. It could be strong smoke or fumes, scented products, spicy foods, or some unknown reason. I know it's considered rude to even wipe one's nose in public, let alone blow it, especially at the table. But it's also embarrassing at a restaurant or a group dinner to keep hopping up and disappearing into a distant restroom. What's the best way to navigate this difficulty?
Etiquetteer had two Lovely Grandmothers, Granny and Gramma, and they each knew only one joke. Granny's joke was "Brownie's at the door," and it went like this:
A spinster lady agreed to take care of her young nephew while his parents were going to be away, which meant that she had to take him with her to a dinner party. "Now Nephew," she said, "I have post-nasal drip, and if you see a drip on my nose, I want you to tell me 'Brownie's at the door.'" Nephew agreed, and off they went.
At the dinner table, the nephew was seated on one side of his aunt, but on the other side the spinster found a handsome young bachelor! She spoke to him with fascination for some time, until she felt a tug on her sleeve. "Auntie, Brownie's at the door!" said her nephew. "Not now dear, I'm talking," was her reply. This dialogue was repeated two or three times. Finally, conversation at the table turned, and the spinster lady asked her nephew "Now, what was it you wanted to tell me?" "Well," replied the nephew, "Brownie was at the door, but he's in the soup now."
Humans have had runny noses longer than there have been dinner tables, and as you point out, it's not sustainable to leave the room every time one needs to to blow. To Etiquetteer, the real criterion is discretion. How silently can this operation be conducted? How can this be accomplished without attracting attention? At the table, if only a drip needs to be mopped up, "dab don't rub" is a safe rule. If it's possible for you to blow your nose silently and briefly, do so at table. If you're one of those people like Etiquetteer, who is unable to blow his nose without sounding like Gabriel's Legion or a New York City traffic jam, it's best to leave the table.
Easy availability of the handkerchief is the second important factor in unobtrusive nose blowing. The old saying of "A handkerchief should be in your hand three seconds before you need it" is always true. A gentleman, of course, may keep it in his inside jacket pocket or a pants pocket. Perhaps at the table ladies could keep theirs in their laps under their napkins? Attention is always attracted when the need for a handkerchief is making itself felt and the search for the hankie becomes more frantic as the need becomes more urgent. On NO account should one's handkerchief be allowed to touch the surface of the table! Take it out, use it, and put it back.
There is healthy, yet to Etiquetteer tedious, debate about handkerchiefs vs. paper tissues. Etiquetteer's principal objections to the latter are that they form a gigantic wad in one's pockets after use, and that too many people will try to reuse them after one blow, which is simply Disgusting. While Etiquetteer cannot object to people carrying those little plastic packets of paper tissues - apparently ladies need them in the ladies room, and it's not Etiquetteer's place to ask why - nothing beats a sturdy linen or cotton handkerchief.
This may sound foolish but when one lives in the Deep South how does one get rid of snow boots gracefully?