Rules of Catherine the Great, Annotated by Etiquetteer, Vol. 16, Issue 6

Etiquetteer has been absorbed to the exclusion of almost All Else in the last weeks with The Romanovs 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, a sweeping and unvarnished account of that family depraved by power and blessed by jewels. Montefiore drops many tantalizing tidbits along the way, and Etiquetteer was fascinated by a reference to Catherine the Great's rules of behavior at parties. Autocracy is hardly all fun and games; rules are needed for everything.

Thanks to the awesome power of the Internet, those rules were republished by the blog All Things Ruffnerian, and Etiquetteer will now annotate them for use in a Flawed Democracy:


1. All ranks shall be left outside the doors, similarly hats, and particularly swords.

For rank, Etiquetteer would substitute "celebrity status." "Don't you know who I am?" is a question that should never be asked. Also, to ask the musical question, "does anyone really still wear a hat?" The inelegant answer is "No, it's a baseball cap." Take it off! No one cares about your Bad Hair Day. If you can't groom yourself properly, you shouldn't be out in Society.

Etiquetteer would also substitute "cellphone" and "smartphone" for sword. These engaging devices keep people from looking into each other's eyes.

2. Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the doors.

Because haughtiness is not confined to those afflicted with celebrity status. It is interesting to note that the haughtiest people are rarely those who are truly great. Indeed, haughtiness might be said to diminish greatness.

3. Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything.

That means no short ribs, and no roughhousing indoors. Etiquetteer remembers with horror the story from Sally Bedell Smith's Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House of members of the Kennedy family "played touch football in the living room" at a party hosted by Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, "breaking glasses and spilling drinks on the Savonnerie carpet. According to Oleg Cassini, 'A rare signed pair of antique chairs was demolished.'" Etiquetteer supposes it would have been worse if they'd gnawed on those antique chairs after they'd destroyed them.

4. Be seated, stand or walk as it best pleases you, regardless of others.

Happily our Flawed Democracy has not been afflicted with too much ceremony. Citizens stand when the President of the United States enters or leaves a room, and when judges enter or leave their courtrooms, but that's about it. Gentlemen ceased rising when ladies entered or left a room decades ago with the advent of Women's Lib. Etiquetteer believes in equality, but misses the graciousness.

5. Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present have not an earache or headache.

This also means, as the saying goes, that if you want conversation in the foreground, no music in the background. And let us not mistake volume for enunciation. Slurring your words more loudly doesn't make you more comprehensible, only more alarming.

6. Argue without anger or passion.

How very important! And how much our political leaders have forgotten this! Etiquetteer would dearly like to see a return to dinner-table diplomacy at all levels of society. High time we resolved our Significant Differences of Opinion by breaking bread together. Etiquetteer has probably quoted this dialogue from Advise and Consent before, but it bears repeating:

          Senator Van Ackerman: "This is no laughing matter to me, Mrs. Harrison."
          Mrs. Harrison: "Oh? Then perhaps this isn't the place to discuss it."

7. Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.

Those of us with Pet Theories and/or Strong Opinions need to monitor ourselves.* Parties are opportunities for conversation, not audiences.

8. Agree to partake of any innocent [emphasis Etiquetteer's] entertainment suggested by others.

"We could play SPIN the Botticelli, but we're not going to," says Michael in The Boys in the Band before proposing the Cruelest Party Game Ever. If the party takes a turn with which you're morally uncomfortable, make your excuses courteously and depart.

9. Eat well of good things, but drink with moderation so that each should be able always to find his legs on leaving these doors.

Body shots are not Perfectly Proper. Etiquetteer should not have to tell you this. This is also an admonition to the hosts to provide plenty of good things to eat.

10. All disputes must stay behind closed doors; and what goes in one ear should go out the other before departing through the doors.

In other words, Guaranteed Discretion is needed to create an atmosphere of Trust and Relaxation, even among those with Opposing Points of View. Ladies and gentlemen remember this.

Now, with all that in mind, let's all eat, drink, and be merry with Perfect Propriety!

*Etiquetteer says "ourselves" while looking askance at That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who could talk the ears off a yak - if he'd been invited to the same party as a yak.