How Young Etiquetteer Was Embarrassed, Vol. 14, Issue 36

You may have heard Etiquetteer tell this story before, but it came to mind vividly again, and Etiquetteer must tell (or retell) it now for the record. Etiquetteer has always had an interest in seeing things done with Perfect Propriety and with people Behaving Well. And as a college student, Young Etiquetteer had an equal and abiding interest in Free Food. So one day many years ago Young Etiquetteer received with pleasure an invitation from an elderly lady to a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton. What could be more Perfectly Proper than a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton? Young Etiquetteer accepted the invitation with alacrity and brushed off his best suit in preparation.

Now this elderly lady - let's refer to her as Madame - who Young Etiquetteer had never really met, was a friend of Young Etiquetteer's Stern Grandmother, but there was no reason to suspect she might be any different from the legions of elderly ladies Young Etiquetteer had been entertaining since birth: full of indulgent smiles, Christian rectitude, canasta, and a dash of genealogy. Young Etiquetteer's eyes were to be opened, as Madame's principal focus was Herself and Her Reactions, as we shall see.

In those days*, the Ritz-Carlton dining room was described by many as the most beautiful room in Boston, and to a young man who hoped to be Perfectly Proper it was considered a crucible of Perfectly Propriety. From its snowy napery to its brocade draperies to its famous cobalt glass chandeliers and goblets, the room represented what Americans used to aspire to (and should continue aspire to today) as the Good Life. But almost from the beginning, Madame set a very different tone.

She was first nonplussed (but quietly) about an odd feature of 1980s restaurant etiquette: maitre d's who kissed on the mouth. Next, loudly exclaiming over the beauty of the china, Madame picked up the service plate like the latest bestseller to read the trademark. Young Etiquetteer, who had not only been taught that the first thing you did at table was put your napkin in your lap but also that you never did anything so gauche as to examine the provenance of the china, was nearly demolished by this. But more was still to come.

This occasion proved to be Young Etiquetteer's first encounter with service à la russe, which requires one to serve oneself each course from large platters offered by the waiter. Negotiating salmon with asparagus and hollandaise sauce is difficult enough for the uninitiated, but made even more so with Ceaseless Commentary on the novelty of the service from Madame, who thought it was different and charming, and didn't fail to mention this at top volume anytime a waiter - any waiter - appeared within two feet of us. She was having a wonderful time, and wanted everyone to know it!

This luncheon was not an ordinary luncheon, but a fashion luncheon featuring beautiful models in exquisite clothes (day and evening) languidly strolling among the tables. The place Young Etiquetteer was filling was originally intended for a Female Relation of Madame's who was unable to attend. Young Etiquetteer was one of perhaps three men present, somewhat ambivalently relishing the Walter Mitty role, but enjoying the setting, the (free) luncheon, and indeed the couture promenade. Madame was enjoying it, too, and assailed each model with Expressions of Delight, and also some Embarrassing Questions. She asked one model for her phone number to share with her son! Etiquetteer did not know quite where to look.

But the most embarrassing moment came after dessert. With the conclusion of the luncheon, the models were circulating with little lipsticks as favors for the ladies. Madame dearly wanted one to share with her Female Relation, but she wanted one for herself more. And when a beautiful model presented her with a lipstick, Young Etiquetteer froze in fright to hear Madame respond with Six Horrifying Words:

"Aren't you gonna give him one?"

Young Etiquetteer withered under the icy stare of the model, who asked "Do you need one?" in such a way as to question Young Etiquetteer's masculinity, upbringing, and right to exist - none of which seemed to matter to Madame, so intently was she focused on a free lipstick. "Certainly not!" replied Young Etiquetteer, whose limit had been reached, and the model passed on. Words were passed, but the mood restored, and of course Young Etiquetteer omitted any reference in the Lovely Note mailed the next day.

The morals of this tale, if there are any, would be that a) consideration of the feelings of others is an important part of daily life, b) to be distracted by trinkets indicates a lack of breeding**, and c) that there is no such thing as a free luncheon.

*The mid-1980s.

**The lyric from Chess comes to mind: "Trinkets in airports sufficient to lead them astray."


Reflections on Wedding Invitations, Gifts, and Attitudes, Vol. 12, Issue 13

Etiquetteer has been relieved of the burden of wedding invitations this summer. Consider that sentence for a moment. Isn't it a pity that so many people consider an invitation to a wedding a burden, rather than a Happy Occasion to celebrate a Joyous Marriage with friends and relations? Etiquetteer is of the completely subjective and entirely unresearched opinion that there are two causes: the expense of attending a wedding for a guest (especially travel, which is not only expensive but inconvenient) and the selfish behavior of brides that led to the coining of the term "bridezilla" several years ago. These two causes combine in the selection of a gift for the Happy Couple. Etiquetteer was deeply sorry to read last week about a bride who was sufficiently unbalanced to call out her friends on social media for what she perceived as their inadequate generosity. First of all it's vulgar in the extreme to mention how much money was spent to entertain your guests. You invite friends (or the friends of your parents) to a wedding for the pleasure of their company, not because you expect them to cover the costs of their own entertainment*. Second, your wedding is not as important to your friends as it is to you; no doubt there are other, more important claims on their resources than your Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. And third, criticizing someone so bluntly on social media about their behavior is just as bad as, if not worse than, doing so to their faces. Brides who follow this example deserve to lose a lot of friends.

With the advent of social media, some confusion has also spread over how to interpret how one receives knowledge of a wedding -- or, to be completely candid, when to suspect that the only reason you're hearing is that the Happy Couple expects a gift. Over at Etiquetteer's Facebook page (speaking of social media), Etiquetteer recalled learning of the wedding of a Friend of Etiquetteer's Youth from Dear Mother; the invitation had been addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. [Parents of Etiquetteer] and Etiquetteer," which is far from Perfectly Proper. Why, you ask? Because at the time the invitation was sent, Etiquetteer was not only well over the Age of Consent, but also not living under the parental roof. Anyone over the age of 21 deserves his or her own engraved invitation sent to his or her own address; attempting to economize by doubling up invitations to parents and grown children makes you look shabby. Saying you can't find that person's address no longer serves as an excuse, thanks to the Internet.

This led to the question of how to respond to wedding invitations from Long Unheard-of Schoolfellows who haven't been heard from in so long that their motives are suspect. Back before the Internet (and before brides expected everyone to Travel the Earth on Command), wedding announcements were sent instead of invitations, something along the lines of

Mr. and Mrs. Fairleigh Freshness

announce the marriage of their daughter

Miss Dewy Freshness

to Mr. Manley Firmness

on [Insert Date Here].

Frequently a little address card would be included so that recipients would know where the Happy Couple would be living. You must remember that this was before the days of "Live Together First:"

Mr. and Mrs. Manley Firmness

After [Insert Date After Honeymoon Here]

5456 Cottage Lane, Apartment Six

Verdant Greens, New Jersey

Receipt of a wedding announcement was taken as information that the Happy Couple felt you should know, but not with the expectation of a gift. As much as Etiquetteer enjoys social media and other electronic communications, Etiquetteer would rather like to see engraved wedding announcements come back.

Should you receive a wedding invitation from someone you haven't heard of in many years, put pen to paper at once and send a Lovely Note of Congratulations along with your Infinite Regret that you cannot attend in person. And that concludes your obligation.

*If the costs are really bothering you, have a simpler wedding and invite fewer people.

Invitations and Wedding Matters, Vol. 7, Issue 10

Dear Etiquetteer:

I’ve been invited to a brunch from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM. What’s an appropriate time to arrive? Dear Invited:When to arrive at any type of party seems to baffle many people, so Etiquetteer thanks you for the opportunity to present a few examples:

  • When you’re invited to a brunch that goes from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, arrive at 11:00 AM. 
  • When you’re invited to a dinner party for 8:00 PM, arrive at 8:00 PM. 
  • When you’re invited to an evening party and the invitation says 9:00 PM, arrive at 9:00 PM.
  • If you and a friend decide to meet for drinks at 6:00 PM, meet at 6:00 PM.

Are you picking up a trend here? Etiquetteer certainly hopes so, because it should be perfectly obvious that you arrive at a party when the party starts. “Fashionable lateness” is a fraud perpetuated by the Lazy and the Perpetually Tardy. Etiquetteer has long said that “For Maximum Fun Potential, arrive punctually.”This also keeps your hosts from fretting that no one will ever get there.Every rule has its exceptions, of course:

  • When you are invited to a church wedding, you may arrive up to half an hour early for the music. Do NOT expect to be seated after the procession has started! 
  • Any time “ish” is added to an invitation, add 15 minutes. If a friend says “Let’s get together about six-ish,” you can show up any time between 6:00 and 6:15. 6:30 is pushing it, and 6:45 is downright rude. 
  • “Open house” invitations mean you can arrive any time during the party and remain Perfectly Proper. Indeed, Etiquetteer just attended a lovely open house that went from 2:00 – 9:00 PM one Saturday. People came and went throughout and the hosts received them happily whenever they appeared. (Etiquetteer cannot assume that you brunch invitation was an “open house” since you don’t use those words.) 

Oddly enough, the occasion when promptness is most important is not for a party at someone’s home, but when one is dining with a large party in a restaurant that will only seat complete parties. Dear Etiquetteer:I’m getting married soon, and want to know if it’s OK to include a link to our gift registry on our wedding website. So many people ask it seems like it will be easier. Dear Bride to Be:It depends on how greedy you want to appear. If you don’t mind at all that people will think you are a grasping, selfish young lady who is only inviting people to her wedding because of the gifts she expects to receive, then by all means, post a link.Please forgive Etiquetteer’s Moment of Temper. You are very correct that a large number of guests at any wedding will ask about what a couple might want as a gift. But not everyone does, far from it. Create a registry page, by all means, but don’t provide a link to it from your wedding home page. When your guests ask you or your mother (these questions still frequently come to the bride’s mother), e-mail them the link to the registry. In this way, Perfect Propriety is preserved.And if your mother doesn’t have e-mail (still a possibility) she can go back to the old-fashioned way and tell the querents “Oh, they’re registered at [Insert Name of Retailer Here]. Just ask for the list.” Dear Etiquetteer:What should I wear to a wedding in April?Dear Guest Appearance:Regardless of the time of year, take your cues from the invitation. For an evening wedding, if it says “black tie” or one of its many tiresome variations such as “festive black tie” or “creative black tie,” then a tuxedo for the gentleman and a long gown for the lady is most Perfectly Proper.Assuming that you are invited to a wedding that begins before 5:00 PM, gentlemen would wear dark business suits and ladies could wear day dresses or suits. Etiquetteer immediately thinks of those nubbly wool Chanel suits of the early 1960s. Add a hat, and Etiquetteer will love you forever. If April in your region is cold, this is also the time to get out your fur piece. Etiquetteer remembers Edith Wharton’s amusing description of “all the old ladies of both families” at Newland Archer’s wedding to May Welland. The wedding was in earliest April, and the ladies in question had all dug out their grandmother’s fur pelisses, scarves, tippets, and muffs for the occasion . . . so much so that Newland Archer noticed the smell of camphor over the wedding flowers.

Baby Showers and Pregnancy, Vol. 6, Issue 39

Dear Etiquetteer:

My husband and I are expecting our first child. He is preparing to send out a birth announcement with photos to close family and friends by email (and we'll send out cards to people offline). A few people have offered to throw a shower after the baby is born, but we are not really comfortable with being the center of attention and will probably just throw some kind of regular party instead.

But that does not solve the question of gifts from people who will want to get us something. Our dilemma is this: We are going organic (from bedding to clothing to food) and are not buying anything for the baby from China or other places with suspect environmental or regulatory standards. (A lead-painted rubber duck, anyone?) We also don't want to do a formal registry telling people what to get us! But we know gifts are inevitable from some people.

We thought the best thing to do would be to add a link to the announcement to a Web page for those who want to give gifts. On that page is a note saying that gifts are not necessary, etc., but explaining that we are going organic and offering a selection of ideas with live links to organic baby stores, independent book stores, two charities, and other ideas. This way, we won't get a few dozen China-made things we can't or won't use from the big baby stores like [Insert Name of Colossal Chain Store here]. But we will make life easy for people who don't have the time or inclination to ferret out creative outlets without our making a registry of and asking for specific gifts.

So, Etiquetteer, what do you think of this? Is it proper etiquette to send mention of the link to our gift page with the announcement? Should we instead wait for people to ask us about gifts and just return or deal with the ones we can't use from people who didn't? Should a friend or family member be the one to circulate the gift ideas site instead of us? We want to be practical and considerate without being crass. We look forward to your response.

Dear Mother to Be:

First, allow Etiquetteer to congratulate you and your husband on the impending birth of your Little One. Etiquetteer wishes Your Baby a Long and Happy Life of Perfect Propriety.

Etiquetteer understands your reluctance to be in the spotlight at a shower opening gifts. On the other hand, you are throwing away the only opportunity you have to keep from looking crass and picky by denying your friends the chance to throw a baby shower for you. That way they end up spreading the word about your preference for lead-free organic products for Baby and not you. And as Etiquetteer thinks about it, an organic baby shower might be kind of fun! Everyone could wear hemp and unbleached linen and cotton (or at least neutral colors), eat organically grown crudités served from bamboo serving dishes, and enjoy themselves. Someone could even apply henna tattoos in the bathroom! And thank goodness Champagne is organic.

Because right now, Mother to Be, you are looking pretty picky. Etiquetteer has always said that it is rude to tell people what to get you until they ask. Including gift preferences in a birth announcement is not Perfectly Proper, even though it isn’t a registry. And your directives are sufficiently extraordinary to most people that they may feel demanding. Your friends and family members will want to do something for Baby, as long as it isn’t too difficult. As Gwendolyn Fairfax says in The Importance of Being Earnest, "If you don’t take too long, I’

ll wait all my life." So Etiquetteer hopes that you will reconsider allowing your friends to hold a baby shower for you, which is really the most elegant solution.

Dear Etiquetteer:

Recently, I was discussing the joys and woes of pregnancy with a friend who is currently expecting her first child. She bemoaned the constant health inquiries, the need for complete strangers to touch her abdominal area without so much as a by-your-leave, the insistence that she not carry large boxes, etc., While my dear friend understands that all of the inquiries as to good health, box carrying prevention comments, and so forth, all stem from The Place of Good Intentions, enough is enough. Pregnant women are not public domain, nor are they celebrities who have chosen to live a public life. And honestly, would you go around rubbing just anyone's tummy without asking? I think not. What, then, is Perfectly Proper when it comes to expressing your excitement and concern for the health of pregnant friends and strangers?

Dear Thoughtful:

Oddly enough, Pee Wee Herman has the best advice for what to do when a stranger touches you, pregnant or not. Remember what you’

re supposed to do when anyone says the Secret Word? SCREAM REAL LOUD! Etiquetteer is quite serious.

As for comments about heavy lifting, Etiquetteer hopes your friend will take them seriously. Marie Antoinette Herself miscarried after the effort of shutting a stuck carriage window! Your friend need only respond that she is grateful for their concern, varying the temperature of her response to the degree of acquaintance: frigid for total strangers, warmer for acquaintances and friends, warmest for her mother-in-law.

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Birthday Gift-Giving, Vol. 4, Issue 47

Dear Etiquetteer:I recently was copied along with just about two dozen people on an e-mail appeal for contributions to a milestone birthday gift. Most of these people are strangers to me. The soon-to-be-fifty celebrant has been a friend of mine for more than 25 years, and though we see little of each other (he now lives in Washington and I live in New York), we make a point of staying in touch and see each other in person on occasion. We have not exchanged birthday greetings or gifts for better than ten years. But being aware of his milestone I had planned to send a card and some photographs of our younger days, when both of us lived in Philadelphia, as a gift.The letter I was copied on was written by my friend's partner, who I quite like. The letter reminds readers of the upcoming milestone and shares that the couple has decided to celebrate it quietly by spending a week in Madrid. The letter invites us to contribute to the purchase of an antique bronze mantel clock my friend has admired for some time and valued at several thousand dollars. The letter promises that an inscription with the names of friends contributing to the gift will be affixed to the back of the clock. And the letter ends with the sentence "we will understand if you choose not to contribute."At first I felt we were being provided a polite out. Rereading it, I wondered if it implied something else: that they would "understand" that non-contributors are ungenerous, and unappreciative of our friend? Now I feel my original idea may be unwelcome given that they have signaled a clear "hint" of what they desire (cash). I might have felt better if there was an accompanying invitation to a group celebration, drinks or dinner, rather than the announcement of their quiet celebration in Madrid.A part of me wonders too if they love this fairly expensive clock so very much why not skip Madrid and buy it with that money? While both of these men are middle class – one is a development officer for a prominent art school, the other a legislative aide – it seems they largely socialize with a group of people far more moneyed than they are, and have developed a taste for expensive objects like bronze mantel clocks. The letter has left me feeling a bit offended and unsure how to respond.Dear Clocked:Rereading your letter, Etiquetteer has to ask, what’s in this for you? Your name on a plaque that faces the wall, and maybe a postcard from Madrid? Feh!Let’s do the math here, shall we? Etiquetteer will estimate $5,000 for the clock and 24 for the number of friends sent the invoice – uh, solicitation, sorry. That’s over $200 per person! Perhaps, as you suggest, they are socializing with people for whom $200 is chicken feed. Whether or not they are, and Etiquetteer has said this before, they don’t have any business telling you how to spend money on them. And yes, Etiquetteer uses "they" assuming that the Birthday Boy knows all about this.Group gifts of this sort are possibly more justified when the gift is presented in person by the group, but even then . . . how worthy is a group tribute which you’ve had to ask for (even if your spouse did the asking)? Better to get that room-sized bouquet with the giant card signed by everyone you’ve ever met and not expect it than some coveted bronze clock.Etiquetteer considers your original gift of photographs from your younger days most appropriate for the current stage of your relationship with the Birthday Boy. Assembling them into a small album that would include your birthday greeting on the first page (instead of a card) would dress it up nicely for a milestone birthday. Although Etiquetteer thinks Birthday Boy and his husband should get a spanking instead . . .

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