Random Issues, Vol. 15, Issue 10

It's been a long time since Etiquetteer did a column on Random Issues, and some readers have, with Delicious Irreverence, provided some interesting queries: Dear Etiquetteer:

Could you please address adopting local customs when traveling. When in New Orleans, how proper is it to return your breakfast diner waitress's greeting of "Hey, baby" in kind?

Dear Baby:

After the second coffee refill seems safest.

Dear Etiquetteer:

How do you handle office mates asking for donations?

Dear Unmoved:

With kid gloves that come nowhere near Etiquetteer's wallet, if you're really asking how to decline colleagues asking for donations. It's always possible to say, with a tone of Infinite Regret, "And it's such a good cause, too, but I have other charitable priorities right now." They don't need to know what that other priority is - indeed, it could be You Yourself - so don't volunteer the information.


Dear Etiquetteer: When the real estate agent arrives to show your house two hours late, and you've already scheduled the rest of your afternoon, what is best to do: order him off the stoop, or bow to his and his client's inability to pace their time properly?

Dear Intruded Upon:

Etiquetteer knows some lovely realtors, and has heard stories about the rest. Long story short, your time is just as valuable as theirs, and if they aren't able to adjust to your schedule, then they need to go back to the drawing board. Gently but firmly explain that visiting hours were determined in advance for a reason, and that no accommodation can be made at the last minute.

Dear Etiquetteer:

How about rainy day etiquette? Where to stash the umbrella, boots, and what-not.

Dear Rained Upon:

Umbrellas and boots go in the places provided for them, which one hopes are close to the entrance where one removes them. It's not always possible to unfurl an umbrella indoors to dry it, so it's especially thoughtful of homeowners to provide one of those marvelous umbrella stands that can hold about a quart of water if necessary.

Victorians always kept their whatnots in the corner, which is really the best place for them.

Dear Etiquetteer:

When one runs over a tourist during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, is it permissible to leave the dried tourist on the car until you can get to a car wash, or should it be washed away at once to prevent damage to the paint of one's car? I realize that this is more of a practical question, rather than an etiquette question, but I have always wondered . . .

Dear Laissez Les Autos Roulez:

It's queries like this that make Etiquetteer glad that New Orleans doesn't have an open carry law. But seriously . . .

Unless you want to be mistaken for a float in the parade representing Cemetery No. One, Etiquetteer advises immediate, respectful removal.


Etiquetteer Takes the Proust Questionnaire, Vol. 15, Issue 4

Apparently the late David Bowie once took the Proust Questionnaire, which inspired Etiquetteer to do the same, although Etiquetteer used the version that's on Wikipedia: Your favorite virtue: Situational awareness.

Your favorite qualities in a man: discretion, penmanship, pocket squares.

Your favorite qualities in a woman: elegance, "a soft, low voice as clear as silver and as perfect in articulation as the notes of a thrush" in the words of O. Henry, and the ability to freeze unwanted attention.

Your chief characteristic: Being a character.

What you appreciate the most in your friends: Promptness.

Your main fault: Finding fault.

Your favorite occupation: Conversation at table that doesn't concern table manners.

Your idea of happiness: A world in which everyone is properly dressed.

Your idea of misery: Walmart.

If not yourself, who would you be? J. B. West, Chief Usher of the White House; or Robert de Montesquiou, or Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough.

Where would you like to live? Paris, Venice, and/or Budapest.

Your favorite color and flower: Blue/Jacqueminot roses and Malmaison carnations.

Your favorite prose authors: Edith Wharton, Emily Post, and Patrick Dennis.

Your favorite poets: William Shakespeare, Dorothy Parker, and Ogden Nash.

Your favorite heroes in fiction: Newland Archer, Dorian Gray, Paul in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case."

Your favorite heroines in fiction: Marmee in Little Women and the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons.

Your favorite painters and composers: Painters: William Paxton, John Singer Sargent; Composers: Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar.

Your heroes in real life: my father.

Your favorite heroines in real life: my mother.

What characters in history do you most dislike: invading armies, whether military or shopping.

Your heroines in world history: Misia Sert, Dolley Madison, Dorothy Draper, and Eleanor of Acquitaine, who gave civilization the tablecloth.

Your favorite food and drink: macarons and champagne.

Your favorite names: Etiquetteer. Just Etiquetteer, not "The Etiquetteer."

What I hate the most: those who reject Perfect Propriety in the name of Personal Choice; they neglect the feelings of others.

World history characters I hate the most: Stalin.

The military event I admire the most: The Peace of Westphalia.

The reform(s) I admire the most: the defeat of the corset, the Repeal of Prohibition, and the demise of the formal leaving of calling cards.

The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with: the ability to snap my fingers (and be obeyed when doing so).

How I wish to die: punctually.

What is your present state of mind: cautiously optimistic.

For what fault have you most toleration: being called “The Etiquetteer.” One does not say, for instance, “The Cher,” or “The Beyoncé."

Your favorite motto: "I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." - Etienne de Grellet

Etiquetteer at Random, Vol. 14, Issue 8

Perhaps it's just the weather, but Etiquetteer has become something of a magpie, hopping from one shiny observation on manners to the other:

  • The Perfectly Proper place for a table knife is to the right of one's dinner plate, not in the center of the back of one's dinner partner, and certainly not in one's host's back.
  • Mourning should show respect for those being mourned, which means that those wearing mourning need to look put together. Just tossing on everything one owns that is black will not do. It must be appropriate to the occasion and with the other garments worn at the same time.
  • One of the most Perfectly Proper talents one can cultivate is that of changing the subject when controversial topics, or even topics on which people might disagree with more Heat than Perfect Propriety, come up in conversation.
  • Sometimes Etiquetteer is tempted to ask Incessant Texters "If you were with the person you're texting now, would you be texting me?" But that's not very Perfectly Proper . . .
  • Last month after Etiquetteer's very successful talk, "Evolution of the Dinner Party 1860-1954" at the Gibson House Museum, a member of the audience asked when, during that time, guests might inform hosts about allergies and dietary needs. The answer, of course, was "Never." These days the shoe is on the other foot, and it's no wonder the amount of entertaining conducted in homes has declined. No host can be a short-order cook, nor should be.
  • Etiquetteer hopes all the ladies are preparing their pink mohair coats for spring.
  • The practice of making multiple, simultaneous reservations and different restaurants "because I don't know what I'll be in the mood for," is Absolutely Outrageous and needs to be stopped. Certainly some restaurants have taken to shaming no-shows publicly on the internet (about which Etiquetteer feels ambivalent), but one solution would be for those online reservation websites to prohibit multiple simultaneous reservations from the same diners.

Finally, Etiquetteer can only wonder what misuse of the plumbing led to the posting of this sign: "This sink is for hand washing only. No other articles can be placed inside or on this sink."

Random Observations, Vol. 14, Issue 2

Etiquetteer has been reading Meryle Secrest's delightful Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, and was particularly arrested by two stories. The first, a real dinner party disaster, involved some new rubberized upholstery that had a lower-than-considered melting point. When the dinner guests, including Coco Chanel, rose from their chairs, the upholstery had made an impact on their clothes. Etiquetteer imagines all the host or hostess could do at that point was accept the dry cleaning bills and send a Lovely Bouquet of Contrition the next day. Have you a dinner party disaster in your past? Etiquetteer has a couple, but the scars are still too fresh.

The next interesting item concerned Schiap's great friend and collaborator Bettina Bergery, who apparently was known for stubbing out her cigarettes on women she felt were flirting too much with her husband. The book does not indicate how these ladies reacted, but Etiquetteer can only hope that the Rebuke was accepted without making more of a Scene than necessary. Other, less physically scarring, methods may be just as effective. Etiquetteer will never forget a costume ball about 15 years ago when a Lady Friend gave him the Eagle Eye and Hard Smile combination that invariably mean "Don't even think about touching my husband."

Wintertime in northern climates usually involves going out with two pairs of shoes: boots to manage the cold and snow, and regular shoes for indoor wear. Etiquetteer has seen increasingly, in homes where shoes are left at the door no matter what kind they are, guests bringing slippers to wear throughout the evening. Regardless, struggling into and out of shoes in someone's doorway in the Bleak Midwinter is never very graceful, and Etiquetteer must insist that hosts provide a chair or two nearby for the convenience of their guests. Once upon a time in the Stately Homes of Yore, an entire room off the entry was provided for this purpose. For the rest of us - Etiquetteer, for instance, lives in a "servantless household" with a narrow hallway immediately inside - having a chair as close as possible to the front door, or allocating a bedroom, is the best we can do.

Etiquetteer has certainly noticed in the last year the near disappearance of "Dear" from salutations everywhere, in both handwritten and electronic correspondence. Etiquetteer cannot let this stand, and must insist that it be included. Some will argue that its elimination is more efficient. Etiquetteer will counter that it is certainly less gracious, and we need some graciousness in our daily lives. Kindly attend to this at once.

Etiquetteer at Random, Vol. 13, Issue 56

Inspired by an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy, today Etiquetteer divulges a little about himself: My uniform: A crisply-pressed double-breasted suit, white shirt with French cuffs, a bright bow tie, polished leather shoes (wingtips unless traveling, then slip-ons). That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much is rather fond of garishly bright socks. I have to remonstrate with him constantly about it.

One thing that few people understand about etiquette is: that it's less about accessories (place cards, etc.) and more about the impact you have on other people, how respect for others - or at least acknowledgement of our common humanity - is displayed. On the other hand, one shows respect for others by taking the trouble to appear well dressed, which some would say is all about accessories.

The most overrated etiquette trend is: the phonestack. It maintains the focus on the phone, and not on the group or its conversation. Everyone needs to power down and enjoy each other's company without distraction from outside.

I stay in shape by: that's a dangerous assumption to make. I don't stay in shape.

One of my favorite gadgets is: A card case with two compartments that I got in New York for $12 at some little shop. I use one compartment for my cards, and the other for those I receive.

My preferred mode of transportation is: Any car someone else is driving!

My drink of choice is: during the summer, an Etiquetteer pink gin. Otherwise, a Charlie's Beacon, as will be served at Repeal Day. During the holidays, champagne with a bit of something like Aperol or St. Germain or Chambord added.

My most recent obsession is: Eric Helgar, a Polish singer of the interwar years.

One book everyone must read is: The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracian.

The world would not be the same without: air conditioning and refrigeration.

An etiquette rule that amazes me is: how it's all right for certain professional classes - doctors, politicians, and the clergy come to mind - to address everyone else by their first names, while we all need to address them by their titles. It can, and often does, appear condescending, especially when politicians do it. I would much rather see everyone addressed by their titles since we live in a Land where All are Created Equal.

One thing everyone should do more of is: reconsider how much stuff you carry around on your commute and eliminate everything you don't use that day. I've stopped toting a bag every day and it makes a great difference.

Another thing everyone should do more of is: enjoy a meal at home by candlelight, even if it's a pre-dawn winter breakfast.

The best toy for a child is: Hmm, what is a toy that will instill Perfect Propriety? And of course different children react differently to all toys. Rather than mention a specific toy, I'll say that the best toy for a child is something simple that doesn't throw everything at them, that allows them, encourages them to use their imaginations.

My favorite kitchen gadget is: Most people will expect me to say "the cook," but I live in what used to be called a "servantless household." The best answer is probably a garishly decorated stopper for a wine bottle.

My favorite pastime is: reading.

Another book everyone must read is: Entertaining Is Fun! by Dorothy Draper. This book captures the joie de vivre of the suburban postwar years, as well as a look at how etiquette was changing. Formal seated dinners were giving way to buffets, but Americans weren't yet ready to give up on black tie for evening events. And there are some frankly far-fetched, but nonetheless delightful, ideas for having a party at home.

Know Your Brahmins, Vol. 13, Issue 18

What used to be known as Good Family, unfortunately, ceased to matter a long time ago, as that venerable social historian Cleveland Amory demonstrated in his delicious indictment Who Killed Society? But it helps to know Who Was Who, as it were, so Etiquetteer was delighted to be directed to this quiz of "Name the Boston Brahmins." The Brahmins are the highest of the priestly classes in the Hindu religion. Some wag, recognizing the aloof qualities of Boston's first families, used "apt alliteration's artful aid" to bestow this Perfectly Proper nickname. You may be interested to know that Etiquetteer scored 25 out of a possible 30, and was greatly helped by having read another essential Cleveland Amory history, The Proper Bostonians.

What is interesting to note is that few of these families remain visible in public life in the 21st century. And that indeed, the traditional Yankee qualities of simplicity and thrift are being displaced in Boston. The Boston Globe reports that "In just the past seven years, the number of millionaires in Massachusetts has grown by 33,000." Etiquetteer can just see Cleveland Amory shaking his head and muttering "New money."

Etiquetteer Succumbs to Temptation and Gets His Comeuppance, Vol. 12, Issue 18

The late Mae West famously said "I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it." Today, unfortunately, Etiquetteer couldn't resist it, and paid the price. This morning Etiquetteer stopped by the library at a time when one of those special movie screenings for children was taking place (arranged, perhaps, for children to enjoy the library without actually having to pick up a book). Outside the screening room a table of little snacks had been set up: cups of snack mix, little trays and baskets of cookies, etc. Etiquetteer, from either peckishness or annoyance (though there is no excuse for Imperfect Propriety), casually helped himself to a large biscuit while passing the table.

With the first bite Etiquetteer sensed something wrong. Not that his Improper Grazing had been observed, but with the biscuit itself. Had some health faddist concocted it out of sawdust? Turning back to the table, Etiquetteer observed for the first time the box from whence the biscuits came. They were organic dog biscuits!

"Keep cool," Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden once observed. "This is a test of breeding." And of course when one has something in one's mouth that shouldn't be there, one removes it as unobtrusively as possible. Without attracting attention, Etiquetteer silently made his way to the restroom, where the remains of the dog biscuit were disposed of without incident.

And what do we learn from this little incident?

  1. Don't help yourself unless invited to do so.
  2. Segregate refreshments by their consuming species.
  3. Even Etiquetteer can make mistakes.

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.

Random Issues, Vol. 7, Issue 4

Dear Etiquetteer:

I work at a non-profit with a group of volunteers who are old enough to be my parents. We all have a strong professional relationship, but that’s all it is, professional. We don’t socialize in any way outside meetings.

A few months ago I got started on Facebook. It’s been great finding friends from old jobs and high school. But over the last week two of my volunteers have sent me friend requests. It may not sound very nice to say this, but I don’t want to be friends with them! Besides, there are parts of my life that are strictly social on Facebook and which don’t look at all professional. And I’d rather keep how I relate to my volunteers professional.

How can I ignore their friend requests without hurting their feelings?

Dear Faced Book:

No one should have to socialize with business colleagues if they don’t want to. On the other hand, that’s more and more difficult with everyone putting comprehensive personal dossiers on social networking websites open to the world. Etiquetteer frequently wonders how surprised George Orwell would be that civilization has taken so willingly to the telescreen of "1984." Because no matter how much you think you control the access,nothing is private on the Internet.

Etiquetteer can think of two solutions, neither of which seems ideal, but still workable. You could ignore the friend requests from your volunteers and hope they don’t say anything about to you. If they do (which Etiquetteer would find very rude) simply explain that you use Facebook for social networking and that you prefer to keep your relationship professional. Indeed, Etiquetteer sent a friend request to someone he knows both professionally and socially and was a little hurt when he realized that the Person In Question had blocked Etiquetteer from their profile. This made Etiquetteer realize that the professional relationship carried more weight than the social one, but Etiquetteer knew enough Perfect Propriety to Leave It At That.

You could also make your volunteers friends using the "Limited Profile" option, which means you could control which aspects of your profile they get to see. For instance, Etiquetteer has no idea what sort of "social" photos you’re posting on Facebook. But the ability to tell someone has a piercing under their clothes is one thing; to be able to see the piercing in photos on line with lots of surrounding flesh is quite another!

Etiquetteer highly recommends browsing through the Proper Facebook Etiquette Blog for even more information.

Dear Etiquetteer:

An acquaintance who formerly has been in trouble with the law for drugs has been incarcerated for several months but has not revealed what he was convicted of. If he was an accessory for a murder, for example, I might not want to stay friends with him! What is the diplomatic way to find out what he's been serving time for?

Dear Innocent Bystander:

The most diplomatic way would not be through your friend or his/her legal representative. Etiquetteer suspects that this would be a matter of public record. Check with the Department of Public Records or the police to see what they have on your friend.

Only you can decide whether or not to retain the friendship after you discover the crime of which your friend was convicted. Etiquette does not compel one to maintain friendships when one no longer wishes to maintain them. Should you decide to sever all contact, stop contacting him/her, and don’t respond.

Back in December  Etiquetteer was privileged to be invited to a Hanukkah party for the very  first time. It was a beautiful occasion (Etiquetteer was delighted to discover  that fried foods are an important part of this holiday) and it was also the  first time Etiquetteer had heard anyone refer to a yarmulke as a "lid." Reflecting  on that today recalled a scene from Etiquetteer’s early career when he was  called upon to attend a funeral at a Jewish funeral home. Etiquetteer will  confess to having been puzzled when the usher handed him a yarmulke; after  all, Etiquetteer looks unmistakably like goyim. But not wanting to show disrespect,  Etiquetteer slipped it on and took a seat. Later during the service, Etiquetteer  was nonplussed to find himself the subject of snickering from the back of  the room. Two colleagues, who later confessed that they were "herbally enhanced," found it hilarious to see such an obvious non-Jew wearing a yarmulke.From this memory of his twenties, Etiquetteer derives two lessons in Perfect Propriety:  1) If you’re not Jewish, don’t wear a yarmulke, and 2) don't get stoned out of your mind before the funeral.


Random Issues, Vol. 7, Issue 2

Dear Etiquetteer:

I recently received an informal party invitation via text message on my cell phone. Unfortunately, the message was unsigned, and I did not recognize the origination phone number. What is the proper response in such a situation?

Dear TXTD:

You could start with a reverse phone number search on one of the Web search engines, such as whitepages.com, to see if you recognize the owner of the phone number. Otherwise Etiquetteer would think you Perfectly Proper in disregarding an anonymous invitation.

Dear Etiquetteer:

What’s the best way for me to tip my hairdresser? Should I just hand her the tip or give it to her in a little envelope? Does it matter if she’

 s with another client or should I wait until I can get her alone?

Dear Cut and Colored:

The best way to tip never calls attention to the act of tipping. So if you can discreetly slip your tip to her while shaking hands, preferably before you’ve left her to settle with the cashier, that’

 s best. Under the circumstances, Etiquetteer would say that the little envelope is a too fancy for everyday tipping at a salon. For your hairdresser, save the envelope for your holiday tip, which would be the equivalent or a regular cut.

Now of course this means arriving at the salon with enough small bills to tip without having to get change from the cashier. Does Etiquetteer remember to do this? Almost never! And by the time Etiquetteer has gotten enough change to tip, his barber usually has another client in the chair. When that happens, Etiquetteer usually slips his tip under something on the barber’

 s stand (like his schedule or a bottle of Clubman Talc or something), says "Thanks, [Insert Name of Barber Here]," and leaves. Etiquetteer enjoys the undivided attention of his barber too much to deprive others of that same attention.

Dear Etiquetteer:

Someone in my office just received an invitation to a book launch that’

 s being held in Singapore. The invitation specifies "Smart Casual" as the dress code. What does this mean?Dear Smarting:In the old days, for which Etiquetteer does pine on occasion, "Informal" would have been most Perfectly Proper. On the other hand, that distinction involved jackets and ties for the gentlemen. "Casual" was supposed to get around that, but then too many people started using "Casual" as an excuse for "sloppy."

While not pretending to know much about dress codes in Singapore, Etiquetteer will put forward that "smart casual" is likely to mean that ties are not required and that everything one wears be very pressed (even denim) or highly polished. No holes, patches, spots, please, and no scuffed shoes!

Dear Etiquetteer:

I’m planning to get married later this year. Do I have to have a maid of honor? I’

 m afraid of offending any of my close friends by choosing one over the others.

Dear Bride to Be:

You may be surprised to hear this, but you don’t have to have ANY attendants at all, not even bridesmaids. All you really need is a groom, an officiant, and a couple witnesses to make sure it’

 s legal.

Seriously, no maid or matron of honor is required for a wedding. When Etiquetteer’s parents got married at First Methodist Church all those years ago, Etiquetteer’s mother selected two close friends for her bridesmaids, and neither was singled out as maid of honor. And this in spite of the fact that Etiquetteer’s father had a best man and around eight ushers. Invite those close to you to attend you, and don’t worry about what to call them or whether you have equal numbers or not. It’s not nearly as important as knowing that you’

 ve picked the right spouse.


Random Questions, Vol. 5, Issue 6

Dear Etiquetteer:I may be one of the few people in the country under 40 who has never belonged to a gym, so the whole gym culture is a bit of a mystery to me. However, I recently moved into a condo building with a nicely equipped fitness room in the basement and am trying to turn over a new leaf with morning visits to use the equipment. The room includes a television, and I've noticed that it's usually tuned to news programs. Is this required viewing while working out? On a couple of occasions when I've been in the room alone, I've taken charge of the remote and turned on some lighter fare, like reruns of "The Nanny." But I always feel awkward when someone comes in and I offer to turn the TV back to the news. The response is always very nice and people don't usually seem to mind, but am I breaking some unwritten code of the gym? Is there an acceptable range of appropriate gym viewing, somewhere between Teletubbies and soft porn? And are there any other rules I should know about?Dear Viewed and Viewing:You don’t need to feel guilty about watching "The Nanny" during your workout (though of course Etiquetteer would prefer reruns of "Upstairs Downstairs"). You don’t even need to offer to change channels when others show up in the workout room, though that is courteous. While Etiquetteer suspects that audiovisual programming is handled by the staff at large gyms, in your condo complex folks should be free to ask to change the channel . . . and not be offended if they’re turned down.

Dear Etiquetteer:I just got an invitation to a rehearsal dinner with "evening casual" on it. What on earth does that mean? Can I wear black?Dear Invited:Once upon a time this used to be so easy. Etiquetteer still remembers when everyone understood that "Informal" meant suits and ties for the gentlemen and appropriate dresses for the ladies. Alas the day, everybody’s aggressive embrace of the casual has made getting dressed much more complicated.Etiquetteer imagines that "evening casual" means a blazer but no denim or khaki and no neckties for the men. Ladies could wear something shiny or sequinned that didn’t look too dressy. For instance, a silk mandarin jacket or a shiny silk blouse over slacks might do.As for black, Etiquetteer doesn’t understand why everyone’s so fond of it when there are more beautiful colors in the world. For a rehearsal dinner black should be fine, just don’t wear it to the wedding!

Dear Etiquetteer:I need some etiquette advice, the subject: responding to condolence cards. My father passed away two weeks ago. What’s proper as far as how soon I must respond to cards and notices of donations in Dad’s name? Surely they can't expect someone in the midst of all there is to handle with someone's passing to write back quickly . . . but then again, it IS the Deep South. Is something short like "Thank you so much for your kind donation in Dad's name. I know he would have appreciated it" enough? That seems kind of abrupt.Dear Bereaved:Permit Etiquetteer to offer condolences at this difficult time.So, what's Perfectly Proper under the circumstances? Respond to those cards and letters now; don’t put it off, or it will become an impossible burden to you later, and Etiquetteer knows from experience, too. Even if you only decide to do a limited number a day — say five or six — you'll eventually get to the last one. Are you the only person able to write them? Draft other family members to assist who can respond for all of you. And don’t forget that your response may bevery short, even only one sentence, e.g. "Thank you for thinking of us," "God bless you for your beautiful note about Dad," or some such. But don't delay. It may seem insurmountable now, but Etiquetteer promises you the notes won’t be answered later.

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Random Issues, Vol. 4, Issue 19

Dear Etiquetteer: When going out as a group for lunch, how much do you pay when you know you only ordered a small salad but everyone else had drinks and appetizers, too? And how do you politely, firmly refuse to pay more? Sometimes avoiding the lunch is not an option. Dear Lunched: What Etiquetteer does like to avoid, especially in a group larger than six people, is the bickering of the who-ordered-what variety, which can keep people at table longer than the lunch itself and get accountants whipping out their cell-phone calculators. Dividing the bill equally does solve that problem, but if you always eat sparingly at lunch, that plan won’t work for you in the long haul. When you find yourself in a group and the last person with the check announces that everyone needs to put in more money to cover the bill, and you’ve calculated that you’ve already put in your share and a little bit more perhaps, you need only say "I’ve already covered my portion of the bill; I just had a small salad." It would be ill-bred of anyone at the table to contradict. But if the difference is only one or two dollars, Etiquetteer encourages you to overlook it. Otherwise, it will help you to be the first person to get your hands on the bill, quickly total what you owe (always including tax and tip), insert your contribution into that little leather portfolio thing, and hand it to the next person saying "I’ve included what I owe for my lunch."

Dear Etiquetteer: Is it possible to thank someone TOO much? Dear Grateful: When someone either a) comes to expect your gratitude or b) believes you’re insincere, you’ve thanked someone too much.

Dear Etiquetteer: What precautions can one take to make sure e-mail--whether its tone or content--will not be misconstrued? Dear Misunderstood: Proofread! When composing an e-mail, Etiquetteer frequently finds it helpful to read the first draft as a recipient. Put yourself in their desktop, as it were. Etiquetteer tends to include more explicitly words like "Please" and "thank you," and to write in complete sentences rather than shorthand. Reviewing your e-mail is also helpful as you don’t want anyone to misconstrue you as a dolt or an idiot. This is the time to proofread from a spelling and grammar point of view as well as tone and content. The difference between "We will not be meeting at 2 PM" and "We will now be meeting at 2 PM" says it all.Including a specific subject line will help your recipients enormously. For instance Etiquetteer receives a lot of e-mail with the subject line "Etiquetteer," or "Question for you." It would be more helpful to write "Question About Invitations" "Tipping Dilemma" or "Gift-Giving Advice Needed" instead. Etiquetteer is sure that we all have rafts of e-mail messages headed "Hi," "Hello," or the very helpful "<no subject>". What more need be said?

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer at query@etiquetteer.com!

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@etiquetteer.com.