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.

Free Speech vs. Perfect Propriety, Vol. 6, Issue 7


Vol. 6, Issue 7, February 19, 2007


"Cousin Marie says politicians aren’t gentlemen," may be Etiquetteer’s favorite quotation from all Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Then there’s Henry Fonda in Jezebel, who said, "I believe it was Voltaire who said ‘I disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’" These two quotations come to the heart of a living civics lesson that took place in Massachusetts this month, bringing together a state senator, a high school, Facebook, American Idol, and differing political ideologies. The result has been less about the ideologies and more about Free Speech vs. Perfect Propriety. Both have taken a beating.

In brief, Massachusetts State Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, was scheduled to make an appearance at a high school in his district to discuss his conservative positions. A student with more liberal positions than Senator Brown created a page on Facebook.com, the popular social networking website, in the days or weeks before the senator’s appearance. Students posted profane comments on the page, some very personal, about both the senator and his daughter, a former American Idol contestant. Photos of the senator with devil horns and pitchfork added were posted as well.

Senator Brown became aware of these comments before his appearance at the high school. He brought a copy with him and proceeded to read, word for four-letter word, many of the profane comments written about him and his daughter to the eighty sophomores present. Teachers were horrified that a state senator was swearing in front of an entire high school. One student was quoted as saying, "He was doing it loudly and pretty angrily." There has been some hand wringing about childishness and just how a state senator ought to act. Senator Brown’s response: "If the kids are old enough to write it, they’re old enough to hear it."

Etiquetteer sides with Senator Brown. This may surprise you.

Free speech is one of the most precious cornerstones of our Great Nation. We should all be able to say what we want without fear of government surveillance, whether it’s "I love the war," "I hate the war," or even "You’re wearing that?" But Etiquetteer also believes that, if you’re going to exercise this right, you might at least have something to say. Profanity is easy, unoriginal, and distracting. What kind of a person are you if that's the best you can do with free speech? And it certainly has not escaped Etiquetteer’s notice that no one is talking about the issues anymore, only the profanity.

It’s not surprising to see adolescents behave like, well, adolescents. Etiquetteer does not condemn the kids who made the profane postings. But it is important for adolescents (and all of us) to know that actions have consequences. Comments made in the public square, whether on the Internet, the newspaper, or anywhere, may be heard by anyone. When you say something, you’re responsible for what you said. You shouldn’t be surprised if someone calls you on it, especially if it’s personal. Senator Brown did that in a very dramatic and public way. Etiquetteer hopes that it impressed on these students these lessons:

  • Personal attacks don’t further a discussion of issues.
  • Post something on the Web and anyone can read it, even people you don’t want to read it.
  • Profanity still has the ability to shock. That makes it the lowest common denominator when trying to get attention. Use more class and think of another way to make your point.

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Declining Invitations, Vol. 4, Issue 23

Dear Etiquetteer: At dinner last night a group of friends had a lively conversation and solved nothing in the matter of how to decline an invitation. Here are some of the situations pondered:
  • A four-year old boy cries and screams at the suggestion he attend a birthday party. It seems the birthday boy was the bully of the pre-school. This left the mother having to decline by note or phone, then again having to decline when she dropped off a gift. Is there a way to decline without the Social White Lie that teaches the child a bad habit?
  • The pre-teen of either sex who is painfully shy and is serious about not wanting to attend a party where there will be dancing and probably kissing games?
  • The teen who fears asking for a date because he dreads being turned down. The girl who doesn't want to hurt the boy's feelings and is so non-committal that the boy has no idea what she means. Or the girl who is cruel to the bone and laughs. The boy or girl who stands up one date because a more attractive date comes along.
  • The adult who accepts an invitation to dinner then forgets.
  • The adult who accepts more than one invitation on the same night and spends only a few minutes at any one party.
  • That wretched person who ignores the whole scene and doesn't respond at all.
  • Those who just plain don't want to go.
  • When is "previous plans for the evening" not enough? Is "not in this lifetime" too terse?
  • Is there any graceful way to get out of a lie when you're caught out on a night you claimed illness?

A really good book is needed to cover these situations. I nominate Etiquetteer. Dear Declining in Hiding: While thanking you for the nomination, Etiquetteer hopes to be up to the task of addressing with Perfect Propriety all these different situations. What a minefield you and your friends have sown for Etiquetteer! Fewer parties are as fraught with peril as a child’s birthday party. And Etiquetteer has never forgotten, at age 12, being forced into attending one for the Most Loathsome and Evil Boy Ever. Not only that, it was a roller-skating party, and Etiquetteer was also forced by kindhearted but utterly misguided adults into the humiliating experience of having to learn how to roller skate right there in front of everyone with two other non-skating guests. At least Etiquetteer has stopped waking up screaming now . . . Just as a ball is no place for dancing lessons, so is a skating party not the place to learn how to skate. Etiquetteer still doesn’t know why he ever got on the guest list for this party (probably the Most Loathsome and Evil Boy Ever was made to invite the entire class, who knows?), and Etiquetteer remembers begging his dear mother not to make him go, but she insisted that it would be fun* . . . Socializing in controlled environments like parties is supposed to teach children and teenagers how to get along well in the world, but parents ought to think very carefully about the circumstances. The teenage years are possibly the most self-absorbed in the human life span. So, back to your four-year-old. Etiquetteer has to say that he has a certain amount of integrity, not wanting to accept the birthday cake of a sworn enemy. As long as his mother can confine her declining to "He’s not able to come that day" without concocting some fictional previous engagement, she is actually setting a good example for her son. It’s a truthful answer edited to spare the other mother’s feelings. What mother wants to be told that her Sweet Precious Darling is really just Wicked Trash?As for the shy pre-teen afraid of dancing and kissing (or roller-skating), it’s a question of ensuring that it’s OK to go to the party and NOT engage in dancing or kissing (or roller-skating). Even at school dances or church youth functions you can often just hang in the lobby and talk away from the dancing.Dating, of course, carries emotional risk whatever the age. And whatever the age, Etiquetteer always says "If you can’t figure out if they’ve said yes or no, they said no." Girls need to understand that they do no boy a favor by dangling him because they don’t want to hurt his feelings. The quicker you decline, the quicker you can both get on with your lives. Even to say "It’s really nice of you to ask me, but I’m just not ready to date right now" or "I don’t feel that way about you" clears the air right away, no matter how much it may hurt at the moment. Cruel girls will get theirs later, when their husbands either cheat on them with their best friends or dump them for trophy wives. Etiquetteer can’t wait . . .People of any age who stand up previous engagements for better offers reveal more of their character than they know. The stood up at least have that as a guide and can reject them on the inevitable rebound. Now we move to your invitation problems for adults, who are supposed to be Old Enough to Know Better. This is not always the case, as we know:

  • Etiquetteer recently had the deeply embarrassing experience of forgetting to attend a dinner to which he’d accepted an invitation not too long ago. It was an innocent mistake, but which of course must be followed up with a Lovely Note of Apology. (That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much had better get busy with that note, too . . . )
  • We see more party-hopping the way you describe during the holiday season, and really Etiquetteer does not find it offensive until it interferes with a seated dinner. It is the height of rudeness to arrive at a dinner halfway through or leave before the last course has been served and consumed to go on to another party.
  • The wretched non-responders may not have any more invitations to respond to if they keep that up.
  • There are a lot of lovely people out there who just don’t want to go. Sometimes you just can’t turn down an invitation, however. The true test of Perfect Propriety is going to the party you don’t want to go to and convincing everyone that you’d rather be there than anyplace else.
  • "Previous plans" should be enough without further elaboration. It’s actually impolite to ask for more information when you’re given that response by people you’ve invited. Etiquetteer thinks you already know that "Not in this lifetime" is Never Proper. That’s when you say "unable to accept your invitation." And when they press, you just keep saying "I’m sorry, we’re just unable to accept, that’s all."
  • The late Gertrude Lawrence, when she was still performing inCharlot’s Revue, was given sick leave for a week. During that time she accepted an invitation to a theatre party. Imagine her surprise when she was seated next to M.Charlot himself at the theatre! They were terribly polite to each other, both at the theatre and when he fired her the next day. Let this be a lesson to you a) not to lie to get out of something, and b) when you do and are found out, come clean right away.

Etiquetteer hopes this list provides you and your friends with all the solutions you need; please write again if this is not the case.*Special to Etiquetteer’s mother: All is forgiven.

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.