Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The uses of etiquette

 Granted, I know I get curmudgeonly about people romanticizing the past.  And with good reason.  However, there are things that I think were useful and good.  Etiquette was one of them.

I am not talking about WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T KNOW WHICH FORK IS THE FISH FORK YOU TRASHY PLEBE?  Etiquette can be--and often is used as--a way to assert dominance over someone and to bully people.  (One man held a door open for me and, after I thanked him, barked at me that PEOPLE DON'T APPRECIATE NICE GUYS LIKE ME, YOU SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THERE ARE STILL GENTLEMEN AROUND. Um. Um. Okay. I'm grateful the security guard at the desk there has taken note of your trainwreckiness, mister.)

Every country and culture (and time period) had different versions of etiquette, and they all made sense at the time--basically, it was supposed to make social interactions easy, cut down on awkwardness, and make it almost a ritual to take people's feelings into consideration.  It can get out of control--see the sniffing over fish forks--but the spirit of etiquette is basically to reflect the values of the day (see the Horrible Histories video to see some insights to ancient Rome) and to be considerate of other people.  Every era also had people who bemoaned the lack of manners and looked back with rose colored glasses at the past.  You will not see me doing that here.

But there were traditions that I think would be really useful if they came back with a modern twist.  The thing is, in our culture, we would side-eye them for encouraging drama.

Here's an example: the funeral wreath.  You'd put one on your door when a loved one died; I read that it often meant their body was laid out in the house (probably being waked for three days).  If someone did that today, no one would know what it was, and the few people who knew about it would probably think the person who hung it was being dramatic or didn't know what it was for.  But it had a very explicit purpose--it would broadcast a very clear statement to travelling salespeople and visitors that you were really not up for company.  That you were not going to be open to a sale, that you would likely not provide the most sparkling of social company.  It was a keep out sign to anyone wanting to do business and a "please be patient with me" sign to those who were going to socialize.  It was basically, fair warning.

Black bordered stationary served the same purpose.  The short, perhaps almost curt thank you note would be understood since, well, the black border served to remind the receiver that you just suffered a loss and you were not up to more than a few lines.

Thank you notes? Well, it lets the giver know that you got the gift.  Yes, if your Aunt Tootie sent you a check she'll know you got it once you cashed it, but it's nice to acknowledge before you cash it that yes, you got it, and yes, that was very nice of her to do that for you.  Some people get stroppy over email versus snail mail versus texting--well, technology changes the culture and the way we do things.  If the giver is your grandmother, send a hand written note.  Can't hurt.  But acknowledge it so they know you got it.

Letting someone know if you'll come to a party? Well, they'd like to plan how much food to get.  Sometimes I forget that I didn't RSVP (my apologies, friends!) so I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else. But people want to know so they can plan how much food to get, how much wine to get, and depending on who's coming, what kind of food to get.

Opening doors? Well, if you've had a door slammed in your face, you know how awful that is.  But here's where I'm one of those unbearable modern women--I think whoever is closest to the door should hold it open for the person behind them (as long as they're just a couple of steps behind them), regardless of age or gender.  It's just nice.  If a man is a couple of steps behind me, I hold the door open for him.

There are some things that are expected in some places that are seen as weird or even rude in other places.  In some regions of the U.S., it's more common to chat up people you don't know than in other regions.  In some places, it's not actually a thing to say hello to people you do not know by sight.  Neither is bad objectively; what's annoying (and kind of rude) is casting judgement on people who grew up with one tradition that you didn't grow up with.  Culture is a varied thing to behold and experience.

Having said that? I will not be offended if you are full at my dinner parties.  Please do not make yourself vomit. And feel free to get up to use my bathroom.


  1. My children and myself still write ty cards We also send letters of condolence. Mu children wete taugjt at an early age which firk was which and to bring a gift for host/hostess

    Also if I dont reciev a thank you card from a child old enough to send one there will not be a gift next time!

    1. Amen to all of the above. Thank you notes are very important. I'm grateful my parents had a rule when I was growing up that I couldn't use the gift until I had first mailed the thank you note for it.

      Knowing how to wrote a letters of condolence is also one of the markers of a refined person. I agree that traditional signs of being in mourning ought to make a comeback.

  2. sorry were taught which forks sigh excuse major typos i am using my sons tiny phone since my laptop is dieing arrggh

  3. I think it is rude not to acknowledge a gift. I send thank you notes and so does my daughter. Even a thank you email is acceptable to me. :)

  4. A thank you note is important if you don't often see the person. I tend not to write them if I could visit or telephone instead, but for my great uncle, who lives in Scotland, it's a nice thing to do.

    I only ever learned which fork was which by working in expensive restaurants. My family are pretty low income so we never ate at such places! :)

    I did however learn to always be polite and have pretty decent manners. :)

  5. Didja ever read any of the Anne of Green Gables series? Anne is told by the woman who adopts her that good manners are about reaching out to others. Helping them feel more comfortable. Putting their needs ahead of yours. Isn't that a great way to think about it?

    For what it's worth, my mom always told me to work from the outside in when confronted with multiple pieces of tableware.

    1. Exactly! Good manners are making other people comfortable, not excluding them or scoring points. And my mom told me the same thing about place settings.

    2. I always thought that excluding people or scoring points was actually a measure of bad manners. Selfishness in action.

  6. I don't expect my husband to throw his jacket down in a puddle of water, for me to walk over, but I cannot get over so many people not writing thank you notes. It makes me feel awkward phoning to see if they ever received my gift. And while I like to send real mail, I find an email thank you just as acceptable to receive.

    And the wonderful thing about good graces is they usually cost little to nothing, money-wise, and just a brief snippet of time.

    1. Hmm, I have also been confronted with people not sending thank-you notes. Very frustrating when you have mailed an item and want to make sure they have received it.

      In reading all these comments, it strikes me that it's up to me (the mom!) to instill manners in my kids!