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.