Wednesday, October 05, 2005

(I) Miss Manners

Recently, it occurred to me that a quick refresher course on manners and etiquette wouldn’t kill me. Even though we are a “Please” and “Thank You” people, a “May I Have” not a “Can I Have” people, even a “Thank-you Note” people, I am starting to see the machinery of manners starting to break down within me. Due to a constant need to refill Daughter’s water cup/get more food from the stove/remove cat from center of table, I have taken to eating dinner while standing and hovering over my food like a German shepherd with low-blood sugar. This cannot be modeling good behavior for the offspring.

Also, I began a conversation with a friend by sticking my leg out in front of her as if I was about to perform the can-can and asking “Am I getting cankles?”; while the disease of thick calves melding into shapeless ankles is not to be taken lightly, it is possible that I have forgotten how to make small talk. I picked up Emily Post’s book from the library. As I was checking it out, I noticed that it appeared especially dog-eared; surely there aren’t thousands of Southern Californians each year worrying about the phrasing of a condolence note? I checked the print edition-April, 1930.

I got in the car, turned to the first page, and found this:

People who ridicule etiquette as a mass of trivial and arbitrary conventions…seem to forget the long, slow progress of social intercourse in the upward climb of man from the primeval state

I stared off in wonder. Of course! First, we achieved fire. Then, we forged metal and created languages. But all three were merely elements that came together so we could invite people over to help us read the Weber instruction manual and grill some meat.

Etiquette led to the Food Channel! And we all love the Food Channel! Ergo, we love etiquette!

Perhaps I needed to open the car windows.

Emily Post, Lord love her, knows what the skeptical reader is thinking:

To some the very word etiquette…implies a great pother about trifles. To those who dislike the word, it suggests all that is finical and superfluous

Actually, what the skeptical reader is doing at this point is trying to remember if “Pother” is the same as “Bother” and if “Finical” is, in fact, a word.

I left the Introduction, the rest of which can be summed up by “Manners are important. Life without manners is nasty, brutish and involves white shoes at Christmastime”.

Let us visit the chapter on introductions, which should in no way be confused with the Introduction, which we just left, but only after saying goodbye to our hostess and thanking her for a lovely time.

The rules of Introductions go something like this:

1. Younger is always introduced to older or more distinguished. Always.
2. Unless, of course, the younger person is female and the older is male. Women are always introduced to men. Always.
3. Unless, of course, the man is the President of the United States or a royal personage. But only those two.
4. Or it’s a dignitary of the church; archbishop and monsignors are a definite “Woman first” situation. Miss Post says that it is “Not incorrect” to introduce a woman to a priest, but I sense some ambivalence. If confronted with this situation in my own life, I will avoid a faux pas by having a coughing attack and running from the room before having to introduce a priest and a woman.

But what if you don’t want to say “May I present”? What if you have a sibilant s and the word “Present” fills you with terror and shame? I am sure you will be as excited as I was to know that most of the work can be done with inflection:

In the briefer form of introduction commonly used, “Mrs. Worldly, Mrs. Norman,”…the more important name is said with a slightly rising inflection, the secondary as a mere statement of fact.”

A slightly rising inflection marks you for life? Well, doesn’t that just cork it. Some good woman can work hard to get into the best schools, marry some nice man from a good family, learn how to play a decent game of bridge (SPOILER ALERT: We’re going to spend a great deal of time talking about bridge etiquette in here), and with one flatly intoned “Mavis Bumbridge”, Mavis learns that she has less to offer than “Fern Lipizzaner?”. Just go home and close the curtains, Mavis, because you’re doomed. Doomed.

Would you like to know some other permissible forms of introduction? Of course you would. Would you like to know what happened to people who use impermissible forms of introduction? Well, you’re going to have to go a different kind of blog for that; I don’t show those kinds of pictures around here. This is a family blog.


“Mrs. Jones, you know Mrs. Robinson, don’t you?” (On no account say “Do you not?” Best Society always says “Don’t you?” Best Society also says “Can you Irish up this coffee for me?” and “It’s five o’clock somewhere!” They say that a lot)


“Mrs. Robinson, have you met Mrs. Jones?”


“Mrs. Jones, do you know my mother?”


“This is my daughter Ellen, Mrs. Jones”

I can only assume by this point that Mrs. Jones starts running and hiding when she sees the hostess dragging someone new over to meet her.

Here are some other introduction gambits that make Miss Post’s lips go all white and thin. You may not say “Mrs. Jones, I want to make you acquainted with…”; I agree with that, as it sounds affected and strange, and I save sounding affected and strange for intimate dinners with one friend and six umbrella drinks.

You also must not say, upon introducing two people, “Mrs. Smith, I want you to meet my friend Mrs. Jones”, as the only possible implication Mrs. Smith can take from that is “…and I am the person who routed your toilet?”

Miss Post says, and again I agree, that asking someone their name outright is rude. She suggests waiting until you have finished the conversation with the nameless person and then asking a third person “Who was that lady with the grey feather in her hat?”. Of course, due to both a certain sameness to most 21st-century women’s wardrobes and a Southern Californian inability to understand the meaning of the word “Discretion”, my query to the third party would go something like:

QUINN: Who is the woman in the jeans over there?

THIRD PERSON: Who, her? (Pointing)

QUINN: Not her, the other one.


QUINN: No, the one in the red shirt.

THIRD: Oh, her?

QUINN: No, short-sleeved.

THIRD: Which one?

QUINN: The one who has been sober for two years and used to get beaten up by her boyfriend.

THIRD: I’m going to need more than that.

QUINN: The one with the implants.

THIRD: Well, if you’re not even going to help

Something tells me Mrs. Jones would have loved to have met her.


Blogger Joie de Vivre said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Joie de Vivre said...

I've never heard that before. That's rich. That's one of those remarks that I'll savor and wait, and wait to use. HILLarious =]

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Cummings, (since we aren't acquainted, I won't be so presumptuous as to use your first name)

You have been so gracious to educate us as to the proper way to make an introduction. I wanted to be sure to send this Thank you note to express my gratitude. Problem is, we haven't been given proper instructions on that, so I don't know how!

7:33 PM  
Blogger Melodee said...

I want this on my tombstone. "She cared a great pother about trifles" or "she did not care a great pother about trifles." I'll let you know which when I figure it out.

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since Quinn is the only person I know who sends a thank you note when I give her a surplus loaf of banana bread, while I have yet to mail the Christmas thank you notes I forced my daughter to write last January, I cannot believe she needs Emily Post. Except, of course, for personal amusement and blog material.

8:26 PM  

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