Oh, the fertile grousing ground that is etiquette. Who doesn’t like complaining about how rude people can be? Everyone has their etiquette pet peeves. Some people don’t like hearing cell phone conversations; others don’t like shoppers who leave their carts in the middle of the isle. And then– there are people who blast awful music from their car stereos. The list goes on and on. When it comes down to it, people can be pretty annoying. Sometimes it only takes one inconsiderate person to ruin a perfectly nice day. Dealing with our rude, ill-mannered brethren can be a stressful, anger inducing, journey into hell. To limit the degree to which we annoy each other, society has traditionally set up rules by which we are all supposed to adhere. For the most part, this system has worked fine. But just as social mores changed, what was once considered scandalous is now commonplace. Etiquette has evolved. From the Court of Louis the XIV, to Downton Abbey to Jerry Springer, rules once thought important have been done away with. For example; it was once considered rude to attend an Opera without first having a nitpicker remove all the chiggers, fleas, ticks and lice from your powdered wig. In fact, ‘etiquette’ is a French term that roughly translates to, “Kindly keep your wig lice out of my pantaloons.” But that was then, this is now. Now, when I want a hot night out on the town, I simply take my powdered wig to the dry cleaner. Time keeps moving. For every technological advance, a new code of conduct has to be devised. From the automobile, to the telephone, to the computer, to smart phones; with each new gizmo, society attempts to reign in our self centered tendencies, codify our conduct and keep the peace.
With all the societal and technological changes since the end of WWII, etiquette has constantly been playing catch up. Trying to help society lasso the wild stallion of manners, is Bruce Barber’s Real life Survival Guide (reallifesurvivalguide.com), a new manual for modern living based on conversations with writers, thinkers and friends. The talkers brainstorm ideas on the radio, and then us writers break it down and add our polished, expert, erudition and thoughtful, learned commentary. We get to place our super smart thoughts onto that internet computer thing. To mind- blitz the wacky and weary world of etiquette for Chapter #3, Bruce and the gang went to The Winchester Restaurant and Bar in Woodbridge. No one ate with their mouths open. They kept their elbows off the table and most importantly; they kept their powdered wigs nit free.
First out of the gate was Joanne Kahan, who rang the emergency bell and called out the young punks who are destroying society, “…This younger generation doesn’t seem to have any standards of etiquette whatsoever… I think we’re transitioning a slow death of etiquette.” Duo Dickinson finds that the “instant and raw” immediacy of text messaging and the internet helped do away with the formalities of introductions and interpersonal relationships. On the other end of the spectrum is Rob Leonard, who has encouraged his children to be so polite that other kids take advantage of them. Bruce, who learned his refinement at Miss Jane Lyman Driscoll’s School of Dance, wondered if polite children can find a school to teach them rude lessons. Randye Kaye doesn’t think etiquette is dead, but thinks it has shifted quickly. She finds that, “It’s still about niceness and respect…it’s just that the rules are different.”
Whenever I hear about the death of polite society, I take solace in the fact that Socrates felt the same way 2,400 year ago: “Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” Those rowdy Athenian teens might have let their togas hang too low– exposing their boxer shorts or smoked too many figs. But somehow, western civilization survived.
As the food came to the table, the conversation naturally turned to the etiquette of dining. Duo asked whether or not you should make children wait until everyone is served before they start eating. Bruce and Rob both said they try to make their children adhere to the rules that we all have to follow and both believe that setting a good example pays dividends in the battle for good manners. Now, it might seem like dining etiquette has been covered ad-nauseum by the Victorians, Edwardians and Emily Post, but it is doubtful that Queen Victoria ever chowed down on Buffalo wings. What is proper form? Do you lick your fingers? Do you dip into the communal blue cheese? Where do you put the bones? Emilypost.com was silent on the issue but Joanne said it’s ok to have your elbows on the table while eating finger food, but turned a blind eye to the finger licking. Cue the Beastie Boys, “Finger Lickin’ Good”! Emily Post politely taps her foot to the funky beat.
The group then took their freshly licked fingers to the supermarket and discussed shopping cart etiquette. The particular annoyance in this case? People who don’t return carts to the store or the cart corral –thus leaving their free range carts to either block a parking spot or to go rogue and wreak havoc upon our cars. The group all agreed that it’s best to put our carts in the corral or bring it back to the store. But failing this (due to distance or time), placing the cart on an island is acceptable. I believe that no one is ever so far away that even if there is no cart corral, they can’t try to return the cart to the store. But being a no good hypocrite, I too have beached many a cart on a lonely island.
Duo Dickinson has written seven books on architecture. His latest, “Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want”, was published by The Taunton Press in November 2011.
He has been the contributing writer for home design for Money Magazine, is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, and a contributing writer in home design for New Haven magazine. He has written articles for more than a dozen national publications including House Beautiful, Home, Fine Homebuilding and was the “At Home” editor for This Old House.