Saturday, November 14, 2009

On One's Best Behavior: Etiquette Past and Present

84. Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication, by Judith Martin

The subtitle of this book pretty much says it all: In which Miss Manners Explains the Proper Form and Choice of Technology for Messages Private, Professional and Public: When to Phone, When to Fax, When a Handwritten Note is Obligatory, a Form Letter Forbidden and a Chain Letter Out of the Question

I adore Judith Martin, particular when she is in her alter ego of Miss Manners. In this slim, yet meaty, volume, she takes up the question of communication in the age of cell phones and email. Really, people, it's not that difficult. Does the person really need to hear what you have to say, and, if so, right this minute? Do not expect them to drop everything to respond to you. Don't conduct business in the middle of a social engagement. The near-ubiquity of cellphones with the concomitant ability to be constantly in touch has, unfortunately, led some to believe that they should be constantly in touch.

In addition to the spoken word, Miss Manners discusses the written word. This encompasses not merely the question of the proper stationery and the proper salutation (my personal bugaboo, seen often in donor lists, is "Mr. John and Mrs. Jane Doe"), but the who, what and when of invitations, thank-you notes, announcements, condolences and the like. (No "and guest". As she rightly says, "Miss Manners is sorry if it is too much trouble to find out the actual names of the people you care enough about to invite to a formal occasion, but you must do it.")

With her usual style and wit, Miss Manners will help you navigate the really not so difficult waters of proper communication. (Q: "How do you get children to write thank-you letters?" A: "Well, how do you get children to do anything?")

And, for god's sake, if someone invites you to an event, no matter how casual, Rsvp!!!

85. The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining, (adapted by) Autumn Stephens

Victorian upper-class Entertaining, that is. What a delightful little book! I admit to a passion for old etiquette books, and what Miss Stephens has done is to take bits and pieces from various unidentified 19th-century sources and created a guide to dinner parties, country house gatherings, and the like. While few of us today have the leisure to pay formal calls, or have footmen to receive callers' cards on a silver tray, much of the advice given is still quite appropriate, even if couched in language that makes us smile. Would we not all agree that an overnight guest "should have a comfortable room . . . with bed linen that is fresh and well aired"? Or that "[w]e have no right to offend people with our manners or conversation"? Such simple rules of courtesy and consideration never go out of style, though details of how to dress and the accepted hours for meals may change.

I am quite curious about one reference, however. "It is in utmost poor taste for a gentleman . . . to carry a little poodle dog (a man's glory is his strength and manliness, not in aping silly girls)." They did that? (Apparently, they did. A bit of searching reveals that the quotation is from a book called Modern Manners and Social Forms, published in 1889.)

Which leads me to my one criticism. It would have been appropriate (and proper) for Miss Stephens to have identified her sources. While the books she drew from are undoubtedly long out of copyright, courtesy (both to the writer and to the reader who may wish to know more) should be a sufficient reason to give that information.


  1. The Victorian Entertaining book sounds fun. That would a great resource if one were writing a historical novel!

    My grandma gave me a book of etiquette for kids when I was really young. It was printed in the fifties and was all about how you can help your mom host the perfect dinner party. HA! I think they forgot the "make yourself scarce" part.

  2. I've always enjoyed Miss Manner's writing. She has a wry, droll wit. And, I love reading old etiquette books, too - I had one by Emily Post from the 1920s or 30s - I think I still have it.