Friday, March 11, 2005

The Death of Etiquette

This morning as I was on my way to yoga, a man approached me on a street corner and asked:
“Excuse me, would you like to make out with me?” A generous offer indeed, and naturally I gave it careful consideration, before replying:
“I’m married—but thanks for the offer.”
Afterwards I wondered whether that was the right response. I could have shouted: "Do I look like the kind of trollop who would make out with strangers at the drop of a hat?" (OK, maybe I do—but not on my way to yoga, with my hair in the same ponytail I slept in.) I could have told him to fuck off. Or I could have simply stuck my nose in the air and marched onwards. But after a couple of blocks, my esprit de l’escalier evaporated. I like to be polite, even in response to impolite requests. In fact, I’m proud of it. I am a great believer in manners.

Sadly, as everyone knows, manners are in decline, particularly in California. I have two pet peeves:

1. Thank you notes: A note should be sent not only when a gift is received, but also after a dinner party. A brief phone call or email is acceptable, but the ideal is a handwritten thank you note, preferably one that does not begin with the word “Thank you.” Sadly, nowadays handwritten thank you notes are going the way of white gloves. Many people don’t bother with the phone call or email either and, worst of all, some people don’t thank you at the time of the dinner.

2. Voicemail etiquette: One should respond to a friend’s message within twenty-four hours (forty-eight in a pinch), unless one is out of town. This doesn’t seem much to ask, but I’ve noticed that these days, people are responding several days after the message—or, in some cases, not at all. Now if these people did not want to be friends with me, I would understand. In fact I would applaud their graceful friendship exit strategy. But sadly, these are good friends with bad manners, friends who do call, but not necessarily in response to a message.

Evidently, we are in the midst of a national etiquette crisis. A simple solution would be to introduce the etiquette equivalent of traffic school. Attendance would be compulsory after three violations. There, students would attend classes such as “Small Talk 101” and learn advanced thank you note-writing skills, such as how to write a note for an unwanted gift (without using the words “unique” or “conversation piece”).

So I think I was right to be courteous to my sidewalk lothario. Although I wonder what would have happened if I’d said coyly, “Well, since you asked so nicely…” or just: “OK, buster, let’s go!” Would he have kissed me? Or would he have sidled away, muttering: “What kind of strumpet kisses a man on a street corner?”


Blogger Craig said...

Interesting post, until I got to the two peeves. The last thing I want is to have someone use their valuable time writing a thank you note, the verbal thank you & the fact that they did join me for the dinner party, event or occasion so that we could share in each others company is more than enough. My friends and other people I contact are under no obligation to get back to me within a certain amount of time. This is just my take on things. Be polite in the moment and always speak well of others in their absence. I would prefer to see the death of false insincere etiquette.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Gillis said...

Who says that thank you notes have to be insincere? The point to a thank you note is not the gift, it's the effort and expense the giver went to in order to give it. Only if one does not appreciate the giver's expenditures of time and money do thank you notes becomes, de facto, insincere. Otherwise, they are just plain courteous - a kind gesture returning one likewise as kind. Thank you notes spread goodwill and appreciation, and encourage generosity of spirit. We should all be more grateful, every day, especially to those who go out of their way to do something special for one's personal benefit. To acknowledge a gift completes the act of giving. It allows the giver to feel generous, and the giftee to acknowledge his or her gratitude. Who can argue with the spread of such beautiful sentiments?

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Mark Middleton said...

I think you're absolutely right, Helena. However, I think your pet peeves would be undone in the Masters program for etiquette. In California especially, we need to start with the basics. Perhaps Manners 101 could include such topics as "Where and When to Defecate" and "Basic Hygeine". In later classes we could move on to "Inside and Outside Voices" and "Personal Space: other people don't want a rash, too." I must admit I am very poorly skilled in the art of the thank you note, and I am also not good at returning phone calls. However, I know not to urinate on the bus, and I almost always use deodorant. I think I just may be ready to move on to the Masters program.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous miss nina said...

indeed, manners are a rare breed in our social bubble.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Tommy Barrett said...

this "etiquette" post really touched a nerve... your most explosive piece by far!!!...

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey said...

Hrm. I'd like to think I've got my share of manners. I really would. But perhaps Ii don't. That's too bad.

By the way, thanks a lot for dinner the other night. It was very generous of you to invite me and the food was delicious!

1:33 PM  

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