Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Speak Floriography

These flowers are trying to tell you something

These flowers are trying to tell you something

If there’s one downside to etiquette is that it’s often all too easy to forego an opportunity to be honest with your feelings. Why tell someone what you really feel when you could vaguely hint at what you mean in codes the other person may or may not be familiar with? How easy it is to escape your emotions in the name of being polite! If you want to go all out, I don’t think there’s a more coded and frustrating way to communicate than the art of  floriography, or flower language, where you better hope you don’t get caught giving chrysanthemums to a business associate.

According to 1891’s Polite Society at Home and Abroad, floral language began in Greece and other “Eastern lands,” but it, like many unnecessarily elaborate etiquette practices, became popular in England during the Victorian era. I don’t know much about the politics of the Victorian era, but I’m assuming it was just like the 1990s, where the economy was good and we didn’t have many problems so we just did things like form boy bands and rollerblade and take Lisa Frank notebooks to our affordable colleges to keep ourselves amused.

Anyway, floriography is a doozy of a practice. Sure, there was the obvious Rose=Love stuff, but I had no idea the sorts of specific feelings that could be communicated through flowers. Want to tell someone your heart weeps for them? Give them the green leaves of Acacia. You’re fascinated with them? Fern. Hand someone Fuschia? You’ve just proposed. And let’s just take a second to appreciate the everlasting pun of saying “your looks freeze me” with an Ice Plant.

Of course, as many ways as there are to compliment someone through flowers, there are as many to insult them. Artillery plant? That means “your shafts are pointless,” a thought we’ve certainly all had, right? Black Mulberry means “I will not survive you,” and Mock Orange means you think the recipient cannot be trusted. And don’t forget to send some Tansy to any country you want to declare war against.

In her book Flowers, The Angels’ Alphabets, Susan Loy argues “There is little evidence that Victorian lovers used the language of flowers for secret communications.” However, that list in Polite Society makes a pretty compelling argument that at least some people took this seriously. The Language of Flowers by Kate Greenway (1900) and The Flowers Personified (1849) had similarly thorough lists, which some people certainly memorized or kept as a quick reference.

What I want to know is how could you ever guarantee the recipient would pick up on what you were putting down? Or,  if you were the recipient, the giver really meant to tell you you’re too ostentatious by giving you some peonies for your birthday? For example, in many European and Asian countries, the chrysanthemums are symbolic of death—one topic in 1946’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which you may remember from Mad Men—whereas in America they’re often thought of as friendly and uplifting. Are you to be blamed for not doing your research, which would have been especially difficult in times where you couldn’t just Google “Japanese Business Etiquette”?

Even though most of these practices have fallen out of fashion (if they ever were used to begin with), floriography remains, and can be just as confusing. According to this infographic, yellow roses can either mean friendship or “I’m betraying you.” And Teleflora has a whole section of their site on the symbolic meaning of funeral flowers, one of the main areas where these codes are still in use. Though honestly, it seems like you can come up with an excuse to use almost any flower, as they mention everything from pink roses to orchids to daffodils.

Advanced Table Manners

goopsWith Thanksgiving coming up, you might want to check out our post on basic table manners just to refresh your memory. If you are going to a REALLY fancy Thanksgiving, here are some more advanced table manners to keep in mind.

The Many Forks

First off, it is extremely rare that you will actually be faced with the terrifying array of silverware the novice believes to be the key to etiquette. We have eaten at some of the finest restaurants in the country and have always been provided with exactly the right utensils for each course. The most you will ever see at one time is two forks. However, in general, you will want to work your way from the outside towards the plate. So if you have a salad fork and a regular fork, the salad fork is on the left and you use it first.

American vs Continental Styles

Americans hold their fork in their right hand tines up. They also hold their knife in their right hand and switch the fork to the left tines down to cut things. Then the knife is put down on the plate while using the fork.

Europeans hold their fork in their left tines down and knife in the right and never put either down.

Both are correct. Interestingly, the American style is the older style that the original colonists brought with them from England, the Continental style developed later.

Finger Bowls

If a finger bowl is provided, you lightly dip your fingers in the bowl and then wipe them on your napkin or the cloth provided.

Napkin Rings

A soiled napkin is not returned to the napkin ring unless it is to be reused for another meal. In that case, the napkin ring serves as a marker of whose napkin belongs to whom.

Spooning Soup

Soup should actually be spooned away from you, and the bowl should be tipped away from you as well when getting the last bit. Presumably this is supposed to prevent you from splashing yourself.


You do not drink toasts to yourself, just smile and say thank you when it’s done.


Condiment jars should not be placed on the table, the condiment should be put in a little dish with a spoon.

In Which We Have a Long Discussion About Holiday Invitations

I bet the Pilgrims didn’t have these anxieties. [Jean Leon Gerome Ferris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

I live very far from my family and it is usually too far and too expensive to go home for Thanksgiving. Fortunately, I have plenty of friends in my new city, and sometimes a significant other. These friends and significant others often invite me to join their families for Thanksgiving, but I’m very introverted and get anxious about spending big family holidays with other peoples families. How do I explain to my friends that I really prefer to be alone on the holiday or get over my anxieties and just go?


Alone for the holidays

Official Etiquette:

No one is forcing you to go anywhere. Just politely say no.

Our Take:

Jaya:  I think one of the greatest, most empowering things about being an adult is making your own holiday plans.

Victoria Even if those plans involve eating take-out Chinese in your pjs and watching Netflix?

Jaya: Oh yeah. But I get it, there’s this big expectation for you to Do Stuff.

Victoria I mean, ok, so I relate to this a lot, and sometimes I think that I want to spend a holiday all alone, but then I am afraid I will end up feeling lonely and sorry for myself.

Jaya:  Do you think that’s because you really wanted to go somewhere? Or because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do?

Victoria I’m not sure! I’m lucky that I live with my sister and we get to have a low key holiday by ourselves, but it still feels like a holiday because we are family. We have passed on going to visit distant relatives that do live near us though.

Jaya:   I think the underlying point of any of these holidays is to be around people you love. For many that means parents/siblings/etc. Or close friends. But it’s not like, lacking any of those, you need to just find anything.

Victoria Yeah, that is true.

Jaya:  Sometimes you can totally find love and comfort with strangers, and that can be a whole different and great experience. But you don’t need to be around people just because you think you have to.

Victoria What do you do about the more tricky boyfriend/girlfriend situation? Where they are like, you should come home and meet my family?

Jaya:  I think holidays are a really high-pressure time to do a meet the family thing. I mean extended family, ok, but if you meet someone’s parents for the first time at their house that’s a lot to put on anyone. Especially an introvert.

Victoria When did you and Matt start going to each others families?

Jaya:  Haha well we’ve known each others families forever. That’s what happens when you meet as teenagers.

Victoria That’s true!

Jaya:  He spent Christmases with us before we were dating, so maybe not applicable. But anyway, if it’s not your first time meeting the family, but you’re invited by your SO.  I do think sometimes it can come off as rude if you say you’d rather spend holidays alone instead of with SO’s family, but that’s where communication has to come. If you have anxiety problems, this is something they should know and be able to back you up on if family starts asking questions.

Victoria: Yeah, totally, and maybe plan on getting out of the house for a little bit.

Jaya:  Yes. Excuse yourself for a walk. I also think a little white lying is not out of the question, depending on the circumstance, if it’s a group that would maybe not accept “I just want to be alone” as an answer.

Victoria:  But yeah, I kind of think if you expect to have a long term relationship with someone, you should suck it up and go.

Jaya:  Oh yeah. If you’ve been dating for three months and would prefer to stay home, yeah, but if it’s been 4 years, that’s no good.

VictoriaI also think, as someone who gets pretty anxious, that once I get there, I often have a great time, so sometimes talking yourself into going (to a friend’s or boyfriend’s or whatever) is worth it.

Jaya:  Absolutely. There is a lot to be anxious about, but you should know that if you have your friend or boyfriend or whoever there, you most likely have someone in your corner.

Victoria Totally!

Jaya:  Also, depending on who you are, I think sometimes putting yourself to work helps. I feel better when I’m busy, so if I can jump into the kitchen and help clean something or make a pie, I feel like I belong more.

Victoria:  And if you invite a friend to come home with you, be aware of them and what they might need to be comfortable.

Jaya:  Yes. So what should someone say if they’ve thought about this and really prefer to be alone?

Victoria I guess, you can try to just be vague and like, oh I have other plans. Or honestly, as long as you don’t mention being alone for Thanksgiving or whatever, people will just assume you are covered. Which brings me to another point of dropping hints if you DO want to be invited somewhere.

Jaya:  Oooh yes.

Victoria It’s a pretty tough position to be in where you’re like “hey I don’t have anywhere to go.” And you can’t really just ask to go home with someone for Thanksgiving. So you have to be all like, “oh I guess I’m just going to eat stuffing out of the box on my couch.”

Jaya:  Hahahaha I can see myself totally asking someone if I can come, which is why I need you in my life. And I think that, if you find yourself wanting to go somewhere but nowhere becomes available, going it alone can be sort of freeing. Go to a fun restaurant! Go to the movies!

Victoria:  Yeah! My sister and I do go to the movies sometimes on Thanksgiving! It’s great.

Jaya:  Oh yes. That’s a fun one. Oh, I just remembered, there was a great piece on A Practical Wedding about holiday plans when you’re newlyweds, but I think it applies to everyone. I think it speaks to what we say a lot. The idea of “tradition” can cause a lot of anxiety, but it’s good to remember that every tradition was new at some point, so if you want to break a tradition, or if it’s broken for you, it’s ok.

VictoriaTotally, I think that when you are newlywed and starting your own little family, its good to do your own thing and figure out what works. Being single both simplifies and complicates holidays though, lol.

Jaya:  True. Though I do think we put a lot of focus on romantic relationships as the be-all-end-all. Like, a single 27 year old has just as much right to set boundaries and figure out what works.

Victoria Oh totally, I mean it’s nice that you don’t really have to take anyone into account except for yourself. But then, you don’t have an automatic person who has your back and who you can just be alone with. And generally, being single, you get a pretty decent amount of alone time already.

Jaya: In conclusion, holidays do tend to cause anxiety. Which is a shame because they’re supposed to be about togetherness and comfort and there’s no shame in looking out for your own comfort whether that means going it alone, or asking someone to include you.

Victoria:  And definitely keep including your friends even if they are being prickly, just don’t pressure. I always appreciate open invitations, personally, even if I don’t take people up on them.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Finger Bowls

Dessert place setting- the finger bowl is on the white doily to the left. [via Wikimedia Commons]

Finger bowls are one of those mainstays of snooty etiquette examples, with people focusing on this one obscure bit of etiquette as a reason it is outdated and unnecessary. Obviously, our whole point with this website is to show how etiquette is still useful and necessary. But it is also fun to talk about things like finger bowls!

So what is a finger bowl? It is essentially a little bowl of water that you dip your fingers in to clean them at the dinner table.

Some reference books claim they have been used on and off from medieval times until now, but I can barely find any references to them in etiquette books before 1900. So I believe finger bowls as we imagine them must have been a late Victorian/Gilded Age invention.

Finger bowls are always served with the dessert course. In fact, as the change of plates and silverware for the dessert course is brought out, the finger bowl is actual on top of a doily on top of the dessert plate. The diner then removes the finger bowl from the plate and places it (and the doily!) to the front and slightly left of the place setting. However, if there is no silverware on the plate with the finger bowl, it signals that there is no dessert and then the finger bowl is left on the plate.

To use the finger bowl, you gently dip the very tips of your fingers into the water and then dry them off with your napkin. You may also dab a bit of the water onto your lips with your fingers and then pat dry with the napkin. You are not really supposed to be washing your hands, merely giving a polite impression of cleanliness.

A more serious, soapy bowl of water may be given after eating messy foods such as lobster. Of course, nowadays we have those handy packets of wet wipes that rib joints pass out- not quite as elegant but definitely more practical.

Of course my favorite finger bowl story is the one where the impolite rube is at a fancy society dinner and drinks the contents of the bowl. His hostess (often said to be Queen Victoria) promptly drinks her finger bowl water also, so that he doesn’t feel that he has done something wrong. A perfect example of the spirit in which etiquette exists: to make everyone feel comfortable.

Interestingly, despite the fact that no one actually uses finger bowls anymore, every contemporary book of dining etiquette mentions how to use them. I’ve eaten at a lot of fancy places and have never seen them. If you have, please tell me where in the comments!

How Do You Cut The Cheese (Every Pun Intended)

Oh boy, cheese etiquette. This is something near and dear to my heart. Last year for Christmas my fiance got me a beautiful bracelet and a $25 gift certificate to a fancy cheese store and I was 10 times more excited about the cheese. Actually, when I first met my fiance at summer camp, it was taco night and I asked him to go back up to the fixins bar and get me a cup of shredded cheddar cheese. And he did. And then I was violently ill but that’s love right?

Now mostly, I’d say screw cheese etiquette because 90% of the time I enjoy cheese like this:

However, if you’re at a party, snuggies and/or personal cheese knives may be discouraged, and there are a few rules to follow to make sure everyone enjoys the cheese plate equally.

1. Don’t scoop out the cheese from the rind. Oh my god, if you’re one of those finicky people who can’t stand the rind of the creamy, soft cheese it covers then you have no place in my life. And if you’re one of those people who uses a cracker to scoop out brie from its rind, leaving nothing but the shell for everyone else, I’m saying right here that your host has my full permission to publicly call you out and never invite you back. Take a full slice, rind and all, and just eat out the center from the privacy of your plate if you must.

2. Don’t mix knives. This is pretty standard for most foods, but especially for cheese, because as Bonjour Paris puts it “Cheese is alive and flavors of neighboring cheeses are easily absorbed.” THE CHEESE IS ALIVE, EVERYONE!

3. Cut the cheese based on its natural shape. This means if it’s a wheel, cut it in a wedge like a pie. If it’s square, cut off even square slices. If it’s a wedge, cut along the sides so the wedge shape is preserved. In countries where cheese eating is more prevalent, children are taught to cut the first wedge out of a wheel at about the width of a pencil. This is adorable.

4. In France, where cheese is serious business, you should not cut the point off a wedge of cheese (see the point above). They even have a name for when you do it: “breaking the nose.”