Nancy Mitford and U vs Non-U Speech

Nancy Mitford calling to say you sound like a pleb. [Via]

Obviously, I think that etiquette and manners today has nothing to do with wealth or social class- manners are for everyone! Historically, however, the rise of etiquette books in the Victorian period had a lot to do with the growing middle class and their desire to act like the upper classes. So someone had to teach them how to act. But then the rich caught onto this and constantly changed the rules to throw the middle classes off. Nice, huh? The moral of the story, is that there was (is?) a way to tell social class, regardless of money or education.

In the 1950s, Nancy Mitford (of the endlessly fascinating Mitford sisters), borrowed an idea from British linguist Alan S. C. Ross about U vs non-U vocabulary and wrote a very popular essay about it, “The English Aristocracy,” in which she gave a list of words that were Upper Class (U) and their non-U (not Upper Class) counterparts. She argues that with the Upper Classes in Britain no longer being necessarily richer or better educated than anyone else, their language was the only thing left to distinguish them as Upper Class/aristocratic.

A selection:

A Nice House
Lunch then Dinner
A Lovely Home
Pass on
Settee or Couch
Dinner then Supper (except U-children and U-dogs also have these meals!) [ed. this is my fave]








Interestingly, Emily Post had her own list of “U vs Non-U” vocabulary in 1920 (30 years before Nancy Mitford’s famous essay). Some of Emily’s choices:

At our house we go to bed early (or get up)
Beautiful house—or place
Went to
Gave him a dinner
Had something to drink
In our residence we retire early (or arise)
Elegant home
Tendered him a banquet
Partook of liquid refreshment
Perform ablutions






Perhaps you will notice a pattern in both the Mitford and Post lists- a large portion of the “non-U” word choices are pretentious and overly wordy. Mitford actually says that the “non-U” speakers are mostly among the middle class- the lower classes tend to use the same words as the U speakers. The reason for this is that the lower and upper classes were pretty comfortable with their station and it was only the middle classes that were striving to “better themselves” by using fancy words that they thought sounded upper class.

Now, Mitford’s essay wasn’t completely accepted as truth, even at the time. Evelyn Waugh wrote a rebuttal essay that was published in Noblesse Oblige: a book containing Mitford’s essay, the original article by Ross, Waugh’s rebuttal, and other related essays. Waugh argues that these “U” and “Non-U” differences don’t actually exist as language is constantly in a state of flux and is also regional and family specific.

Today, especially in America, I don’t think you can pick out any words as being specifically upper vs middle class (unless you are the type of person to see entire regions as more lower class than the region you live in!), our culture is too homogenized for that, and it seems that differences are more regional and generational.  Though in 1983, Paul Fussell argued that America does have a class system in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. His benchmarks for upper, middle, and lower class were: the upper class says “Grandpa died,” the middle class says “Grandpa passed away,” and the lower class says “Grandpa went to Jesus.”

However, I think the point about pretension vs being comfortable with yourself absolutely does exist, and for that reason, Emily Post’s list seems to hold up pretty well. Pretension is sort of rude because it is extreeeemely annoying- we all know someone who uses “myself” instead of “me” (incorrectly) and other big words that they don’t seem to know the meaning of, or they just talk in a roundabout manner of “needing to equip themselves with the necessary instruments of learning” instead of “buying school supplies.” This kind of thing makes everyone uncomfortable, and as we all know, causing discomfort in others is one of the hallmarks of rudeness.

What say you? Is pretension rude? Are there any words or phrases that you would argue are definitively class-based? Are middle class people in Britain really trying to act working class? Tell me in the comments!!

Door Etiquette

Revolving doors strike terror into the hearts of the impolite. via Wikimedia Commons

Regular Doors:

This is really basic stuff, but apparently it needs to be said:

  • Hold doors for anyone coming behind you.
  • Especially hold doors for someone who has their arms full.
  • Say “thank you” if someone holds a door for you.
  • Don’t slam doors.
  • Don’t stop once you are on the other side of the door. Someone might be right behind you.
  • Along the same lines, don’t stand in front of doors.

Revolving Doors:

There are a lot of revolving doors in New York City and apparently no one knows how to use them, from what I’ve been witnessing lately.

  • If you are in a revolving door, you must push! Don’t rely on someone else to do it for you.
  • One person per slot (unless you are with a small child). You do not fit and you are slowing the whole process down.
  • Go with the flow of the door, don’t try to walk the opposite way that everyone else is pushing.
  • If you have an option between a revolving door and a regular door when entering a building (especially in winter and summer) you should choose the revolving door as it keeps the heat/air-conditioning in better.
  • Don’t stop once you exit the door, you are even more likely to be run into than with a regular door.
  • Technically, traditionally, if a man and a woman are entering a revolving door, the man should actually go first so that he can get the thing moving since he is physically stronger. These days, your mileage may vary with this.

Where Did The Grocery Store Baggers Go, And What Do We Do Now?

Is the low priced, delicious food really worth the Trader Joe’s lines? (The answer is yes.) [ViaFlickr user scardeykat]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

 While shopping at Trader Joe’s the other day, I observed a group of customers who were standing at the cash register and letting the cashier bag all the groceries in the customer’s reusable bags when they could have easily been helping. It took so much longer this way and there was a long line (this being a Trader Joe’s in New York City). What is the correct etiquette here? Are cashiers expected to bag all groceries or should the customer help out?


Tired of Waiting in Line

Official Etiquette:

There is no real official etiquette here as the abundance of reusable bags and the lack of designated baggers at grocery stores are both fairly recent occurrences. So I went straight to the source and called Trader Joe’s customer relations. They say that the cashier should absolutely bag the groceries in reusable bags the same they would bag them in their own paper bags. They do mention that, of course, many customers prefer to do their own bagging and that is fine too. I’ve also spoken to Target’s customer service on this question, and they also say that a cashier shouldn’t refuse to put the customer’s items in their own reusable bag.

Our Take:

Jaya: Interesting research, Victoria! I have noticed a decline in the number of specific bag people. Which I think makes this harder, because either way the line gets held up longer than people are used to.

Victoria Oh for sure, I haven’t seen a “bagger” in ages. Although, maybe its more of a suburban thing? The nice Safeways near my parents old house always had them and when I was in Savannah for Christmas, the big grocery store (a Kroger, maybe?) that we went to had them. I’ve never seen them in the city, but i have seen them recently outside the city. Maybe its the higher rents here.

Jaya:  I mean, I grew up with them at Gristedes in New York City. And I live near two pretty large grocery stores. I think it’s more of an economy thing. Why hire two people when just the cashier can do it?  I only noticed them not in the city in the past five years or so. However, what I did notice in research, is a lot of people getting frustrated at cashiers not bagging their groceries with the bags they brought, or then getting frustrated when it took too long. You can’t have both! Or! People getting frustrated when it isn’t done to their liking, which happens no matter what bags you use.

Victoria Yeah. I mean, I guess I think the most polite way to do it is get started on the bagging while the cashier is still scanning and then let them finish while you are swiping your credit card and everything.

Jaya:  That makes sense, and also I saw lots of cashiers writing on forums that people should put their bags in front of their groceries, so everything is open and ready.

Victoria Yeah! I always put the bags on the conveyer belt first and then try to put something heavy in them to make them stand up. Although, usually they still fall down.

Jaya:  Yeah, here’s the thing with this though. Yes, it’s policy and ideally this person is getting paid to bag your groceries and do this. But if the line is long and it’s something you have the ability to help out with, you probably should.

Victoria Totally! And maybe grocery stores should put in a little thingy that makes the reusable bags stand up properly.

Jaya:  Haha though it depends on the bags. I usually just bring old tote bags.

Victoria I mean, yeah for sure. But if they sell their own bags, they should have one that fits those bags, you know?

Jaya: I can’t stand people who could easily help with bagging, but let the cashier do it alone, and then complain about things taking a long time.

Victoria Hahah yeah! Although, our good friend who works at a grocery store chimed in and said he’s pretty fast at doing it, so he almost prefers to just get it done.

Jaya:  Yeah. ETIQUETTE TIP: Read situations correctly. You know, just be great at judging the tone of every interaction. Easy Peasy.

Victoria I see your sarcasm there. Also a thing: some corporate chains actually have timers in the cashiers machine that times how long a transaction takes! And like, they get in trouble if they take too long. Which is sad and terrible, but also makes me feel like I have to hurry hurry hurry to bag up my stuff and get out of their way.

Jaya:  Ooh that’s rough.

Victoria Oh! And then when we lived in Rome- its actually 100% the status quo that the customer bags the groceries and each checkout lane has two channels so the cashier funnels your stuff down one channel and you bag it up while they are funneling the next person’s stuff down the other channel. And then you get yelled at in Italian for not having exact change, so maybe that’s not the nicest system either.

Jaya:  In general I think flexibility is nice. If grocery stores are not going to hire people to bag groceries, it makes it a bit more complicated for everyone involved. Like, I can see it both ways. I can see that maybe a cashier wants to do the bagging and get it over with. Or I can see that if you have a 10 person long line you maybe hope the customer can bag their own stuff so you can get through it.

Victoria So basically, try to help out if you can and move things along, and if you are waiting in line, maybe be patient that someone isn’t doing their own bagging because maybe they can’t for some reason.

Jaya:  Or maybe they’re used to shopping at places where it’s done for them, because apparently everywhere has a different policy/different idea of whose job it is.

Victoria Yeah, I think that’s a source of a lot of the confusion. And even at the same store, some cashiers will do it and some won’t

Jaya:  Definitely, so I know sometimes I’ve been standing there like an idiot not bagging things, not because I wouldn’t, just because I was used to having it done at that specific grocery store. Also, in general, long lines at grocery stores suck but it is a known quantity. I find this super interesting. I think we’re at this very fascinating point in grocery store history where people are used to baggers but stores have stopped hiring them. “Fascinating point in grocery store history” like that’s a thing (ed: it is a thing!!).

Victoria Haha, and we didn’t even TALK about self checkouts. Let’s save it and shopping carts for another day!

How To Handle Yourself In An 17th-Century Coffee House

Some notes about the Coffee House, a private club : together with a list of resident and non-resident members : and including the rules of the Coffee House, rule six being that there shall be no rules. New-York Historical Society

Some notes about the Coffee House, a private club : together with a list of resident and non-resident members : and including the rules of the Coffee House, rule six being that there shall be no rules. New-York Historical Society

Are you guys watching Cosmos? I just caught up, and in the episode about Newton and Halley and how humans figured out the stars, Neil DeGrasse Tyson mentions how these young intellectuals often met in coffee-houses. He describes them as places where “a poor man need not give up his seat for a rich man.”

Coffee houses first appeared in cities like Istanbul and Damascus in the 1500s, and popped up in Europe in the 17th century. In the Middle East they had become popular places for political gatherings, but also for social and business causes. In 1883 the Coffee Public-House News published that in Turkey, “Coffee is consumed by all classes at all hours and on sorts of occasions. The little berry is indeed a very factor in Turkish society. Nothing is done without it–no business discussed, no contract made, no visits and civilities exchanged without the aromatic cup, and the accompanying chiboque or narghileh. If a purchaser enters a bazaar to purchase a shawl or a carpet, coffee is brought to him. If person calls at another house, coffee with the tobacco must greet the new comer. There can be no welcome without it, and none but words and forms of general etiquette take place until this article has been served all round. At parting, coffee must still be present, and speed the guest his way.”

Similar rules soon entered English society as coffee houses gained popularity in London. Tyson was correct that one of the main draws of the coffee house was that any man could enter and sit where he like, regardless of social status–as long as he could afford the one-penny fee of entrance, which generally meant the middle class were the “worst off” in any given room. Women, however, wouldn’t be caught dead in one, and according to Public Domain Review, “The fair sex lambasted the ‘Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE’ which, as they saw it, had reduced their virile industrious men into effeminate, babbling, French layabouts.”

Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society: With a Glance at Bad Habits by Charles William Day notes, “On entering a coffee house and sitting down take off your hat; it is only a proper mark of respect to your own class towards whom you should pay the same deference you exact from others.”

However, this social class free-for-all worried some.  In 1674 A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee was published, a broadside that extolled the benefits of coffee, especially in a culture where beer was the popular drink. But the other side of the broadside was the poem The Rules And Orders of the Coffee House, which included monetary penalties for rude behavior:


Enter, sirs, freely, but first, if you please,

Peruse our civil orders, which are these.

First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither,

And may without affront sit down together:

Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,

But take the next fit seat that he can find:

Nor need any, if finer persons come,

Rise up for to assign to them his room

To limit men’s expense, we think not fair,

But let him forfeit twelve-pence that shall swear:

He that shall any quarrel here begin,

Shall give each man a dish t’ atone the sin;

And so shall he, whose compliments extend

So far to drink in coffee to his friend;

Let noise of loud disputes be quite forborne,

Nor maudlin lovers here in corners mourn,

But all be brisk, and talk, but not too much;

On sacred things, let none presume to touch,

Nor profane Scripture, nor saucily wrong

Affairs of State with an irreverent tongue:

Let mirth be innocent, and each man see

That all his jests without reflection be;

To keep the house more quiet and from blame,

We banish hence cards, dice, and every game;

Nor can allow of wagers, that exceed.

Five shillings, which ofttimes do troubles breed;

Let all that’s lost or forfeited be spent

In such good liquor as the house cloth vent,

And customers endeavour, to their powers,

For to observe still, seasonable hours.

Lastly, let each man what he calls for pay,

And so you ‘re welcome to come every day.Rulesandorders_coffeehouse

Apparently this was hung on the walls of many an English coffee house. The Printers Devil says, “It is hard to gauge exactly how seriously one is supposed to take these ‘rules’; certainly, contemporary accounts make it clear that nearly all of these were, in practice, openly flouted by the patrons of such establishments. . .There is some evidence that this may represent something of the truth of the actual social mechanisms at work in coffee houses.” Similar to how many coffee shops may say “no laptops” but people just spend the whole time doing work on their tablets. Though really, if we could ban having to overhear the awkward first date conversations in coffee shops we would in a second.

Wedding Reception Etiquette

Is it just me or do these intense wedding reception setups make you feel kind of nervous and claustrophobic? [via Wikimedia Commons]

Receptions are the really fun part of weddings but they can also be the most complicated and fraught with etiquette conundrums. Etiquette doesn’t care about what your decorations are, your colors, how many people you invite, whether you have a band, a DJ, or an iPod, or which of the zillions of traditions you want to include. There are a million websites and books out there to help you decide on the style of your reception. But there are a few etiquette points that are important to keep in mind.

Reception Timing and Meals:

Often, your ceremony venue will have specific times that you are allowed to be there, this is especially true for churches. What do you do when your ceremony has to be at 2pm and you want to have an evening dinner reception?

Typically, you should do your best to avoid a gap, but they can be unavoidable. If you must have a gap and your wedding site is too far away for most guests to return to their homes/hotels, you need to have something for them to do in the meantime- many couples will have a longer cocktail hour at the reception venue to fill the time. Gaps are especially rude if you use them as a way to avoid paying for a meal for your guests- for example, having a wedding at 3pm and then having a “cocktail reception” starting at 8pm.

This leads me to my next point, you need to provide a proper meal if your wedding takes place over a mealtime, or be ready to expect some grumpy and hungry guests who order pizza and eat it in a parking lot (it happened on an episode of Four Weddings). If your ceremony starts at 4 or 5pm and is immediately followed by a reception that goes until 9, 10, or later, you need to provide a full meal of some kind. It is very poor hospitality to expect people to be spending 5, 6, or more hours on your wedding and not eat a real meal in that time. Now, very very heavy finger foods and appetizers can certainly count, but only if it is truly enough to fill up hungry bellies.

If you can’t afford to provide a full dinner for your drinking and dancing late into the night reception, then you need to consider other options:

  • A ceremony followed by a simple 2 hour cake and punch reception is a perfectly proper celebration for a wedding on a budget. Have the wedding at 2 and everyone is gone by 5 and you have no etiquette faux pas.
  • A morning wedding followed by a brunch or lunch reception gives you the ability to provide a nice meal which is usually much cheaper than a full dinner.
  • A very late evening wedding with the ceremony starting at 8 and followed by snacks, cake, drinking, and dancing late into the night.
  • A dinner reception with more casual foods- you don’t need to serve a choice between plated rubber chicken and filet mignon. Why not try a big pasta buffet, catered barbeque, takeout Chinese, food trucks, or big sandwich platters? Think outside the box and you will find something that will suit your budget and satisfy your hosting requirements!

It is smart to include a hint of what your reception will be like on your invitation so guests know what to expect ie cocktail reception to follow, dinner and dancing to follow, join us for cake and punch after, etc.


Traditionally, the Best Man and Maid of Honor give toasts at the wedding. Please ask them well in advance if they feel comfortable giving a toast at all. Check out Jaya’s post on toasting etiquette for more!


If you are serving a meal, you need to provide seats for all your guests.

You don’t have to have a seating chart or assigned tables, but it can take the pressure off your guests and prevent the “school cafeteria” feeling of “where do I sit?” It also prevents the problem of large groups pulling in chairs to overfill one table and leaving another table with only two chairs for a couple of guests to sit awkwardly.

If you have assigned tables but not assigned seats, you can either have a list posted somewhere or “escort cards,” these are little cards (or something else more creative!) that have the guests’ names on them. They pick them up before going in to dinner and see what table they are at. If you have assigned seats, just use normal placecards at each person’s seat.

Receiving Lines:

You don’t often see receiving lines anymore (or at least not in my circle!). Most couples have opted to skip them in favor of going around to each table during the reception. Whichever you choose, you must do something to ensure that you speak to each guest for at least a moment during the wedding. Even though it seems like it would take a long time, the receiving line might actually be faster and allow you to enjoy more of the reception than trying to greet each person while they eat and reduces the risk that you will miss someone.

For the logistics: you either have the receiving line immediately after the ceremony and guests go through it as they exit the ceremony and go to the reception or you have it at the reception as everyone goes into dinner. Obviously, the couple needs to be in the line, but usually their parents and often the attendants will stand in it as well.

You needn’t do more than greet each guest and thank them for coming. After that, move them right along to the next person to keep the line moving.

Cash Bars:

I am going to take a very strong stance here and say that at American weddings, cash bars are always against general etiquette. Think about it: a wedding reception is essentially a thank you gift for your guests for taking part in your Important Life Event, and you shouldn’t ask anyone to pay for part of a gift. Also, it has always seemed strange to me that alcohol is the one area people feel comfortable asking others to chip in for. If you wouldn’t ask someone to pay for their dinner or their share of the cake, you shouldn’t have a cash bar. You are the host; you have to pay for everything associated with your event.

That being said, you are not required to serve alcohol at your wedding. You are also not required to have a full open bar; beer, wine, and soft drinks are a perfectly acceptable and cheaper option. Anyone who complains about your hospitality is being rude.

Another problem with cash bars is that it creates a situation in which some guests have something that the other guests do not because they can afford to pay for it. All of your guests should receive exactly equal food and drink and it is extremely rude to flash differences in their faces.

If you even THINK of having a cash bar for ALL drinks including soft drinks, then, I don’t even know what to do with you. (I have never seen this in real life, but it happened once on another episode of Four Weddings. That show is a mess.)

Of course, you are welcome to do what works in your community and if every single wedding you have every attended has had a cash bar, then you are probably okay.

Money Dances/Wishing Wells:

In a few cultures, money dances are traditional and therefore acceptable. General American culture is not one of them. In traditional American culture, your guests have already purchased a present or given you a check, so why are you asking them to give you even more?

Reception Activities:

Weddings have many fun traditions such as special dances, cake cutting, and bouquet and garter tossing. You can choose to have these as you wish, and don’t let anyone pressure you either way. However, some thoughts:

  • If you decide to do a garter throw/bouquet toss, do NOT force people to participate and don’t let anyone drag all the single people out onto the floor. Personally, I would also recommend keeping the retrieval of the garter tasteful, but you should do what works for you. And if you want your groom crawling up under your skirt to porno music in front of your grandma, that’s your business.
  • I have seen the first dance/father daughter dance occur between the cocktail hour and dinner, but traditionally they happened immediately after the dinner and toasts and opened up the floor to dancing. I have also been to weddings where there was dancing between each course of the dinner, so in those cases, you don’t really need to open the dance floor. Just be thoughtful about how you are scheduling activities and how they will help your event flow.
  • Some modern couples are opting to do a “marriage dance” where all the couples dance and the DJ has them sit down in order of how recently they have been married and then the couple who has been married the longest gets the bouquet. This can be a nice alternative to a bouquet toss which makes single people feel put on display, but at the same time, it excludes single people entirely. Basically you can’t win, so go with what works for you. Or start a new tradition where the whole reception has to try to catch the bouquet? Or you hide the bouquet and there is a search for it? So many possibilities.
  • If you are Jewish, you might want to dance the Hora. Presumably, you already know how to do this, but if you are having a lot of people at your wedding who have never done it before there are a couple things you might want to remember:
    • Everyone is allowed to join in! But your gentile friends might not know what to do, so make sure there are enough people around to show them the ropes.
    • Only the bride and groom go up in the chairs (though we’ve been to Jewish weddings where the parents went up too). Make sure the people lifting you know to keep you close enough together that you can both hold onto the napkin (“schmatta”).
    • Don’t use folding chairs for this activity unless you want to lose a finger!
    • (H/T to my good friend Rachel at whose wedding I had my first Hora experience and who was kind enough to answer my questions.)
  • Cutting the cake: this is pretty simple- the couple goes over to the cake, hold the knife together and cut a small slice. Then they feed it to each other and pose for pictures. Smashing the cake into each others faces is a thing in some places, and it’s totally at your discretion, but definitely don’t do it if one half of the happy couple doesn’t want to! Icing on that $4,000 dress!!
  • Reception activities should happen fairly quickly after dinner and end with the cake cutting. If you are having a “sending off” you can do the bouquet toss/garter throw immediately before you leave. (This is actually more traditional than having the bouquet toss randomly in the middle of your dance- originally it was more of a “just toss the bouquet in the direction of your girlfriends as you head out the door” type of thing than an event that everyone gathered around to watch.)
  • Have your MC announce when these activities are taking place as people will want to watch.

Ending the Reception:

Back in the day when parents hosted the wedding and the couple was the guest of honor, the couple would be expected to leave the reception before it was completely over. They might even change into “going away clothes” and there would be a big sending off as they left on their honeymoon. Then the guests would know that they could leave and everyone would start clearing out.

Now, often, the couple has paid good money for this party and they want to enjoy it until the bitter end. This can create a conflict with some older and more traditional guests who feel like they absolutely have to stay until the bride and groom leave. Nowadays, most people know that the cake cutting signifies the end of official reception activities and that people are free to leave anytime after that, so you might consider making sure that it is the end of official activities or even having your DJ or band leader announce that it is “the last activity but to please enjoy the music and dancing until [end time].” You might also want to consider having it (and your other “official” activities) fairly early during the reception in consideration of guests who might need to leave.

Other Things:

  • Apparently it is a tradition for guests to take home the centerpieces? If this doesn’t bother you, that’s great. If you have plans for your centerpieces, warn your caterer/wedding coordinator/family members/etc or maybe put a note under them saying not to take them.
  • Tip your vendors! Make sure either someone is assigned to handle this or you’ve prearranged the tips.