Breaking up is hard to do- even among friends

If all else fails, hit them with a stick.

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

I was friends with a person for a while, and during that time the person did not respect boundaries I tried to set clearly and added a lot of unnecessary drama to my life. At one point the person and I had an argument resulting in the person calling me a very offensive insult, and I told the person that the relationship was over and the insult was unforgivable to me. I thought this was a clear “break up.” Unfortunately the person did not interpret it as such and continues to invite me to events, seek me out at my workplace, ask other friends about me, etc.
What is the best way to explain I prefer no continued contact with this person without explicitly telling him that he’s a toxic drain on me?
Thank you so much!
So Over This
Official Etiquette:
Miss Manners is actually a huge fan of the fade out, which she calls “being increasingly too busy to socialize.” But she says when the person is bothering you to the point of practically stalking, she says you have to tell the person that you are no longer interested in seeing them.
Our Take:

Jaya: This question has such perfect timing, I had just starting writing a post specifically about the friendship fade-out and I think a lot of my points will work here too.

Victoria: Hahah yes! Tell me your points.

Jaya: I have this working theory that social media totally makes it harder to gracefully  fade out of a friendship. I know you’ve made this point before, that fade outs for friends was really accepted and normal, because sometimes you just stopped being friends and it’s fine. Good lord if I had kept in touch with everyone at summer camp I thought was gonna be my BFFL there’s no way I’d even have time for a job. But now in order to stop being friends, it really takes effort. You do need to cut them out of your life in a more active way. (Also I think we could all take to heart the idea that not every friend is a forever friend, and that’s okay.)

Victoria: Yeah. I think Facebook, etc does make it feel like you are still friends because you see pretty big pieces of their life. And like, actually, I don’t think its that bad to keep up a FB connection with someone who you don’t really want to be active friends with. But obviously when you cross a line…then you have to be more proactive.

Jaya: Right. There is a difference between a Facebook friend and an IRL friend, for lack of better terms, and it’s easy to mistake the former for the latter. Social media is great for those friends you do live far away from. There are people I really liked that I probably would have faded out with if weren’t for Facebook, and I’m grateful for that. But right, then every person who sees your photos and reads the articles you post think they’re having a great personal interaction with you. That’s slightly besides the point here, where it sounds like this person is bordering on stalking.

Victoria: Hahah yeah!

Jaya: Like “seeks me out at my work place” raises HUGE red flags.

Victoria: I think in this case LW needs to say, “I am still angry and offended about our fight and you need to leave me alone.” The fight situation gives LW a good excuse that’s not making it about how toxic the person is.

Jaya: Absolutely. Sometimes people don’t get it after the first round, but keep the same message. And maybe tell your friends to do it too. Just like “I told you this relationships is over, so please stop contacting me”

Victoria: Yep yep.

Jaya: There may be a more polite way to say that but fuck it, we’re past that now.

Victoria: That’s pretty polite, you said please.

Jaya: It’s interesting to me how so much of our vocabulary about friendships is the same as romantic relationships, yet there’s this reluctance to treat them the same way. Like, in this letter, this guy does something offensive and unforgivable, and she says they can’t see each other anymore. That situation has gone down a million times in romantic relationships, and in those situations this guy would be considered a creepy ex. But here he’s just a person still trying to be friends.

Victoria: Yeah, I wonder if it’s because you CAN be kind of a casual friend but you can’t really be in a casual relationship? I mean, other than a FWB thing.

Jaya: Totally. Like, if someone said “even if we don’t talk for months, we can pick up right where we left off” about a spouse, that’d be a bad thing. So here, there was a firm “break up,” even if this person is not getting the message. And I think the letter writer just needs to repeat it until the ex-friend gets it, unfortunately. Not in detail, not “because you’re a toxic drain on my life,” but reminding him of what LW already said and standing by it. And then just blocking all email/Facebook/other contact points/

Victoria: Yep! Yeah, I think saying that he’s a toxic drain would make him defensive

Jaya: Right, that’s just inviting a conversation.

Victoria: No contact is just much easier and like, at a point, it goes beyond etiquette into safety. And safety always trumps etiquette.

Jaya: Absolutely. If he’s legitimately contacting you at work, talk to HR. Or the police. Or if you work at a “public” place like a bar, restaurant, retail, etc. makes this much more difficult. But ideally you can talk to your boss and something can be set up. Like, there’s a photo of him and everyone can recognize who it is and back you up if he comes in.

Victoria: That’s a great idea, but I mean, hopefully it doesn’t get to that point.

Jaya: I do think we can segue into the idea of the FRIENDSHIP FADEOUT that I’m clearly dying to talk about, because in most friendships, there is not a singular fight that marks an end point. Either there’s a pattern of behavior that turns you off, or you just realize you’ve grown apart and don’t feel like putting the effort in anymore.

Victoria: Yeah for sure. (I hope your wanting to talk about this so badly is not a hint =P)

Jaya: Hahaha omg are you kidding me??? Also I talk to you every day. So I’m doing a bad job if that’s my plan.

Victoria: Hahahahaha, good point.. Okay anyway, what would you like to say about fade outs?

Jaya: Basically, I’m a fan of the fade out, because I think it’s something that always occurred very naturally and it only seems unnatural now with Facebook and such. Like, people grow apart! This is not an offensive concept and friendships ebb and flow, certainly, but it seems to me the signs of a fade out are pretty clear. Someone minimally or flat out, not at all engaging in any contact with you, never initiating anything or wanting to hang out when you initiate, etc. And I guess if you can’t pick up those hints there are bigger problems. I’m sure people can be like “wahh we should all be straightforward” but I don’t know, lots of human interaction is based on hints and suggestions.

Victoria: Yeah! And it’s usually not like you hate the person.

Jaya: I actually think Kate Harding put it well in this article about affirmative consent. Like, constantly taking stock of someone else’s reactions to what you’re doing is part of sex/a relationship. And not just “yes” and “no.” You can tell when someone is into something and when they’re not, usually.

And right! It’s not about hating someone, you just stop being great friends. I don’t really see this as devastating. Like, it might hurt to see someone pulling away, but usually you can find that it’s mutual? I think the situation where one person is 100% on board and the other is 100% not is pretty rare.

Victoria: Yeah, I can’t even remember in my own life….I think it so often happens during a life change…or especially distance that you almost don’t even notice.

Jaya: Right. Every once in a while there might be a pang, like “oh I had a fun time with that person, I wonder where they went” but I’m not losing sleep over it.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to do that Anymore: Gift Giving

Rhett Butler shows he’s a cad by giving inappropriate gifts.

Obviously, people give each other gifts all the time, so this not truly “thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore,” but there used to be a lot more RULES about these things that we don’t really have to follow anymore. These rules mainly pertain to gifts given by a man to an unmarried woman (because sexism! And maybe women weren’t really supposed to give gifts to men and this was so well known no one even had to write it down.)

Social Life (1896) by Maud Cook gives these rules about gifts to an unmarried woman:

  • The only acceptable gifts for a gentleman to give a lady are flowers, fruits, and candy (despite how expensive these items can be made to be). Since these are perishable items, they leave no obligation upon the lady.
  • However, if the lady and gentleman have been talking about a book or musical composition that she does not possess, he may offer to send her a copy and she may accept.
  • If inappropriate gifts are given, the lady may say “I thank you for the kindness but I never take expensive presents;” or, “Mamma never permits me to accept expensive presents.” Or her mother might discover the gift and send it back saying “I think my daughter rather young to accept such expensive gifts.”
  • After an engagement, the rules would slacken, but real, expensive, useful gifts were supposed to saved until after the wedding.

In the 1920 Etiquette, Emily Post gives a list of rules that an engaged couple must follow about gifts:

  • If the man is saving money so that they may get married, he shouldn’t waste his money sending flowers and other little gifts.
  • A woman may accept all presents except: wearing apparel, a car, a house, or furniture.
  • Basically, a man should not provide his future wife with any real useful objects until after they are married and it becomes his duty to take care of her. For example, a fur scarf would be a fine gift as it is a mere ornament, but a fur coat would not be because it is a useful piece of clothing.
  • If an engagement is broken, all gifts must be returned.

My 1954 copy of Etiquette For Young Moderns is unusual in that it has rules for the girl giving gifts to the boy:

  • For both genders, it is suggested that gifts not be too expensive or too personal.
  • Girls should be especially careful not to give a gift more expensive that what he is giving her AND she shouldn’t give the gift first.

In Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Helen Gurley Brown says: “Don’t give expensive presents to men. Madness!” And also highly encourages women to get expensive presents from men. She also thinks it’s fine to be someone’s mistress, so take all advice with a grain of salt.

In my 1967 copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette book her rules for unengaged people very strict:

  • A man’s gift to any girl (other than a relative) must be impersonal until an engagement is announced. The idea is to not imply intimacy or be so expensive that people talk about the girl.
  • Acceptable gifts: scarf, gloves, handkerchiefs, small things for the house such as a cocktail shaker or toaster (if she lives alone). Unacceptable gifts: dress, hat, underthings, stockings, or fur. Books are fine, but not a particularly expensive book or set of books.
  • A man who visits a woman’s home frequently might restock her liquor cabinet but would never insult her by trying to pay the grocery bill or anything.
  • If a girl receives an inappropriate gift she should return it to the giver and tell him “I know you didn’t realize it, but I couldn’t possibly accept such a gift from you, much as I appreciate your kindness in wanting to give it to me. A little present would be better.”
  • “To do anything that puts a girl in untenable position is to be less than a gentleman”



Death Becomes Her: Etiquette in the Museum!

IMG_0786It is only rarely that museums have exhibitions that directly reflect etiquette, so I was very excited to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, the first fall show of the newly renamed Anna Wintour Costume Institute. We’ve discussed Victorian Mourning etiquette before, but it’s a subject worth revisiting in the context of this amazing exhibition (if you are in NYC, go see it before it closes February 1.)

This particular exhibition covers roughly the years 1815-1915 which spans the growth, peak, and decline of intense mourning clothing traditions in the United States (and a little bit of England). During this period, as the wall text reads: “With the growing circulation of women’s periodicals and advice manuals, along with technical advances that shaped the textile industry and fashion retail, modes of mourning that had been the preserve of the elite were made available to the burgeoning middle class.” With the end of World War I in 1918, formal mourning requirements drop off drastically. Interestingly, the massive casualties of the Civil War led almost to a peak of strict mourning rules whereas the even greater casualties of WWI made death so common and for such a “cause” that public mourning- the wearing of black and so forth was actually discouraged (especially in England). This led to the more current custom of only really wearing “mourning” clothes at the actual funeral services, if even then. The excellent review of the exhibition in the Wall Street Journal points out that the last public hurrah of this kind of “veiled widow” style of mourning was during the political assassinations of the 1960s.

What I really loved about this exhibition was how clearly they linked the etiquette requirements of doing certain things during mourning: first wearing very matte black fabrics with little ornamentations, then getting shinier fabrics, and then introducing whites/greys/purples- and how women still fashioned their mourning attire after the most current styles of the day. There was a whole display of fashion plates which illustrated this, even down to two separate plates showing the same dress- one in “mourning” and one “regular”.


Sorry for my blurry photos!!

The fashionableness of mourning clothes was quite important to these women, not only because hey, everyone likes to be fashionable, but because a young widow also probably wanted to get remarried as soon as her proscribed two years of mourning were over. There was a great series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson (of Gibson Girl fame) satirically illustrating the life cycle of a widow where she is first an object of sympathy, but then as she tries to rejoin society becomes an object of men’s leers and women’s derision. This particular widow ends up joining a convent but not being able to escape the gaze of the priest.


There is quite a lot of focus on “the widow” as a specific form of female loveliness and object of desire. Some passages from books and etiquette manuals flash on the wall and this one in particular caught my attention: “Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing,”  from The Illustrated Manners Book by Robert De Valcourt 1855.

As with most fashion exhibitions, the show focused mostly on women’s clothing, and there are plennnnnty of beautiful gowns to drool over. Happily, there were a few men’s things as well, with a great text explaining that since men’s clothing during the period was already so somber, there wasn’t much they could do to show that they were mourning in the way women could. Instead, they would do things like wear a black band on their hat, or use black accessories such as cufflinks, gloves, and ties. Of course, men were a lot less likely to be commented on if they didn’t wear mourning properly so they also didn’t have the social pressure to conform in the same way women did.

The smaller gallery, including the works on paper mentioned above, also contains a small sample of mourning jewelry such as the famed Victorian hair jewelry and some jet things. Also a child’s post mortem photograph that is so fragile it must be covered with a black cloth- the image is so hard to see they shouldn’t have bothered. If these morbid-type things are more your cup of tea, it would be better to check out Brooklyn’s new Morbid Anatomy Museum’s nice little exhibit on the more gruesome side of Victorian mourning culture.

The exhibition was accompanied by a recording of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem, Op. 48,” a nice touch for creating a haunting atmosphere to the underground galleries. It’s a small exhibit, but beautifully laid out and the starkness of the black dresses lended a beauty to the array and also let you really focus on the details and shapes of the designs. Totally worth the $1 you can pay at the Met, and for fashion/textile lovers, there is a bonus exhibition of GORGEOUS kimono in the Asian Art wing.

Can I Have My Wedding On My Friend’s Birthday?

tumblr_inline_my33zkvEB91s4rar7Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

My fiance and I are in the early stages of planning our wedding, and the date we’re shooting for happens to be the 30th birthday of one of the girls I want to ask to be a bridesmaid. She said it’s fine, but I still sort of feel bad. Now, I’m debating on whether or not we should still aim for that day, and if we do, if we should do something special to celebrate for her. Any ideas?


Milestone Madness



The Emily Post Institute suggests acknowledging any birthdays at a rehearsal dinner, but that they shouldn’t stop you from celebrating your wedding. Apparently some people are really opinionated about this.


Victoria: It’s a slippery slope once you start taking things like that into account. Then you have to check with EVERYBODY before you do anything and it’ll drive you crazy.

Jaya: It’s not as intense as this because bridesmaids may be a bit different, but we had two cousins’ birthdays on our wedding day! They were both totally fine with it. I mean, there are only 365 days in a year, it’s always going to be someone’s birthday/anniversary/something.

Victoria: Exactly.

Jaya: I think you should make sure your immediate family is all good, but after that it might get too hectic. Though it’s good she asked. I feel like if a good friend got married on my birthday and asked me I’d be totally fine, but if they just planned it without getting my okay first, I’d be annoyed. I have no justification for why I feel like this though.

Victoria: That makes total sense. And especially for this, since it’s a big birthday, you want to make sure they don’t have anything planned!

Jaya: I think there may be some reading between the lines to be done here too. Like, is this the type of friend who is totally honest about this stuff? Or will say it’s fine when it’s not fine? And then, how much do you care?

Victoria: But wouldn’t you feel so terrible if someone planned their WEDDING around your birthday? You have a birthday every year! Plus you can tell all these strangers its your birthday and get a lot of well wishes.

Jaya: I mean, getting dressed up and having an open bar on my birthday? Score.

Victoria: And as an adult, you can celebrate your birthday that whole week too. Hurricane Sandy ruined our birthdays one year, and we just celebrated later. It was fine.

Jaya: And if she seems the type to be miffed that the attention is not on her on her birthday, put candles in her cake or something. I do wonder about the type of person who would get furious at this though.

Victoria: It shows a lack of maturity to me. That’s the type of person who thinks the world revolves around them, and I’m not interested in their opinions anyway.

Jaya: What dates do you think are off limits? Like, I would not get married on a close relative’s anniversary. Though a friend of a friend got married on her parents anniversary. Is that something that’s done?

Victoria: Maybe not your parents anniversary. Grandparents could work though. I actually figured out which years my grandparents’ anniversaries fell on Saturdays. For entertainment.

What To Do If You’re Woefully Underdressed

tumblr_m6v9saBuT61qmgz9uo1_500The other weekend, I went to a beautiful wedding of two close friends where the website clearly indicated “semi-formal” (aka cocktail attire, dressy, or black-tie optional) as the dress code. Everyone looked pretty great. However, at one point a number of us seemed to distinctly notice one guest who had shown up in an untucked button down shirt, shorts, and a backwards baseball cap. Of course it couldn’t distract from the amazing ceremony and reception, but for a while before things got rolling, our section of seats was a little distracted and surprised.

This guy seemed to have no clue that he was dressed a bit inappropriately (he didn’t even take his hat off for the ceremony!), but it happens to the best of us–you misread a situation and show up dressed completely wrong. Here are a few steps you can take to remedy the situation.

  1. Apologize! Make it clear that you too see how you’re dressed, and that you realize it’s wrong. You don’t need to be groveling to everyone all night, but a quick “Oh my god, I didn’t realize I needed a tie!” to the host will smooth things over greatly.
  2. Work with what you have. Take off your hat and tuck in your shirt. See if you can borrow lipstick from someone, or if you have a pretty pair of earrings at the bottom of your purse. The venue you’re at might have a lost-and-found with a spare sport jacket in it, or maybe you can run home quickly and change into pants.
  3. Don’t make yourself the center of attention. Okay, so at this wedding, the guy sat in the SECOND ROW. Don’t do that. If it’s a wedding or some other thing with seats, sit yourself in the back so you’re not in every single photo in your dumb hat.
  4. Be extra polite otherwise. Make up for your fashion faux-pas with impeccable manners elsewhere. Offer to grab people drinks, introduce yourself with a firm handshake. In general just be so charming that people forget you’re wearing shorts. That’s not too hard, right?