If You Want, You Can Still Take Etiquette Lessons


The idea of charm school is really quaint at this point. Girls walking with books on their heads, the back of your hand smacked if you pick up the wrong fork or put your elbows on the table, the thought that you need to practice how to curtsey. Most of these are not practical lessons in our lives anymore. But, if you so choose, there are places you can still go for etiquette lessons.

I recently came across the Etiquette School of New York, which has been around for ten years and offers classes in dining and entertaining, teen etiquette, and even corporate etiquette. There are also online classes at It’s All About Etiquette, and Beaumont Etiquette, which features this woman measuring the distance between flatware with a butler’s stick. Of course, these classes come at a price–the Etiquette School of New York’s adult finishing school will set you back $750.

I’m not sure how I feel about this! On one hand, we believe social graces are important and something that should be more general knowledge. I mean, that’s the point of this damn blog. And running these classes is work and nobody should work for free. The instructors are teaching specific skills and should be fairly compensated–no one should be expected to put in time and effort out of the goodness of their own heart. (To that end, click on our ads so we can make money!)

On the other, however, is the concept of privilege. The idea is that by going through these classes you’ll have the upper hand in social and business interactions by learning the “soft skills” you may not learn in college or elsewhere. Guess who already has the upper hand there? People who can afford $750 for finishing school.

No, you don’t need a class to learn how to give someone a firm handshake and look them in the eye while talking to them, or to say “please” and “thank you.” But I worry that the other skills these classes teach–networking, small talk, “how to make a good first impression”–are being taught to the people who were already in the position to be getting those jobs. That, basically, rich white people are taking classes in the rules rich white people created in order to advance more rich white people.

I’m not saying that’s what these schools are explicitly doing, and hey, it would be amazing if all kids got lessons in table manners early. But the inclusivity is the thing. If we’re going to say a general knowledge of etiquette and manners is necessary to social and professional advancement, those lessons should be available to everyone, whether through formal schooling like this or elsewhere. And if not, well, it’s pretty shitty to hire someone because they’re good at networking when they already had the money to learn how to do it. But, you know, put a book on your head. Posture is really important.

Why Is It So Difficult To Accept “No Gifts”?

[Via Emily Orpin]

[Via Emily Orpin]

I’ve been invited to my first wedding where, in lieu of a registry, the couple has asked that anyone inclined donate to one of their favorite charities. It’s a wonderful gesture, and I’ll absolutely be donating, and yet somehow I’m plagued with anxiety over the thought of not giving the couple themselves a gift. Even though they asked that I not! Even though I’ll be giving money elsewhere!

This is, of course, ridiculous. But it’s something that I realize others might feel if presented with the same situation, or even further, if the couple specifies no gifts or spending at all. I think this reaction comes from a good place. We’ve been taught that giving is good, and for multiple reasons–it’s an opportunity to show we care, to show we know the recipient’s taste, and often a physical marker of our presence at an event. But notice that many of those reasons have to do with us more than the recipients. The entire concept of gift giving hinges on one thing: the recipient actually being thankful for the gift.

It’s also difficult to think of someone not being thankful for a gift, because most of us have been taught that money/stuff is good no matter what (yay capitalism). We chide that they must be being coy, and insist on giving small tokens or even large gifts anyway, under the assumption that they’ll be appreciated. Don’t do that! Not only is it disrespectful to the couple’s wishes, it’s disrespectful to their intelligence. It suggests that you know better than them what they actually want, and that they’re being dishonest about their desires.

Here’s another secret (that’s maybe not a secret, maybe I’m just a terrible person): The couple will likely not remember what you got them. Yes, immediately after the wedding I had a mental list of who bought what off the registry, who sent checks, and who gave cards. And I was very thankful for everything we received, and wrote thank you notes indicating so. However, almost two years later, it has all blended into my life. Aside from a few gifts that are distinctly tied to the giver, I can’t really recall who got us our plates or who gave us a check that allowed us to buy plates. I think that’s fine. There’s warmth in my heart for everyone who bought us gifts, and everyone who didn’t but who spent their time and money to celebrate with us.

Gifts are a symbol of love and consideration and joy, but they are not those things. If a couple asks you not to give them gifts, or to donate your money or time elsewhere, they are saying that they don’t need that middleman. But if you’re really freaking out, bring a card.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Be So Strict About Wedding Anniversary Gifts

The paper anniversary?

I’m coming up on my second wedding anniversary this year. We didn’t get each other gifts last year and it’s likely not a tradition we’re going to follow (though we DID see Mad Max: Fury Road that night and a yearly viewing sounds like a fine enough tradition to start). However, were we to be traditional this year, we’d get each other gifts of cotton. Or paper if we’re going by other conventions. Or iron if we’re going by really old conventions. Or China if we’re going by the modern conventions suggested by the Chicago Public Library.

I can’t be the only one who finds these gifts puzzling. What about the tenth anniversary suggests tin? Why should I be supporting the ivory trade for the 14th? What about paper seems romantic? Where the hell did these come from?

Most sources suggest that giving certain gifts for certain anniversaries revolved around the luck-bringing properties of those gifts. A few sources also point to the trend beginning in Central Europe. “Among the medieval Germans it was customary for friends to present a wife with a wreath of silver when she had lived with her husband twenty-five years. The silver symbolized the harmony that was assumed to be necessary to make so many years of matrimony possible. On the fiftieth anniversary of a wedding the wife was presented with a wreath of gold,” according to one source. The other anniversaries probably trickled down from there, and by the 20th century less valuable and durable materials–crystal, tin, wood–represented fewer years. There are also theories about what each one represents, from “paper is a blank page” to “iron is a symbol of a sturdy foundation” blah blah blah.

Many older etiquette guides mention these gifts not as ones the couple should exchange between themselves, but gifts guests should give the special couple on “anniversary weddings,” or celebrations on their anniversary. Invitations to the first anniversary, the “paper wedding,” “should be issued on gray paper, representing thin cardboard,” according to The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette of 1877. The tin anniversary was supposed to be printed on oxidized tin cards, which is some hipster bullshit. The author also notes, “it is not unusual to have the marriage ceremony repeated at these anniversary weddings,” though notes a repeat ceremony is usually reserved for the silver or gold anniversaries.

Golden anniversaries could be somber occasions, according to The Home Manual of 1889, “too often fraught with sorrowful memories of the dear ones who have passed into the shadow-land.” The silver one is much more fun, with the couple “still in life’s prime instead of being near the end of their earthly pilgrimage.” You could also celebrate the twentieth anniversary as the linen wedding, but not if you’re Scottish, as they “have a superstition that one or the other will die within the year if any allusion to it is made.” Or maybe it’s unlucky for everyone.

According to Social Life: Or, The Manners and Customs of Polite Society, there is a particular protocol that must be observed when celebrating a golden anniversary. Anniversary poems are read (whatever those are), telegrams from those who couldn’t attend are announced, and there is a recitation of Longfellow’s “The Hanging of the Crane.” It is noted, however, that “good taste” would keep anyone from repeating the original wedding ceremony, so Social Life and The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette can duke it out over that.

Even though having specific silver embossed invitations and gifting conventions for an anniversary seems overly complicated, there’s something about it I like. It’s elaborate, but contained. Keep the celebrations to the milestones. I’m not saying the couple can’t choose to celebrate every anniversary themselves–they should! Get gussied up and go out! Just that families don’t need to be throwing parties every year. Can you imagine if, in addition to the seven weddings you’re invited to this year, you had to go to anniversary parties of all the weddings you were at last year? I’d die.

How To Observe Drynuary Politely

Me after a week

Have you heard of Drynuary? Admittedly it is a terrible portmanteau, but it is the act of not drinking for the entire month of January. It’s been around for a while and the reasons to participate are varied, and this year I decided to give it a shot. If anything, it’s a fun experiment in losing water weight while double checking that I can in fact decline a drink.

We’ve already talked about how not to be a dick to your sober friends, but in the few days I’ve participated in Drynuary I’ve noticed how incredibly easy it is to be smug about it. And oh MAN does being smug feel good. You can get drunk off your own superiority! But, like anything, it’s pretty rude to shove your choices into someone else’s face. So here are some tips on how to get through the month without being a jerk.

  1. Talk about it within reason. If you drink regularly, your drinking habits are bound to come up. Someone is bound to notice your refusal of booze at a party or that you’re only ordering Diet Coke with dinner. If you’re a woman, this may even be paired with the assumption that you’re pregnant, lucky you! You can always say “I don’t feel like drinking tonight,” and if you’re with someone you see often, you should feel free to say that you’re not drinking for the month. It’s quite possible you’ll get into a natural conversation about your motivations, but don’t start lecturing anyone. The concept of not drinking is not new, you don’t need to explain it.
  2. Literally no one cares what’s in your glass. I spent my first party of January (a post-NYE hangover party at a friend’s house, with bagels and Advil) drinking seltzer out of a red solo cup. Other people were drinking mimosas. I have to admit, it was very tempting to point out that I was doing Drynuary, either to explain that I wasn’t drinking for a reason, or I guess just to seem different. Neither are good looks. Probably no one noticed I was drinking seltzer, and if they assumed it was a gin and tonic that has no impact on me.
  3. Complaining! There are people who think complaining about any voluntary endeavor is annoying, and those people can die in a fire. Plenty of things we choose to do are also frustrating, like moving and learning how to apply liquid eyeliner and raising kids and keeping plants alive. Venting is necessary! So yes, if you find yourself really wishing you could pour yourself a glass of wine after a hard day at work, text your friends or tweet or instagram like “uuuuugh I wish this ginger ale were champagne.” However, be sure it’s not all you end up talking about. If you’re doing nothing but complaining, at that point you may as well not do it at all. (This goes for eyeliner and children as well.)
  4. Do not compare this to actual addiction and recovery. I have no idea about actual statistics, but I’m sure there have been some people who have tried Drynuary, had a really hard time, and it made them realize maybe they had more of an alcohol dependence than they realize and they sought help. It’s good when people seek help for addiction. The rest of us will likely be returning to a lifestyle that involves consuming alcohol come February 1, so do not act like giving up alcohol for a month is akin to entering rehab or some huge trial.
  5. On hosting. This may be a controversial stance, so please let me know if you feel differently! (Kindly.) If I’m invited to dinner at the home of someone I know doesn’t drink ever, I do not bring wine, nor do I expect to be offered any. If I’m invited to dinner at the home of someone I know isn’t drinking for a little bit, I maybe expect they’ll have some extra beer around I can finish. Maybe not, but if you’re hosting and you know your friends like to drink, provide.

Quaker Plain Speech: The Anti-Etiquette

My high school

I went to a Quaker (or Friends) high school, and despite not being religious in the slightest, there were a lot of things I liked about it. I enjoyed the mandatory silent meeting, and learning to be quiet with myself as a teenager. I enjoyed how they taught us about conscientious objecting at the beginning of the 2004 war with Iraq. I enjoyed their simple architecture. And though it was never directly employed to the students, I love the concept of Quaker “plain speech.”

The Quaker movement grew out of a break from the Church of England, which many believed was too ostentatious. They believed in a direct relationship with god, and universal priesthood, and they valued living a simple, non-materialistic life so that that relationship could be focused on. This was called the Testimony of Simplicity, and manifested itself in a lot of ways. Quakers in early American settlements were known for making things like apple butter and scrapple, foods that utilized leftovers, and that tasted good but were not particularly indulgent (Quakers disliked gluttony). Their dress was plain, and their meeting houses often featured white walls with no stained glass or other decoration.

What was also plain was their speech. Plain speech is used to “refuse to give into the vanity of the world and the unspiritual, conventional order. It naturally involved strict honesty, a lack of artificial elaborations, and directness.” Many Quakers rejected honorific titles, and the common English names for days and months that referenced paganism. They also didn’t refer to any single with plural pronouns like “ye,” which was customary in 17th century England when addressing the rich or noble.

As we’ve said before, at its best, etiquette is the language of good behavior. It doesn’t matter who you come from or where you are–treating people well is what matters above all else. However, at its worst it’s a tool used to make class distinctions and judgments, arbitrary rules that separate those who know them from those who don’t. Plain speech does away with that. There’s no worry about making sure you have the right title if everyone is known by their first and last name. There is no class distinction between style of dress or language used. Plain speech puts everyone on an equal playing field.

What’s also valued in plain speech is truth and directness, which can rub some people the wrong way. A negative truth can be hard to hear, and really, about 75% of etiquette is about how to say something negative in the smoothest way possible. I’m sure there have been many Quakers who never learned or cared how to say things directly but tactfully, but we can certainly learn from the best case scenario of plain speech. Remember that directness does not equal rudeness (in most western cultures, anyway). You can be direct while still having care for people’s feelings. And it would probably behoove us all to learn that no, most people aren’t motivated by an evil desire to hurt our feelings with everything they say. Sometimes it can just be what you say, and not how you say it.