Can Etiquette Be Humorous?

Etiquette is often thought (incorrectly) to be classism disguised as manners, so it can actually be quite funny when someone uses hyperbolic classism as etiquette.

At least I hope that is what William Hanson is doing.

Once billed as the UK’s youngest etiquette expert, William Hanson is a regular columnist at the Daily Mail (I knoooow, and what’s even worse, it’s in the woman’s interest section called “femail”- like female but spelled like “mail” for the Daily Mail. I cannot.), the author of A Bluffer’s Guide to Etiquette, a popular etiquette commentator for various TV programs, and a tutor for the etiquette consultancy company, The English Manner (presumably another pun on English Manor, as in fancy house where polite people live?). While his book and personal appearances are serious (though funny and engaging), his Daily Mail columns are HILARIOUS when read as a satire of the British class system and how it relates to etiquette (though horrifying if taken seriously, as many of the commentors seem to.)

For example:

  • How Common Is Your Breakfast?:
    • “The middle classes today are obsessed with health foods to start their days. Protein this, good fats that. All rather boring and faddy for the uppers to worry about.
    • They’ve survived this far without chia seeds, thank you, and will somehow manage to carry on the lineage in their absence.”
    • “Do I even have to spell it out what a McMuffin says about your life choices and standards? I severely hope not. Being seen walking down a street with a takeaway cup of coffee is also a fast-track ticket for entry into society hell.”
  • What Does YOUR Home Say About Your Social Class?:
    • “I have written before that there are few worse accusations one can level against someone than that they own, or aspire to own, a hot tub.”
    • “The size of a house’s main television is pretty much the acid test in social class. The bigger the television the more downmarket the establishment.”
    • “Mirrored furniture is not only redolent of the lower echelons of the premier league but stunningly impractical…Oak or mahogany furniture, slightly chipped or worn in places, is far smarter and carries more cachet.”
  • The 12 Silent Ways Everyone Is Judging Your Social Class:
    • “It’s not just how we shake hands but what we say to accompany it. The upper classes will all say ‘how do you do’, which is rhetorical. ‘Pleased/nice to meet you’ is the definition of de trop.”
    • “This is now pandemic at black tie events: men turning up (often the ones with ready-made bow ties) and the moment they reach their seat, whipping off the jacket and sticking it on the back. So vulgar!”
  • How Posh Is YOUR Bedroom?:
    • “Bed linens are cotton, linen or a blend of both. Silk and satin sheets are the reserve of haggard, ageing ungentlemanly playboys. Linens are often white, or off white. Floral bedding is acceptable if you’re thatched. Black, deep purple or maroon sheets are to be left in the shop. Or ideally burned.”
    • “One way to make sure your bedroom is up there with the hoity-toity is to display a beaten up teddy bear, stuffed with memories of the nursery.”
    • “Upon rising, it is important to change and dress for breakfast if you wish to frolic both outside and inside the sheets with the PLU set [People Like Us -Ed.]. Eating kippers in your pyjamas is not on.”
    • “The best houses are big houses. Big, rattling and totally impractical. Therefore, they are cold. Especially now as impoverished aristos and gentry struggle to keep the central heating running at all – unless they sellout to costume dramas. Cold? Pop an extra dog on the bed rather than reach for the radiator. Cheaper and warmer, by far. Très chic!”

He also has a wonderful Twitter.

So what do you all think? Satire or serious? It has to be satire, right?


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.

Etiquette Origins: Escort Cards

Via Flickr

Escort cards are probably the easiest part of the wedding to DIY and you can be incredibly creative with them. Via Flickr

I was very confused for a while when I first started reading wedding websites (erm, for research for friends weddings and this here etiquette website) and people kept referring to escort cards. At this stage in my life I had not been to many weddings so I was like “what’s an escort card?” If you also do not know, an escort card is the little card with your name on it that you find at the entrance to the reception that tells you what table you are to sit at. This is a modern alternative to the more traditional seating chart or a simple place card at your seat (why doesn’t anyone do these anymore???) The most confusing thing about escort cards, to me, was the name. Sure they tell you where you are supposed to sit, but they aren’t ESCORTING you there. It seemed like a very active verb for such a passive way of getting you to your seat.

It turns out that escort cards have a previous etiquette life where they made a lot more sense.

Back in the Downton Abbey type of era, for a fancy dinner all the guests would meet outside the dining room before the meal started. When dinner was ready, the butler would say that dinner was served. Then all the guests would line up two by two, boy and girl, like little ducks and march into the dining room. To complicate things, in England (and other places??), every single person had a rank and that rank HAD to determine where they would sit at dinner and in what order they would march in. Hostesses literally had to hire people and buy giant books to tell them what order their guests had to go in. So after putting all that work in, the hostess couldn’t let the guests bungle it up by choosing who to walk in with. So, the escort card was invented to tell men which lady they would be ESCORTING (active verbs for active actions!) into the dining room and what order they would be in. These would be shown to the men discreetly or handed to them when they arrived for dinner.

And now we have Pinterest to tell us that we are never going to be good enough, even with some stupid scraps of paper.

Alternative history: The Art of Manliness has a fascinating post describing escort cards as a cheeky way that 19th century men asked women out on dates.