Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pinkies Up: The Importance of Etiquette

[emilypost.com]
The first time I ever watched Pretty Woman, I fell in love with the scene where she charms her way through a fine dining multi-course dinner. I remember thinking that I wouldn't know where to start. Sure, I set the table growing up and I understood a basic place setting. We were always taught please and thank yous. We were taught to shake hands, be polite and courteous. But we were never the kind of family that went to a meal like that. I think we all sort of laugh at the idea of "formalities." We are more backyard bbq people. We like pool parties and tacos and ice in our wine.

In college I dated a guy who came from a family that was "well off." He taught me things like when you are done eating, you place your utensils next to each other on the plate, which lets the server know they may take your plate, that you are ready for the next course. If you were not finished eating but needed a break, you crossed them on the plate.  I remember telling my father this and he was annoyed. "You don't come from the wrong side of the tracks!" I can understand his annoyance. I was raised well and just because I didn't know to cross my utensils didn't mean anything. I think I sort of looked down at etiquette as snobby, conformist, elitist...but also admired the clear rules and boundaries it defined. I liked that there was a language and a playbook and that anyone could learn it. I liked that there was a system in place to preserve feelings, avoid misunderstandings, and set parameters. Each year, I would convince my Dad to buy Christmas cards and we would pretend we would send them out to our family members and friends and each year we never got around to it. Part of it was that we had enough on our plate and I think another part felt like it was a waste of money or felt phony. I never saw a Christmas card as a thought or a thank you. But once I left home, receiving a piece of mail became priceless.

Even if a card just has someone's name signed, it is a thought in your hand. Someone took the time to write you on their list of people they wish to send good will to for the new year. They wrote your name in ink and a thought and hope for a merry holiday or a happy birthday. They looked you up in their old address book. Spent money on a card and a stamp and either took it to the post office or left it in their mailbox. For me, it always means something when I get that card.
[emilypost.com]

In my twenties, I started writing thank you cards. Even though email was beginning to replace thank yous and letters, I mailed cards and it felt good. But there was still so much I didn't know. I did not know I was supposed to write a thank you letter if I was interested in a job after an interview. I almost blew one of the better jobs in my life because I did not send a thank you card immediately. When I learned this piece of etiquette, I hand-delivered the note. I got the job.

[emilypost.com]
I have now taken to Christmas/holiday cards and now Halloween cards or care packages with candy and stickers for all my little cousins and godsons. I like the feeling this gives me to spend some time thinking about someone else. Even though they may just glance at my card, the whole process is more for me to count my blessings. And the older I get the bigger the desire I have for a life with etiquette. If I receive a gift, I write a thank you card. Not an email. Around the holidays I write cards wishing the people I love most a merry new year. I RSVP to events in a timely fashion. I respectfully decline. I show up on time and if I'm invited to someone's home I never show up empty handed. I know the time lines for inviting guests to an event as well as what makes a suitable wedding gift if you attend a wedding and what makes a suitable gift if you can not attend but were still invited. I don't talk about plans in front of people that are not invited to those plans and if someone happens to join the plan, I check with the other guests first if they mind me inviting another friend along (unless it is the type of "the-more-the-merrier event"). I even check with Mike first about having anyway over or sleep over because it's a matter of respect that his time and space which is shared with me in our home is just as important as mine. If he does not feel up to company, I make plans outside of the home, or sometimes we compromise and he will compromise for me.
[emilypost.com]
Then there are the more common slip ups I try to keep in mind. When out with a friend, do not answer your phone and do not make a quick call and don't text while you're walking. And when when you are out for a drink, do not place your phone on the bar. (We are all guilty of this, but it's so rude!) I am also learning when the appropriate response is to not bring a gift or not offer to pay for a meal but to just say thank you and when to say thank you. There is a graciousness to accepting someone's generosity and a way to thank someone with humility. Etiquette is like monogamy, it was created to protect us from hurting each other or in some cases to politely let us know where we stand one another. It is the cornerstone of civilization. What I once called "bullshit," I have only come to appreciate more and more with each life experience where I get to practice my understanding of these rules of engagement and bring to the table my own acquired etiquette and grace.


[emilypost.com]
Now, I'm not saying I'm perfect. Far from it! And there is so much I don't know and probably never will know. And of course I do things that are not graceful and sometimes maybe offensive. Certainly, one could argue that a blog was not very "etiquette friendly." And I use the "f-word" too much. But I have adopted etiquette as something important which makes it something I strive to achieve. When I have kids, they will most likely not go to meals like the one in Pretty Woman, but I will always practice with them the art of refinement and grace. Pinkies up, kids.

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