“Were you raised in a barn?”
“Were you raised in a barn?”
I never had the legendary Mrs. Montgomery as a teacher; but she was a senior class adviser and I needed her input on a school program script, so I made the rookie mistake of assuming her wide-open door meant I could forego the formality of knocking.
Thus, the piercing glare and the intimidating inquiry about sharing living quarters with cattle, swine and the occasional hobo (who was presumably condemned to a vagrant lifestyle because he insisted on CHEWING GUM IN CLASS).
The late Mrs. Montgomery would doubtless be delighted by the recent release of the centennial edition of Emily Post’s definitive guide “Etiquette,” completely rewritten by two of Ms. Post’s great-great-grandchildren. The book is calibrated to bring decorum to a society complicated by Uber, online dating, Zoom meetings, artificial intelligence, self-checkout and the like.
Not that there aren’t critics. (“Dude, they didn’t list a single tuxedo shop specializing in tuxes that display your underwear for the whole world to see.”)
Many others see the book as an indispensable referee in the clash between technology and manners. (“It only took me six months, Grandma, but I’m texting to thank you for saving my life by donating both your kind—oh, wait, here’s another TikTok video. Gotta go.”)
On the other hand (the hand reserved for firm handshakes, which—combined with making eye contact and smiling—will render everyone you meet so compliant that they will let you whack their butler repeatedly with a croquet mallet), most of us have a love-hate relationship with the demands of etiquette.
We love it when other poor slobs get brought to justice and hate it when our own charming eccentricities are put under the microscope. (“Okay, smarty—which fancy fork am I SUPPOSED to use to scratch my bunion?”)
The book arrives just in time for families torn apart by political disagreements. (“I really want to make my cousin eat crow, but she’s a vegan and I need to know the non-fowl equivalent of crow.”)
Yes, we live in a time when dinner parties and other invitation-only events are unreasonably stressful. (“I was going to bring a ‘plus one,’ but the math is too hard. Wish we had better school systems, like in Belgium and those other African countries.”)
Guests expecting potent potables at a reception or society soiree face more awkward situations than ever. It used to be a question of “open bar” or “cash bar.” Now it’s just as likely to be a “let the next generation figure out how to pay for it” bar.
Sure, we chafe at arbitrary, hoity-toity rules of civility; but deep down most of us appreciate an authoritative voice. We know it’s not going to kill us to say “please” or “thank you” or “let me pay half since the weight of my body piercings blew out your tires”; but we still like experts to compile the morbidity charts. (“’Please’ and ‘thank you’—declared mostly non-lethal. Still hashing out whether ‘excuse me’ is tied to chronic irritable bellybutton syndrome.”)
If your parents failed to teach you all the niceties of polite society, don’t despair. It’s never too late to learn. When one door closes—another one has a Mrs. Montgomery wannabe waving a big stack of detention slips.
Party until the cows come home—unless it’s your home, too.
Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”