Excuse me, please.
Times change. Luckily, new etiquette books have appeared for modern times.
Proper etiquette is like good grammar; the people who know how to spot our blunders are smarter than we are. Others don’t know the difference.
The downside of etiquette is that it encourages pride. As in, “I know something you don’t know.”
Here’s a confessional example. Two examples, actually.
1. I was having a business lunch with a young woman who delicately pushed the food onto her fork with her left thumb.
2. I was eating with a young, professional man who emphasized his comments by jabbing his fork at me across the table.
“Oh, that is so wrong,” I said to myself, flooded with self-righteousness, then ashamed of myself for being judgmental. I felt terrible, but the young man and young woman were blissfully unaware, which makes me wonder: “What’s the point of rules of etiquette?”
I am a devotee of Emily Post etiquette books, especially the vintage ones with guidelines for when a man is to lift his hat and whether a woman should remove her gloves before shaking hands. Times change. Luckily, new etiquette books have appeared for modern times including “Etiquette Rules! A Field Guide to Modern Manners” by Nancy R. Mitchell (my favorite) and “Modern American Manners: Dining Etiquette for Hosts and Guests” by Fred Mayo and Michael Gold.
I took a victory lap when I saw how much space the authors devoted to cell phone courtesy, a subject close to my nerves. In summary:
1. No cell phones placed on a dining table or conference table.
2. No interrupting face-to-face conversations to text, answer the cell phone or even check the display “unless you are a first responder, CEO of a Fortune 500 company or designated driver of a pregnant woman,” according to “Etiquette Rules!”
3. No loud, personal conversations in public.
The rules are: Put down the phone and be present. Respect the personal space of other people.
My second favorite subject was the etiquette of Facebook posting. Don’t overshare, the author tells us. Not another self-portrait, no photo of what you’re eating or drinking and no report about checking in for a medical procedure. (I would add: No photos of your wounds, stitches or feet, even at a fireplace or swimming pool.)
Tweets should be respectful. No rants, bullying or complaints.
The guides to modern manners direct us through the niceties of when to use honorific titles (Mr., Ms., Dr.), when to help a woman with her chair (in social but not business settings) and such old-fashioned rules of how a man should walk beside a woman on a sidewalk (on the street side). We’re directed how to dress for a job interview and how to greet people we are meeting for the first time. Much attention is given to workplace etiquette. In shared work spaces, no smelly foods or loud cologne.
Mitchell’s book takes us through retail rudeness (Don’t leave clothes on the dressing room floor), medical office manners (Don’t tear out pages from magazines in the waiting room) and performance etiquette (Arrive no later than 15 minutes before the published start time).
These are good books for young people beginning their professional careers and interested in polishing their social behavior. They’re not for young people only. Just as I was feeling smug about my own etiquette IQ, I came across admonishments at my frequent gaffes, especially applying lipstick at the table, picking up the napkin dropped in a restaurant and meeting punctuality. If you’re not five minutes early for a meeting, the authors tell us, you’re late.
Why bother with a code of behavior for social and professional occasions? It helps us feel educated, polite and refined. Rules make life manageable. Ms. Post summed up proper etiquette this way: “Politeness is to do and say the kindest thing in the kindest way.”
Armed with modern manners, I was ready to correct the unmannered people who talk, text and phone in a movie theater. I was eager to admonish friends who plop their phone on the restaurant table and then say, repeatedly, “I have to take this.” The authorities of modern manners made me stop. It’s rude to correct other people, they say.
I have to be polite, too? Bummer.