Modern Ladies and Gentlemen
So many traditional opportunities for smutty giggles have disappeared from society. Young people today cannot imagine what fun was once had by the simple exercise of calculating the number of months between a first baby's birth and the date of the parents' wedding.
Miss Manners is therefore reluctant to subtract other such opportunities from modern life, which is grim enough. Nevertheless, it is high time that the traces of dirty humor be removed from friendships and business associations between ladies and gentlemen.
For some decades, we have been operating under a system naively assuming that the only possible relationship between ladies and gentlemen was you-know-what. Therefore, the only set of manners they knew how to use with each other was, shall we say, social gallantry. Businessmen kept trying to pick up the checks for business meals with female colleagues or even female superiors, because the only form of meal they knew how to have with ladies was the date, in which the gentleman traditionally paid. The only pleasant language they knew how to employ was the exaggerated personal compliment appropriate to courtship but jarring in professional situations. Spouses protested working arrangements that teamed their husbands or wives with partners of the other gender, because they could only think of one activity these people might do together.
Friendships were supposed to be segregated by gender, and opposite-gender people could see each other socially only if all spouses were present. Married couples did not accept dinner invitations unless both could attend. If someone you liked married someone you didn't, or your spouse didn't like the friend or the friend's spouse -- and the statistical chance of finding four people who are crazy about one another is small -- the tie was broken. The twentieth-century wedding is designed for the bride to have her close friends as bridesmaids, and the bridegroom to have his as groomsmen, with no role for her male or his female friends. The very term "just good friends" was popularly understood to refer to a clandestine romance.
Miss Manners hates to be the one to break the news that there is just not that much sex in the world. The fact is that such innovations as coeducational dormitories and equal employment opportunity have surprised society by leading to affable companionship as much as or more often than to unbridled lust. Nor is this strictly a modern phenomenon. Sophisticated society in past centuries not only assumed that respectable married people were capable of individual socializing without falling into sin but looked suspiciously at couples who were always seen in each other's company. There must be a reason, society figured, that they displayed so little trust.
As disappointing as it may be for salacious onlookers, we shall have to relearn the social forms of trust. It can no longer be safely assumed that ladies and gentlemen who are seen lunching or dining together are doing anything more exciting than talking or that people who take business trips in mixed groups are having a wonderful time. Gracious, you can't even be sure that people who are living together are -- well, living together. These days they could simply be splitting the rent or pooling their Social Security payments. For such innocent circumstances, dignified but nonromantic manners are appropriate. The factor of gender is removed from such questions as who initiates meetings and who pays bills. In business, precedence is given to rank, and in comradeship, deference is paid to age.
Society must do its part by refraining from making smarmy assumptions: not teasing small children who play together about their "boyfriends" or "girlfriends" and not asking adults how they "feel" about a spouse's opposite-gender colleagues or friends. The truth is that such remarks were always in dreadful taste; they are also likely to be in error.
How, then, society wants to know, do we find out if something really racy is going on? If mere proximity and opportunity are no longer to constitute proof of sin, how on earth are we to be sure that people are not taking advantage of this license to disguise behavior that we are all dying to know about? Modern customs have taken care of this contingency. The answer is: They'll tell you.
Dear Miss Manners:
How does a comfortably married person go about making friends (I mean what I say: friends) with an attractive member of the opposite sex? Is the answer simply "Very carefully," or are there rules? There must be rules, no doubt of the sort that are lost and recovered, only to be lost again. Let us say that one considers one's life to be enriched by the acquaintance and would be pleased to improve upon it. Adultery is out of the question. How can such a message be politely and convincingly delivered?
Of course, there are proper ways for ladies and gentlemen to have innocent and rewarding friendships. Such relationships went on quite naturally in the eighteenth century (along with other interesting relationships) before the days when attempting a harmless friendship became simply not worth the scandal.
Only in the most rigid social systems is it possible to get ladies and gentlemen so aquiver from deprivation that anything at all from the opposite gender looks good to them. We are now, Miss Manners dearly hopes, emerging from such a period.
You must make it clear that although you and your spouse have individual activities and individual friendships, you are a permanent couple. Your friend should know that your spouse is aware of the friendship and that your life, as you will naturally speak of it in the course of the friendship, is happily shared. Your friend should also know that you do not keep secrets from your spouse, who trusts and approves of you. It is even understood that the confidences of the friendship -- the promise-you-won't-tell-anyone confessions -- do not restrict you from telling your spouse.
Occasionally, some effort should be made to include spouses. A two-person friendship between married people is usually pursued at lunchtime, which is the time of day when social engagements are not made in couples, but you might throw in an occasional dinner just to have people you care about get to know each other.
In spite of all these precautions, Miss Manners must warn you that some people will talk. Let them. If you lead a blameless life, it is ridiculous to curtail it simply for the purpose of avoiding the censure of nasty-minded people.
A Third-Party View
Dear Miss Manners:
Is it proper for an unmarried man to call upon (about once a week), and occasionally take to dinner, the estranged wife of his nephew? The man is about sixty-five and the woman is about thirty. They both say that the relationship is platonic. I have been dating this man for several years, and while I realize that my complaints may sound like (and be) "sour grapes," I am also truly concerned about what friends and neighbors might think of the situation, not to mention what this woman's husband would think if he found out.
There is hardly a social action on earth that is guaranteed to be gossip-proof, but Miss Manners does not consider it scandalous of a lady and gentleman, of whatever ages, simply to dine together. She herself has just invited to luncheon a gentleman considerably younger than herself -- in fact, nine years old.
Your real question is: How should you deal politely with the fact that you feel left out? Not by attempting to squelch the gentleman's freedom through the threat of public disapproval. Even if you managed to do so, you would be establishing yourself as a social coward at best and probably a killjoy as well. The charming thing to do is to show interest, enthusiasm, and sympathy for the young woman. As your friend is fond of her, it should be easy to get him to talk about her, after which it is a natural step for you to tell him how much you would like to be friends with her, too, and perhaps you could join them at the next dinner.
In the glorious names of etiquette and of feminism, a great deal of disreputable advice is being given out these days to people of Miss Manners' own gender. Ladies are being taught ruses and tricks to perform when they are in public places so as to create the impression that they are respectable. They are advised in detail of ways of dressing and behaving in restaurants, hotels, airplanes, trains, and business establishments so as to discourage unsolicited attention. There seems to be no end of answers to the presumed question: How can I prove that I am honest while I am out pursuing my normal business?
Miss Manners is deeply outraged at the premise of the question. She wants it clearly stated that a lady is presumed to be respectable unless proven otherwise. The burden of proof is not on the lady. If there are some who are eager to devote special attention to protecting womanhood from the transgressions of men who are not gentlemen, let them do it by restricting the men, and not their victims.
We have sadly regressed on this point in the last century or so. Back when all men felt that they had the right to oppress women, individual gentlemen did not permit the less well behaved of their gender to insult individual ladies in public. Ladies themselves were quick to take offense at the hint of such unpardonable behavior and to make their objections loud and clear.
Here, then, are Miss Manners' answers to modern questions of etiquette that ought never to be asked:
How does a lady by herself check into a hotel? By stating her name and the fact of her reservation to the room clerk. If she is expecting her husband (anyone of the opposite gender occupying a hotel room with the person registering is, by definition, a spouse), she signs her own name and informs the clerk that she is registering for a double. It is not necessary to give the name of anyone other than the person responsible for the bill.
How does a lady eat dinner alone in a restaurant? By asking for a table, sitting down when a satisfactory one is shown, selecting food from the menu, ordering it, and, when it appears, eating it.
Suppose someone assumes that a lady wants to be picked up and starts annoying her? Any restaurant patron who is annoyed by any other patron should make an immediate, outraged complaint to the management. It is the restaurant's responsibility to see that indecent behavior, such as intruding on strangers in any way, is not permitted in the establishment.
Is it ever proper to address a lady traveling alone? Whether introductory-level personal conversation between strangers is considered insulting depends on the length of the trip. On a crosstown bus, it is; on an ocean liner, it is not. Avoiding socializing on the latter requires the same sort of polite maneuvers one would use on land to avoid those to whom one has been properly introduced but whom one doesn't like. Trains and airplanes are in between: It is not rude to attempt conversation, but it is not rude to cut it off, either.
Suppose a lady is staying in a hotel and wants to go out for a drink? Oh, suppose. Suppose Miss Manners would like a drink herself after all this. Then woe betide the person who tried to interpret this as behavior unbecoming to a perfect lady.
Dear Miss Manners:
Let's face it. Polite is not always all it's cracked up to be. I received a call from a man of my acquaintance who said, "I'm coming over to your place now for a drink," and went on to imply that he was interested in more than social intercourse. I was polite. "No, John, I don't think you want to do that; it's not a good idea," etc. I've known John for years. He's a golf pro and has given me lessons. His wife is one of the partners in my firm, and I work for her on projects from time to time. The relationship with both has been purely professional until now.
Well, about an hour after the first call, John called again to say that he was drunk (to which I said, "I thought so"); that he was sorry (I said, "It's forgotten"); and that since I knew a lot of his wife's friends, he was hoping I wouldn't say anything about the incident (of course, I said I wouldn't). Now I'm frightened, insulted, and furious, and dwelling on what I should have said. I don't want to be violated like that again.
Why are you picking on politeness? In fact, why are you stewing about all this now? It seems to Miss Manners that your reply worked just fine, extracting in short order the only kind of politeness -- namely an abject apology and begging for mercy and forgiveness -- that this man was in a position to offer.
Miss Manners doubts that you will hear from him again in this fashion. If you do, you need only apply a bit more politeness, along the lines of, "John, your problem is obviously out of your control, and I do think that the kindest thing for me to do is to speak to your wife about it right away."
Let others prattle of unfulfilled dreams, graying hair, and shifting relationships. Miss Manners alone knows the true perils that beset the Woman of a Certain Age. A sensible woman is generally equipped to handle the normal vicissitudes of life, although a little gentle sighing is occasionally allowed in the privacy of her boudoir. What the modern mature lady did not expect was to be caught, in what ought to be the graceful years, smack in the middle of an etiquette revolution, with wild men going off in all directions around her.
The revolution, not yet completed, is the shift from a system of precedence based on gender to one that shows signs of eventually using age and business rank as the basis of precedence. We cannot all go through the door at the same time, as an astute diplomat once remarked, and general agreement on who should go first makes for a peaceful life.
But the change is by no means complete, and while most of the society is trying to squeeze through that door simultaneously, the lady is left standing there. Does she wait, as she was taught, for the gentleman to open the door for her? She may very well be left waiting while he saunters down the block. Does she plunge ahead and open it herself? She may leave behind a pouting gentleman who had been planning to get to the door handle, as he believes is proper, just as soon as he could figure out on which side it was.
Mind you, this lady was described by Miss Manners as a sensible lady, so she is only trying to go along with prevailing manners, not to enact her politics through symbolic behavior, any more than she wears her moral philosophy printed across her bodice. The problem is that she can't figure out what the prevailing manners are, since her acquaintance includes young gentlemen who were never taught ladies-first courtesy, older gentlemen who have renounced it, older gentlemen who practice it, and younger gentlemen who have recently taken it up because they have noticed how quaintly effective it can be. Ladies do not wish to imply disapproval of gentlemen's manners when the gentlemen plainly intend to be mannerly, so they must develop a few agile and ambiguous techniques.
At the door, for example, the lady can turn and smile at the gentleman just as she reaches the handle; she can observe then whether his hand is out. If it is a revolving door, she steps in, waits a split second (unless it is already going around, in which case she would be flattened like a fly with a fly swatter -- but we were talking of sensible ladies), and then pushes with her arms unbent, so that her propelling hands are not visible to a gentleman who is gearing up his strength to push for her.
When walking down the street, she gains the inside on the pretense of looking into the shop windows, not because she seems to expect to be so placed. When about to alight from a car, she waits momentarily to see if the gentleman seems to be coming around to her side to open the door. The sight of his back entering the restaurant indicates that he is not, so she opens it herself. In the restaurant, she orders her meal with her eyes cast down on the menu and her face halfway between the gentleman's and the waiter's. If the gentleman wishes to repeat the order, he may; if not, the waiter has heard it.
You see the principle. It is troublesome, not to mention hazardous, and Miss Manners is not unsympathetic to the ladies who impatiently decide to adopt the new system for all, expecting no precedence -- provided that they do not get unpleasant when it is offered. Nevertheless we are most charmed with what we knew in childhood, which is one reason for practicing the traditions among those who enjoy them. Another is that all this jumping about is good exercise for ladies of a certain age who do not care to jog.
Honks and and Whistles
Dear Miss Manners:
As my wife and I walked to our car from a suburban theater, someone honked a horn. My wife turned around. I told my wife that no lady in the company of a gentleman turns her head when she hears a car's honk. The argument was on. Please advise me as to what a lady does when she hears a car's honk or a man's whistle.
A lady, married or unmarried, in the company of a gentleman or alone, ignores a car's honk or a man's whistle unless she is blocking traffic or unaware that she is on a construction site with building parts about to descend on her head. In either of those two cases, she moves fast. In any other ease, she puts her nose in the air and continues at her normal pace.
An Acknowledgment of Differences
Are we ready yet to acknowledge that there are differences between ladies and gentlemen? An ardent feminist since she first noticed that she was a girl (which was some time ago and quite before the former idea became fashionable), Miss Manners would not for the world start any of those dreadful competitive discussions. It is only in the hope that we have firmly put behind us any question of differences in rights and abilities that she would dare to bring up the question of cultural distinctions.
It is true that some of these distinctions may have come, long ago, from unacceptable, not to mention foolishly inattentive, ideas of relative weaknesses and strengths. Even then, the male pattern is not necessarily the preferable one. Miss Manners happens to believe that one has more control over a horse by riding sidesaddle than astride. Even distinctions that may seem to relate to real physical differences don't make much sense: An open-minded young lady of Miss Manners' acquaintance once suggested to her how much more suitable to gentlemen's bodies it would have been for them to develop the tradition of wearing skirts and, similarly, for ladies to wear pants.
None of these things matters once tradition has taken hold of the habit and heart. Then we do things because we were taught to do so, and therefore anything else seems wrong.
Here, then, are a few of the remaining differences that Miss Manners finds charming. You will note than none of them is connected with business life, which is properly genderless; and none has to do with such crucial matters as who gets the seat in the bus, pays the bill, or proposes marriage.
Ladies properly applaud differently from gentlemen. While a gentleman bangs his vertically held palms together in front of him, a lady claps by holding her left palm upward without moving it, and hitting it with downward strokes by her right palm.
When wearing skirts, ladies sit differently from gentlemen, but not the way most of them seem to think. Gentlemen either keep both feet on the floor, with the legs slightly parted, or, less formally, put the right ankle on the left knee. Females who are not ladies cross their knees. Ladies cross their ankles, keeping the knees together. This is actually very comfortable when you get used to it.
Ladies do not put their names above their return addresses in social correspondence. As their social correspondence, as well as gentlemen's, is in their own handwriting, it is not generally necessary to expose their names to public view in order for them to recognize their own returned letters. (If they must include their names for practical reasons, Miss Manners will overlook it.) Those letters are written on double sheets of paper, while gentlemen's are on larger single sheets.
Ladies do not pour their own wine when gentlemen are present. They hold their empty wine glasses casually in front of their noses while staring fixedly at the nearest gentleman, who then falls all over himself to do it for them.
Ladies go first through doors but last down steps. This does not excuse ladies who sail through life letting doors slam in other people's faces or who fail to perform obvious courtesies for those who need them.
Ladies who are escorted by gentlemen begin carrying packages only when the gentlemen are fully loaded, so to speak. Ladies who are out shopping with uniformed officers, who do not carry packages either, may insist that these gentlemen bring along their orderlies.
Ladies wear hats (except in their own houses) as a token of respect. Of course, ladies' buttons and belt buckles are on the left side of their clothing, while gentlemen's are on their right.
When they are walking outdoors, American ladies take the side away from the curb. Never mind the old stories about that being so that gentlemen can take upon themselves the mud from the streets or garbage from upper-story windows or use their swords without slashing a lady's skirt. For a lady to grab a quick look at herself as she passes a reflecting window is perfectly acceptable and even endearing. For a gentleman to do so is vulgar.
Dear Miss Manners:
My husband states that the only time a woman precedes a man in a restaurant is when the host/hostess is leading the way to their table. At all other times, the man precedes the lady to the table, as well as to the dance floor and to the door when leaving. I disagree. What do you say?
That your husband learned the complexities of the "ladies first" social rule, and not just the words. Indeed, he is correct that this particular protective code requires a gentleman to precede a lady when going through a crowd or in any other situation when he can be presumed to smooth the way for her. A gentleman precedes a lady down a staircase, for example, so that she can, if necessary, land comfortably on him when she falls.
The Driver's Seat
Dear Miss Manners:
Is it just as proper for the gentleman to open and close the car door for the woman, assisting her into and out of the car, when she is the driver?
Certainly. A lady's gender does not change when she takes the driver's seat.
Dear Miss Manners:
Last evening, my girlfriend and I attended a charity ball. This was a black-tie affair, and we were seated at a table with three other couples whom we did not know. I rose each time a female at our table was seated or left. None of the other gentlemen rose, and it became apparent that they were anxious over my behavior. The gentleman to my left jokingly told me that I was making the other men nervous and that I should stop rising. Which is more proper, to continue to conduct oneself as a gentleman, if in fact mine was the proper behavior, or to forgo manners to avoid making the other gentlemen uncomfortable, which in itself is rude?
Who says that a gentleman is obliged to make rude people feel comfortable about being rude? Certainly not Miss Manners. If everyone were obliged to conform to the lowest form of behavior present, we would have -- well, pretty much the unfortunate world we have today. Do you really want to help it along, or do you want the ladies to see that you are the only gentleman left?
Dear Miss Manners:
It often happens at dinner parties that a couple will arrive after those already at the party are seated in the living room having drinks and such. When the couple, man and woman, are brought to be introduced, the other men always stand. Sometimes women also stand. Is this proper?
It depends on the relative ages and ranks of the various ladies. A lady stands for another lady who is of an older generation than hers or who holds considerably higher status, such as a government or church official. Ladies who rise for those three years older than themselves are considered to be practicing sarcastic manners.
Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
Illustrations copyright © 1989 by Gloria Kamen