by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
Apart from what etiquette hard-liners say about wearing white after Labour Day, the truth is that it is among a great many silly social conventions which, although they may have once had some foundation in purpose and practicality, are no longer plausible.Let’s face it etiquette is about setting rules to keep people out or at bay, not about what’s necessary or particularly meaningful.Knowing the rules is the challenge, at least if you want to be part of the scene that exploits them.By contrast some people go out of their way to break the rules, no doubt a plot designed more to attract attention than to dispute the forcefulness of the interdiction in the first place.
My earliest indoctrination into the world of social minutiae was the mandate to provide a thank-you telephone call to last evening’s dinner hosts within 24 hours.This detail was subsequently refined to oblige that the invitation must be answered in the same manner it was tendered.So for example if you were invited by telephone, you replied in kind; if by written invitation, then so was the reply (maybe even hand-delivered to keep within the strict temporal bounds).Email would qualify for similar reciprocity in modern society.The thesis driving this convention is of course to mirror the level of sophistication of the initial extension.To do otherwise runs the risk of overshadowing or diminishing the preliminary gesture.Social forums are after all about replication.
A more esoteric convention is one I acquired much later in life.It had to do with the customs at table, in particular regarding the distribution of the bottle of Porto at the end of the meal.Upon conclusion of the main course and the subsequent arrival of the cheese plate, the bottle of Porto invariably materialized from the cellarette.Porto is of course a fortified wine which therefore enjoyed a longer shelf-life than an opened bottle of wine and was therefore traditionally appealing to the merchant navy. My instructing host (who coincidentally was a former naval officer) made great care to pass the bottle of Porto to his left when initiating the transfer of goods to his guests and it was underlined that as it passes the bottle mustn’t touch the table.There is likely no substance whatever to either of these traditions other than to say that it is consistent with the naval term for “left” and avoids the accident of spillage if the bottle is upended on the rollicking mahogany, perhaps a possibility in the state room at sea but normally not a consideration in the average urban dining room.
The consumption of alcohol admits to endless conventions, more often directed at what are seen as patent illegitimacies – like having white wine with beef or red wine with fish; not to mention the prohibition against drinking whiskey during the main course (a habit which I understand is not uncommon in Asia).The sweet and dry Sherry conundrum is easily defended when the choice is between a clear soup (dry Sack) and creamy bisque (sweet ambrosia).In any event, people now drink as they prefer, unheeded by such proscriptions.
Continuing with table traditions, here is one which makes some sense; viz., when drinking one’s soup, direct the motion of the soup spoon away from one’s self when collecting the broth.As one nears the end of consumption, this entails tilting the soup plate upwards at the side closest to one’s chest.Presumably this custom minimizes the possibility of slopping the liquid upon one’s waistcoat though I confess it generally defies instinct.
Licking one’s knife is as everyone knows entirely forbidden.While most dinner knives hardly warrant any concern about their sharpness, it is viewed as bad manners to remove any particle of food on the knife by sticking it into one’s mouth, which, when you consider that every other instrument of flatware goes into our mouth, is not all that defensible.
Further concerning the table, when passing the salt or other item to another, the object must be set upon the table before taken by the other. One mustn’t attempt to remove the article from the hand of the transporter.This critique of conduct captures somehow the intense confusion which can arise from personal contact. The “serve from the left, take away from the right” statute has its underpinning in expediency, at least for most people who are right-handed.
On the topic of fashion, it is customary that – for formal wear – men’s trousers are without cuffs. I have heard it said that the cuffs on trousers were for use at business-attire cocktail parties to permit gentlemen to tap the ash of their cigarette into the cuff instead of having to secure an ashtray, clearly a dying custom in today’s environment.We hardly need ruminate upon the conjunction of brown belts and black shoes in light of the extraordinary relaxation of fashion in all but the most austere settings.Perhaps as an accession to blunt commerce, even the most rigid locales almost invite their guests to “come as they are”, occasionally counselling only against bare feet and running shirtless.
In the argot of modern business there seemingly is a fondness for referring to others by their Christian name, something even the off-shore Bell Canada responders have feverishly adopted.I don’t know about you but this practice is not something which sits particularly well with me.In the words of Dame Edna, “Call me old fashioned”.Even when my business associates insist that I call them by their first name, I am nonetheless reluctant to take the bait.Barring more prolonged and personal acquaintance I am better satisfied to maintain what I call a bit of “psychical distance”.
Calling upon one’s friends and neighbours is not without its ceremony.The starting point for most is that one mustn’t dare ring the doorbell without having called ahead.Clearly there is some risk in doing otherwise, though if one is prepared to take the chance the exposure seems minimal.Alternatively there is the possibility of having to sit for a prolonged period in the drawing room without the benefit of ultimate interruption.Having to withdraw and leave one’s visiting card in such circumstances does little to nurture the long-term relationship and may even be an embarrassment.
Language continues to be a dividing line.Setting aside the considerations of proper grammar (“That’s between you and I”; he is a “restauranteur”; “none of them are coming”, etc.), the most extraordinary evolution of language in recent recollection is the espousal of vulgarities to punctuate everything.If one were to dismiss the habit as within the domain of men only, this is decidedly mistaken.It is now nothing to overhear a man or woman of almost any age suddenly expire into colloquial speech.Granted this may have been colourful for the likes of Falstaff in a Shakespearean play, but I see it as an absence of creativity.If one wishes to say something diminishing about another or to pepper one’s pronouncements, surely there have to be more ingenious ways of doing so than using the hackneyed earthiness of the street.
Well this is unmistakeably a subject which admits to never-ending discussion.Probably the most entertaining feature of such a review is to discover how mired some of us are in hopeless ritual.I cannot honestly say that any of the formalities I’ve mentioned do whatsoever to advance civilization.At their worst, social ceremonies are code for a larger game; at their best they may be nothing more than what is required when things aren’t going well.When otherwise do we really need them?