Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Emily Post with a sidearm and an attitude

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice, etiquette, humor

In their efforts to avoid this or that social faux pas, our grandmothers could rely on the advice of Emily Post (and see the EP Institute), our mothers on Amy Vanderbilt, and a more recent generation on Miss Manners (the MM website). I write from the perspective of a Baby Boomer. If you are a Millennial or Gen-Xer, add a generation or two to the above. Also, even Miss Manners is getting dated; if your favorite band is more recent than Foo Fighters, where do you turn for etiquette advice?

There is a whole lot more to etiquette than table manners. And about half the country feels left out anyway: The Posts and Vanderbilts seem to be all about how to tell the salad fork from the shrimp fork, whether to wear black or white tie, and when a typed thank-you note is OK rather than a handwritten note (using a fountain pen on scented stationery). You know, stuff for effete, elitist northerners and their California wannabees. What about the real people in the real country, and especially, the South?

Hardly anybody drove in Emily Post's day. She had scant advice for chauffeurs. Advice about courtesy on-the-road has ticked along at a low level since about 1950, but nobody heard of road rage until the middle 1990's. Then, dress standards are so different now, I've never been to an event where black tie or white tie would have been de rigeur. When the DuPont Co. began allowing "casual Fridays" in the early 1990's, someone asked the boss, "Are blue jeans OK?" He said, "Yeah, as long as you wear the ones you'd wear to the barn dance, not the ones you wear in the barnyard."

Fast-forward another thirty years. Is a tie needed at a funeral? Are flip-flops OK going through TSA at the airport, or is it better to wear slip-ons? What constitutes PDA these days: hand-holding used to be verboten, but now walking along with a hand down each other's behind is almost expected. What do you say when the boss at work practically shouts all kinds of private matters into his telephone, with the door open? (I've had that one) Can you get away with unfriending someone who posts about a zillion dirty jokes every day, with the Visibility set to Public, so your friends, and their friends, see them on your news feed? Because, you know, can't people tell when they've been unfriended? (Only by looking to see if you are still on their friend list. All better?)

Celia Rivenbark to the rescue! Being a Carolinian, she has a perspective a bit different from your average Bostonian or San Franciscan. A bit? Who am I kidding? Her book is titled rude bitches make me tired; slightly profane and entirely logical answers to modern etiquette dilemmas. Does that give you a clue? I'd say the word "slightly" is an understatement.

Her answer about avoiding road rage is entirely logical. Don't engage. When your Mom warns that the other guy may have a gun (and the other gal may have one also), Ms Rivenbark writes, "In the South, because we are all, frankly, packin', this is not an entirely baseless fear…" So in her chapter on driving, she advocates courtesy in all directions: to the jerk who cut you off, or to the idiot who swoops by on the right shoulder when you have your right blinker clicking for a turn; to someone going too slow, because they may have missed a turn and are looking for a way to recover (and don't have GPS); and particularly to the police. She advocates obsequious (but not obnoxious), sweet courtesy to the police. It's gotten her a warning when a citation was what she'd earned. Courtesy in general isn't just to make things go smoother. It can extend your life.

You could put a lot of the advice in a capsule titled, "Suck it up and don't be a weenie." Some people really are rude, but more are simply clueless. Learn to tell them apart; to the one you can be rude right back and walk away, while the other may benefit from gentle, frank instruction. Most life situations shouldn't be contests. The only sure thing you'll get from engaging in a pissing contest is a lot of pee going places it shouldn't.

One thing this author is not: PC. PC is prissy. She ain't prissy. PC is for the timid. What does timidity get you? Heartburn. How about dilemmas like, "Let's all split the check evenly", when you know George is going to have a steak-and-lobster, Annette will have Chateaubriand, and you just wanted a shrimp salad and a cola. Or maybe everyone is having wine and you are a teetotaler. You need to think ahead. Be prepared to say, "I know my entree and drink will total $12, and I'll throw in a couple of bucks for the tip. Here's my $14 right now." Set it beside your plate, and when it's time to leave, leave: "Gotta go. Great lunch. The McFarland contract is awaiting my attention." Do you really need friends who can't handle that? I don't!

My favorite Q/A in the whole book comes on page 105, which I'll reproduce in its entirety. It deals with two irksome issues at once:
Question: A couple of moms in our play group have said they have no intention of immunizing their children, because they believe this can lead to all sorts of problems. What do you think?

I think your play group needs to not tell these moms where y'all are meeting next time. If they get pissy about it, just say you've renamed your little group from Mothers' Morning Out to something more catchy, some think like the Our Kids Don't Need Your Nineteenth-Century Deadly Diseases group.

If they act offended, tell them that while you respect their decision to subject their children to whooping cough, measles, and other long-dormant delights, you prefer to live in a safer, saner world where these diseases have very nearly been eradicated.
Fresh from North Carolina, where the phrase "You need a slap upside the head" was probably coined, advice that is tailor made for today's folks and today's dilemmas. Tons'o fun, too.

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