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'Tis The Season....To Mind Your Manners

Nov. 26, 2012
 

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Years ago, I attended a Christmas luncheon for a lovely debutante, who shall remain unnamed (she has five children now). The tables were beautifully set for 18 young women; the hostesses were gathered with lovely food and kitchen help assembled; the young woman’s beau had even driven in for the event. Imagine the excruciating scene as the minutes, and then hours, ticked by and not a single invited guest arrived! Needless to say, the Debutantes Mothers’ Club held an emergency meeting shortly thereafter to address the issue of “RSVP.” What a sad and telling example of how bereft our society has become of basic good manners.
I recently had a conversation concerning this issue with Kendall Poole, a local event planner, and I was shocked by what she said. “Unfortunately, people don’t honor the importance of an RSVP. This can make things very difficult for those planning parties or receptions, and I warn my clients about they can’t expect responses from invitations. It’s a shame because no one wants to waste resources.”
Julie Levanway, a caterer for many events about town, talked to me about her pet peeves when working parties. “Has anyone’s mama EVER said it is okay to leave dirty dishes and wineglasses in powder rooms or thrown in the bushes? Or hide wadded up, dirty cocktail napkins down in the plants or flowers at the hosts’ home?” she asks. “I’ll bet all I have that not one southern mama has EVER allowed that!” Julie, I tend to agree; this southern mama certainly would not. “Double-dipping” and reusing skewers that have already touched one’s mouth to get another bite from a communal platter are other hot topics with her. Again, I have to agree, as the “ick” factor is pretty high, not to mention the spread of germs.
The holidays are upon us, and it is important to remember that good manners are not an old-fashioned notion. Indeed, they are best understood as the WD-40 of life. Good manners are made up of common sense and kindness and combat the friction inherent in our daily interactions, providing comfort and structure to both hostess and guest alike. To that end, and because the holiday season is upon us — crowded with possibilities, both wondrous and horrible — here are my top 10 suggestions to help you breeze through the season, enjoying yourself and leaving fond impressions and memories in your wake as opposed to joining the ever-growing army of wadded-up napkin tossing, double-dipping nincompoops that modern society unfortunately so often seems to produce.

Please Respond....

Back to RSVP: this is derived from the French phrase, “Répondez si’l vous plaît,” meaning, “Please respond.” As opposed to “Regrets,” which means respond if not attending, RSVP requires a timely action, generally within a few days of receiving the invitation. REALLY. Not responding costs money, aggravation and worry to a hostess. Another very important point about this — the invitation only extends to the names listed thereon, i.e., do not take your children to the cocktail party, and do not take extra friends to the seated dinner unless they are specified invitees. If you are playing host at a dinner party and guests break this rule, then you should be gracious and employ Emily Post’s FHB Rule. “Family Hold Back” means exactly what it suggests: family members take smaller portions to make up for the unplanned dinner guests. It works, and you can always make an omelet later.

Be On Time....

If you are a guest, be on time. On time for a seated dinner generally means within 15 minutes of the starting time. On time for a cocktail party can be more generous as this type of affair is more loosely organized. On time for an Open House would be anytime within the first stated hour. The reverse to this rule is possibly even more important: do NOT be early. I repeat: do NOT be early. Unless you’d like to see your hostess in curlers and her undies and want to help start the evening on a downward slide for her.

Don't Let Them Starve....

If you are the hostess of a seated dinner party, please don’t make your guests wait HOURS to eat. This invites the consumption of too much alcohol on too many empty stomachs, which often creates its own form of mild anarchy and chaos. In the Deep South, firearms might become involved — not for murderous purposes, of course. Nonetheless, we DON’T want that. Neither do the birds or your neighbors.

Take A Gift....

Do take the hostess a gift. Wine is always a nice choice. My friend Gigi Welsh says, “I love tasty edibles that you can pull out during the holiday season for impromptu company. Every year, for instance, my friend Joanna (Roberts) gives oyster crackers and homemade cocoons — they are the best things in the world!” That being said, if I happen to be your hostess, please remember that I agree with Johnny Carson about fruitcakes. He said, “The worst gift in the world is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” I do realize that it is rather common of me to reject a gift in advance; but, truly, I simply cannot abide them. Period. Ever. Just say no to that.

Write Thank-You Notes....

Do write thank you notes. Now, I understand that email is rapidly replacing the old-fashioned post for almost every form of communication; BUT I believe that old-fashioned snail mail conveys a proper sense of respect and appreciation that e-mail and texts simply are incapable of reproducing. Thank you notes are appropriate following parties, house stays and the receipt of gifts (or any other action that prompts feelings of gratitude).

Respect the Place Card....

Don’t switch place cards. Period. A dear friend of mine, who is actually a lovely Delta planter, made the mistake of doing this at my rehearsal dinner years ago. My in-laws, ALL of them, have never forgotten nor have they forgiven him. He is persona non grata in their eyes to this day. Enough said.

Dress the Part....

Pay attention to proper attire for the evening in question. This can become confusing with the new wave of descriptions in use, including “Festive Attire,” “Southern Living Casual,” and the like. I leave those to your imagination; but, here are the traditional terms and their meanings: Black Tie means the men wear tuxedos and the women wear cocktail, long or short dresses or dressy evening separates. Black Tie Optional means the same, but gives men the option of a dark suit and tie. White Tie, or ultra-formal, means men wear full dress with white tie, vest and shirt and women wear long gowns. Cocktail Attire means short elegant dresses for her and dark suits for him. Informal is often interpreted the same as Casual; BUT, it actually calls for the same dress as Cocktail or Semi-Formal. Casual generally means anything goes, including jeans, etc. Ladies, do pay attention to cleavage and don’t put the “HoHoHo” singlehandedly into the holiday affair.

Don't Get Fired....

Holiday Office Parties come with their own unique set of challenges. Generally: Dress Conservatively. Be on time. Make a point of speaking to your hosts and those higher up in the company, but don’t be a sycophant; there is hardly anything more tiresome. Be careful of your alcohol intake. Don’t start an office romance at the Christmas party. As Phyllis Diller said, “Christmas is a time when everybody wants his past forgotten and his present remembered. What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day.” Note that these same rules, generally, are a good guide for spending Christmas with your in-laws — at least for the first few years, especially if you’d like to spend more than a few years with them. If you can’t stomach the idea of that, follow George Carlin’s advice and “marry an orphan.”

Gift All In Your Network....

Remember gifts for the important people that provide various services to you throughout the year. These include hairdressers, teachers, grocers and the like. Food baskets and bottles of wine are appropriate for doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and for clergy, the same, as well as gift certificates, magazine subscriptions, tickets to theatre or sporting events. Household help should receive cash bonuses plus articles of clothing, soaps and lotions, something for their homes, etc. Nannies should receive the same, plus presents from the children in their charge. A very clever friend, who happens to be terrified of house fires, says, “I take a plate of sweets to my neighborhood fire station, with my address and a picture of my house on the tag.”

Blah blah blah blah....

Finally, edit those holiday letters carefully. Although I am always pleasantly surprised to receive a few well-done and witty examples of this genre each year. Generally, though, TMI and braggadocio carry the day. I really don’t want to be cast in a downward spiral by contemplating your kindergartener who won the Nobel Prize; your six-month world cruise and the discovery of a huge field of natural gas under your backyard. Neither do I wish to read a litany of personal woes, complete with veiled barbs thrown out to various friends and family members. Edit, edit and edit again.

There is one last thing from which I believe we can all benefit (as everyone seems to have fallen prey to technological addiction these days): please put away those cell phones. When you are in the company of friends and family this season, don’t check e-mails, don’t text, turn off your ringer, don’t check Facebook. Just step away from that and revel in the living, breathing company around you.
The season is about family, friends, wonder, beauty and faith. Slow down and be fully present and actually enjoy the wonders of the coming weeks — that may be the single best piece of etiquette advice for each and every one of us.

Happy Holidays to all!