Movie Manners

Are you unsure how to behave? Social Grace answers all your toughest etiquette questions

Dear Social Grace,
I recently encountered something of an etiquette dilemma at the cinema. I had taken my seat in the nearly full theater and the lights had begun to dim. Two women took seats in the row ahead of mine. The woman directly in front of me had lovely hair in an upswept coif -- which unfortunately rose several inches off of her head and completely obstructed my view of the movie screen. Would it have been appropriate for me to ask this woman to take down her hair? The process looked as though it would've been a none-too-difficult operation: a simple unpinning. If a hat had been barring my way, I would not have hesitated to ask that it be removed, but asking a lady to take down her hair seemed somewhat forward. What do you think?
View, Obstructed

Dear Obstructed,
What can we say about someone with so little concern for the comfort of others that she prepares for an evening of audience-sitting by artfully arranging her hair so that it will disturb those around her? Nothing that involves the word "lady." I understand your discomfort, though, at the idea of making this request: Undoing a hairdo is something you shouldn't have to ask of a person. The need for low-flying hair at the movies should be painfully self-evident.

You would have been well within your rights to ask her politely to take down her hair -- or ask her to move to another seat where her hairstyle wouldn't create a problem.

Dear Social Grace,
I recently was "shushed" at the movies, for clapping. I told the person to "shush" herself, and she told me I was rude -- for clapping.
Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
Were you wearing your hair up, by chance? Anyway, you've helped Social Grace decide to stay in tonight.

When someone shushes you at the movies, the correct response is not "Shush yourself" but "I'm so sorry" -- or better yet, an apologetic look and an immediate cessation of noise. And when we must ask a fellow audience member to be quiet, we must do so politely. (Some of us may need to practice politely at home before trying it out in public. Hint: It rarely if ever involves calling someone else rude.)

There's just no need to applaud a film. Applause is how we show appreciation for performers. In a film, the performers cannot hear you applaud -- and more important, they cannot hold their next line until applause has ended, as stage performers do. This is why it's not customary to applaud at the cinema. Doing so drowns out the film's audio and thus disturbs those around you. If, however, you are attending a special performance and the filmmakers or performers are in attendance, you might express your enjoyment by applauding at the film's end.

Dear Social Grace,
What is the correct response to "How are you?" in an introduction or with a casual acquaintance? I know they don't really want to know how I am, but just saying "Fine" -- if I'm not fine -- doesn't seem right, because I don't want to be hypocritical. And if someone says it to me, does etiquette require me to say it back to them?
Sincerely,
I'm Not Fine

Dear Unwell,
We have a wonderful phrase in the English language, though we rarely hear it anymore, except in some parts of the United Kingdom and in countries where people have learned English solely from textbooks. That phrase is "How do you do." It's an idiom-- it doesn't mean exactly what it says. Curiously, it's not even a question.

The correct response to "How do you do" is "How do you do" -- no change in inflection, even. What it means, basically, is "This is a friendly greeting. I bear you no ill will." But a generation or so ago, this handy term fell out of favor. It was too square, man! It was what parents and authority figures said! It was hypocritical, even!

The problem is, we threw out this important phrase without a good replacement ready to take its place. We reached for a close approximation to "How do you do," and came up with "How are you?" as the best alternative. But "How are you?" is still in use as a realquestion. It's not like "How do you do."

I say bring back "How do you do"! There's still time; it's still clinging to life. I don't have high hopes, though. Barring the widespread return of that exquisite little phrase, you must use your wits and interpret "How are you?" each time it comes up. I know you can do it. For example, when a close friend says over brandy and cigars, "Grace, my dear, how are you?" she means the phrase literally: I'm invited to unburden myself of my cares and worries. When the ticket taker at the corner movie house says, "How are you?" he is employing an idiom that means "This is a friendly greeting." The correct response is "Fine, thank you."

Language does not always make sense. If you're feeling hypocritical about this, you're overthinking a simple phrase to a dangerous degree.

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