Social Grace

Latecomers vs. Clock-watchers

Dear Social Grace,
I wonder if you could define "fashionably late" for me. I'm writing because I don't know if I have rude friends of if I'm just out of touch with modern standards of politeness. When I host dinner at my house, I have to factor in a one-hour delay between the time I invite people for and the time they show up. If I want to serve dinner at 9, I know I have to invite people for 8. They will straggle in around 9:30 -- at which point, some joke about being "fashionably late" will be made. I don't find it funny: Dinner has been ruined, and my planned dinner party has turned into a kind of a buffet, with some guests leaving as others just load up their plates from the food I've already put away in Tupperware. I feel my intended hospitality has been thrown back in my face. OK, I'm venting now, but I'm curious to know what you think.

Sincerely,
Watching the Clock

Dear Punctual Madam or Sir,
There is no such thing as fashionably late. Tardiness is not an accessory. I think that people who make lateness a habit will soon find themselves very fashionably all alone in their homes most nights of the week.

Let's say that anything more than 20 minutes late is late enough to require an apology and a good excuse. (The difficulties of public transportation and parking are poor excuses, simply because we are all sufficiently aware of Muni's vagaries and should be taking them into account when planning to go to a dinner party.)

I hesitate to call people I have not met "rude." It's hard to imagine, though, that people claiming to be fashionable would have failed to notice time's ever-growing cachet. Time is extremely valuable to us -- we increasingly want everything to be fast, fast, fast -- and making someone wait is a powerful expression of disregard (saying, in effect, "My time is very valuable; yours is less so"). If friends of mine told me that repeatedly, I might take them at their word -- and refrain from troubling them with further dinner invitations.

Dear Social Grace,
Is it OK to send thank-you notes via e-mail?

Sincerely,
Cybercourteous

Dear Courteous Madam or Sir,
It is OK, by which I mean "better than nothing." But if you have reason to send a thank-you note (lucky you), you might want to take the extra dozen seconds, the extra 33 cents, and the extra care, and jot a few words down on a piece of real paper. E-mail is so fugitive and temporary. Imagine a dear friend, years from now, coming across your thoughtful note in an old shoebox and saying to himself, "What a polite woman that Kiki was -- just look at this lovely thank-you note." That probably won't happen if you send e-mail.

Thank-you notes have gone out of style -- I don't know why. They don't have to be elaborate or difficult; in fact, they shouldn't be. Here's a specific thank-you note formula you can use: Take one general thanks, add one appreciative comment about something specific, and top it off with warm wishes as vague as they need to be. Mix in the words "generous," "memorable," and, depending on the social circles you run in, "fabulous." With that you're done. So:

Dear Aunt Viv,
Thank you for your generous hospitality last weekend. I had a fabulous time; your ambrosia salad was truly memorable. I hope this letter finds you well.

Sincerely,
Polite Friend

Wasn't that easy? Of course, feel free to experiment -- that was just to get you started. Thank-you notes do you a lot of good. For one, they help guarantee that your name remains on guest/gift lists.

For business purposes, however, e-mail has become the standard -- and for many, preferred -- method of communication, and most etiquette sticklers see nothing wrong with sending letters of professional gratitude via e-mail. Even so, a thank-you e-mail should be composed as if it were a letter (not treated less formally merely because it doesn't exist in the tangible way that paper does).

Dear Social Grace,
I am involved in an argument about a hypothetical situation that you can perhaps settle. As an American, am I required to call Queen Elizabeth [II of England] "Your Highness"? And here's the crux of the dispute: What if I have strong feelings that the monarchy is an institution that I cannot respect? And what if the queen is a guest in my country? Don't I have the right to treat her as a regular person? I say yes. Why should a "queen" be treated as anything more than any woman if doing so betrays my strongly held beliefs? Is she really any better than I am? Is she "higher" than I am? No. Wouldn't acting that way make me a hypocrite? Isn't hypocrisy immoral?

Via the Internet

Dear Patriotic Madam or Sir,
First, let me just advise you that rhetorical questions can be likened to cologne: Applied with too liberal a hand, they leave the people you're addressing feeling smothered and persecuted. Use them sparingly.

That's some advice you might actually use. Now, as to your hypothetical question, one addresses Queen Elizabeth as "Your Majesty," not "Your Royal Highness," which is reserved for the "lesser" members of the royal family (Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Margaret, for example).

What one personally thinks of the monarchy as an institution shouldn't necessarily affect how one treats individual representatives of a foreign country. Let's call a queen -- and the formal etiquette involved in communicating with her -- a symbol. As a country's flag is much more than a colored piece of cloth, a country's leader or monarch is more than a person, and ignoring expected protocol when dealing with her can be compared to mistreating a flag: not really harmful to anyone, but nonetheless powerfully insulting to people you don't know and probably don't wish to insult. If you could manage to look upon the queen as this kind of symbol, and treat her with the required formality as such, you might be better off.

That said, Social Grace doesn't like to meddle in others' politics, and we can agree that strongly held political convictions should not be compromised. If you have good reason to find Queen Elizabeth -- as a symbol, as a representative of her country, and as an individual -- too repugnant to be treated with the required formality, you would do best to keep yourself from her presence. When that royal invitation comes (and I promise you, Her Majesty almost never drops by unannounced), you must -- as a person who does not wish to be hypocritical -- decline it. Doing so should make a satisfyingly potent show of disapproval in a socially acceptable way. Refusal to engage is often the best way to deal with people we find so morally reprehensible that we can't treat them with the minimum of required courtesy.

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