Last Thursday night I attended a Friends-of-the-Library meeting in Hazlehurst’s beautiful new facility. After a business meeting, Carole Jones Graham was to speak on etiquette. She is quite the expert and has even written books on the subject. I am quite the amateur and can hardly remember which fork to use for which dish. I watch the people around me and hope they know their etiquette. Hopefully, they’re not watching me for the same reason.
Most of us learned some manners somewhere along the way. I remember Mrs. Heath telling us back in 4th grade: “Elbows, elbows off the table; this is not a horse’s stable!” I’ve practiced that rule ever since then-well, unless I was out of town where no one knew me, that is. Then I rested my boorish elbows on the table for all those strangers to see. I was shocked to hear Graham say it’s perfectly appropriate to put elbows on the table between courses or when you’re finished. What a shocker! I was sure that was NEVER, NEVER correct.
Now if you’ve ever sat around as I have on many occasions pondering the proper way to butter a roll, allow me to enlighten you. Never cut the roll in half and butter both sides. Instead, you must cut the roll in half, break off a bite-sized piece, and butter one piece at a time. This procedure allows the bread to be cold before you finish eating it, but we must mind our manners at any cost. And cut off only two bites of your meat at one time. When you eat those, you may cut two more-not before.
Exactly what to do with one’s napkin can be another conundrum in the social world. Suppose you must leave the table for a moment? Place your napkin on your chair, but when you’ve finished your meal, put it back whence it came-on the table. If you pass the salt, pass the pepper, too. They are a pair; do not pass one without the other. If you should be so oafish as to drop a morsel of food on the table, don’t despair. Just pick it up and put it on your plate. If everyone saw you make such a faux pas, just apologize and move along. The world will not end because of it.
In many aspects of etiquette, the sexes have different rules. Men must wipe their lips with those dainty damask napkins, while ladies pat theirs. Remember also, ladies, to purchase some long-lasting lipstick in advance so it won’t come off on the napkin. Thus you’ll avoid the next no-no, which is repairing your lipstick at the table. And when you applaud, ladies, use the four fingers of your right hand to tap the palm of your left. Gentlemen, patting your hands together is quite appropriate for you.
The advent of woman’s liberation has changed the handshaking rules. It is now acceptable for a man to greet a woman by extending his hand first. He no longer has to wait for her to make the first move. The webbing between the thumb and forefinger should touch and the grip should be firm but neither debilitating nor dead-fish limp. Stop after three shakes. Any more is superfluous.
I am told that the rules of etiquette are based on logic. For example, back in the old, old, old, old days, people didn’t take baths often-maybe twice a year. Brides carried flowers to cover up their body odor. Although most brides bathe more often today, the tradition continues. Logic stayed back in the 1300s. While it probably has nothing to do with etiquette, I do know that royalty carried small dogs in their arms, hoping that fleas would prefer dog blood to royal blood. Now that’s logical. How logical is it to buy expensive damask napkins for guests to wipe their mouths on when there are plenty of paper towels in the kitchen?
Worried about my ignorance, I purchased Mrs. Graham’s book and put it on my book shelf. When the engraved invitation to a state dinner arrives in my mailbox, I’ll study it before I leave. Until then, I probably won’t use it too often in Pine Grove, but you never know. I believe in being prepared.