I think of the word “etiquette” in the same way I think of the word “tuffet”: a vocabulary time capsule that urges an affected British accent. Etiquette is my grandmother placing a crisp doily underneath the sugar bowl. It is my old piano teacher eating a ladyfinger biscuit with an extended pinky. It is most definitely not me, bleary-eyed and slip askew, cutting my eggs with the edge of my fork and using my toast as a makeshift shovel.
I was never taught traditional table manners growing up. Perhaps because my mother is from Korea, westernized etiquette didn’t translate completely; my sister and I wielded chopsticks and were allowed to pick at food with our fingers. Today, when I eat at
restaurants, I am usually so famished that I inhale the food in huge gulps. I don’t use a napkin. I talk a lot, and when inspired (i.e., drunk) I will go into detail (i.e., rant loudly) about the many things that I love (e.g., marzipan squirrels). I’ve been called a “brassy broad” on more than one occasion, and my grandmother has often told me to keep my “sass in my salad.” Lately, though, having interpreted the word “sass” as meaning “boisterous and rude,” I’ve taken these responses as my cue to educate myself on behavioural protocol.
Emily Post’s 1922 manual, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, seemed like an excellent starting point. Peppering her book with madcap social romps that feature such “Best Society” members as Mr. Oldworld and Mrs. Highbrow, Post acts as mentor, matriarch and peanut gallery, delicately rolled into a single persuasive force. This is a world where your butler silently guides your guests into the drawing room with its crackling, inviting fire and where formal dinners are served by stoic chambermaids. There’s power here in the specificity of a table setting—the silverware must appear unused, the dishware should gleam under the gloomy glow of the candlestick. Post also stresses the importance of control and order during a meal. For someone who has been known to wipe sandwich muck on the front of her jeans, this seems an especially important lesson.
Things I Learned from Emily Post:
1) I am too old to be a Debutante, and therefore will never be presented to Society.
2) Menservants can come in handy.
3) “Napery” means a fancy napkin, and not a form of neck assault.
4) Mr. Oldword is quite the card.
5) I need to find a chaperone the next time I go dancing
Post attributes the growing disinterest in etiquette (all around her in post-war England)to listless youth, yet palpable throughout the book is an anxiety that her way of life will soon become obsolete. Maybe its obsolence had more to do with its inaccessibility
than with its relevance. Etiquette, after all, has always been related to class. This is why Post’s manual feels quarantined within the timeless dining rooms of country clubs and tearoom parlours.It isn’t difficult, then, to understand why Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh (editors at, respectively, Flare and Fashion) would decide to revamp the etiquette manual to cater to a younger—and so consequently l
arger—female demographic. The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum is a stylishly written book that follows the growth of Fabulous Girl from struggling intern to succesful career woman.
Things I Learned from Fabulous Girl:
1) Removing your underwear while at a restaurant and then slipping it into your
date’s coat pocket is somewhat unappetizing.
2) I do not look good in red lipstick.
3) My boyfriend falls into the “Dark Brooder” category.
4) Chat-room dating is totally acceptable.
5) Getting drunk at your own dinner party is not.
The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum and Emily Post differ in their attitude toward decorum. For the Fabulous Girl, decorum is manners with intent. Young women are increasingly interested in subverting the stuffy guidelines by which their grandmothers abided. Pairing a polite disposition with sexual confidence, the Fabulous Girl is not afraid to offer tips on duck braising and foreplay in the same conversation. And why not? If etiquette is meant to reflect civility, then it makes more sense for it to reflect the way people
actually are instead of what one or two authors expect us instantly to become. The value of differentiating salad fork from dessert fork only goes so far.
Truth is, neither book permits failure or questions the standards that it sets. This leaves someone like me unaccounted for: I will never
exude that comfortable sense of self at spring luncheons hosted by the Mrs. Highbrows of this world. I am unable to apply liquid eyeliner properly. I am not career-oriented in that teeth-baring kind of way. I am not a Fabulous Girl. I am an eating-dessert-with-my-fingers-over-the-sink-girl whose laugh rattles a little too long. What I’m realizing is that knowing how to fashion a swan out of a cloth napkin does not make me more of a lady. Nor does squawking loudly over the last dumpling make me less of one.