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Etiquette Today

Good manners are hard to find.

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners
The Indispensable Handbook
by John Morgan
St. Martin's Press, 384 pp., $27.95

"THERE ARE lots of us," Sebastian said of his aristocratic family to commoner Charles in "Brideshead Revisited." "Look them up in Debrett." He meant "Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage," the catalogue of British bluebloods first published in the eighteenth century; you can't get into the House of Lords without your own entry. To be listed means not that you have arrived, but that you have always been there, seemingly from the beginning, saying the right things and using the right forks all along. It has also meant that your behavior was precept for the unwashed. You were the one from whom the rest of us took our cues at the formal dinner table. We needed you.

But we don't need you anymore--or at least we don't think we do. We'll say whatever we like and use whichever fork we want, thank you. Only snobs worry about the do's-and-don'ts of social life. Etiquette belongs to the stuffy and prudish. It has no place in our brusque and self-important lives, the ubiquity of newspaper advice columns notwithstanding. And advice columns these days--have you looked lately?--are less likely to explain correct forms of wedding invitation and archaic rules of opening doors than who should bring the condoms on the third date. We're more practical now.

SOCIAL CREATURES, though, we remain. We still feel a little shaky when we're called upon to break bread or pop a cork. We're not too sure anymore what we should do when not wearing our sweats. Despite our vested belief that we no longer require rules of propriety for living the good life, we feel judged when choosing the wrong wine, slurping from the finger bowl, or sending funeral announcements with spammed e-mails. Someone's watching.

And we know who's doing the watching: the kind of people who would assiduously consult the pages of John Morgan's "Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners"--not a big crowd in our time of "oafish, gauche" behavior and "crass populism." It's "the indispensable handbook," the cover tells us, for avoiding the odd faux pas, but that isn't quite true. It was compiled originally for etiquette-conscious Brits, who do all this better anyway, and most of us don't need to know how to put on weekends in the country or deal with our domestic staff, on which you'll find two separate chapters. We find here long and--for a few of us--fascinating sections on proper comportment in the company of royalty, aristocracy, and other Important People. When meeting the Queen at the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, for example, never, ever to refer to her as "you," but always as "Your Majesty" (let's remember that), and don't even think of mis-addressing The Most Reverend and Right Honourable the Lord Archbishop of York. It won't do.

Yet good manners, Morgan assures us, aren't simply a matter of class position or snobbery because "we all know of duchesses who behave disgracefully." (Gosh yes.) Indeed, good manners are enjoined upon all civilized people and due solicitude for our fellows makes for "a kinder, happier and better world." Quite true, and therein lies the value of this guide for Americans or anyone else determined not to be boors and take for granted the existence of other people. If this "Debrett's" can't give us an aristocratic title, at least it can help us adopt the graces that should come with one.

The first half of the book is devoted to "Rites of Passage," all those events marking our lives from birth through engagements, weddings, divorces, remarriages, to death and funerals. There's much here on the laws and practices governing the Church of England that we needn't bother about. We do learn how to word an invitation to the wedding of the daughter of "Mr. Nigel Bayliss Cox" to "Captain Jeremy Nicholas Standish," but if you know people with names like those, you'll probably not need much help. Still, this part has some nice morsels. Squalling children at weddings, for instance, plague most of us. This is especially a problem now, as "many modern parents, somewhat irritatingly, seem inseparable from their little darlings." The "Debrett's New Guide" says that the bride and groom, not those parents, decide if children may attend: If you find no mention of family on the invitation, assume that your child isn't welcome and that's an end to it. Find a sitter or stay home.