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.
Then we have a few modern peculiarities of separation and divorce, including a section on "The Social Position of a Man Who 'Comes Out of the Closet', Ends His Marriage and Produces a Boyfriend." Morgan recognizes the stigma attached to this phenomenon, but he advises tolerance, or at least forbearance, endorsing the reaction of one woman whose husband left her for a "male Swedish lift engineer": "I would rather this happen than him having a sordid secret life, and quite frankly, because it's a man, I don't feel as if my role has been completely usurped by another woman." Now that's noblesse oblige.
But the last half of the book, titled "Social Life," probably has more to teach us, as good behavior doesn't differ too much in civilized, or would-be civilized, circles. Since we no longer have maiden aunts to tell us how to phrase an invitation to a dinner or cocktail party, we probably need to look over the proper forms of invitation and calling card. The chapter on the spoken word, though, is even more helpful. Here Morgan's advice serves where our taste and tact break down. Our sense of savoir-faire is, after all, a little frayed these days.
THE FIRST rule to observe at a mixer, for example, is to look other people in the eye, laugh at unfunny jokes, and endure awkwardness for the sake of social harmony. "'Cocktail party eyes', i.e., glancing obviously over your companion's shoulder, to spy who else is at the party, are rude and hurtful." Morgan recalls the sadness of an older woman friend who observed, "I have really come to the conclusion that after a certain age, women become invisible." (Shame on somebody.) Humor needs delicate handling at a party. The "brick-dropper" needs to watch his tongue. One man, a stranger to others engaged in a conversation, let drop that all students at a particular university were either "footballers or whores," a bad tactic if you don't know the folks you're talking to. When another man present said that his wife had attended that institution, the first man filled the breach: "Oh, really. What position does she play?" Very brave, but it wouldn't work with joyless types.
EVEN BORES must be borne. In fact, they may be helpful. "Bores, although hardly a social asset, can be socially soothing, as they are usually so caught up with their own thoughts and words that others can switch off and momentarily rest their brains from conversation," which certainly seems a gentleman's expedient. How does Morgan advise us to get rid of them? Just say, "This is so interesting, but I do feel that I am monopolizing you." Walk away and the true bore won't have the faintest idea of what just happened.
Morgan tells us all we need to know: If we digest and live by these rules of thumb, the rest of our lives--or our social lives anyway--will probably fall into place. His dictates on personal relationships are merely codified consideration, though these are not always automatically understood, especially now. But even in the modern world there ought to be a code for dating, and he provides one, including the proper etiquette to be used by a woman not yet willing to invite a date into her house or apartment at evening's end. We also learn how to introduce "significant others" (see "Terms for Lovers") to our friends. And you wish to break up? Do so face-to-face: The "telephone call--or worse, the fax message--is quite inappropriate." (If you lifted an eyebrow of surprise at that last directive, you may need this book.)
While Morgan's ideas for handling private life are about consideration, those for behaving in public are about common sense. Proper variations exist among the ways we should act in the street, in a store, or on an airplane. And the section on behavior in restaurants could be pulled out and sold as a pamphlet. How many of us know how to order wine properly? Were we ever taught to moderate our voices so as not to be heard at neighboring tables? (We lack a separate heading here called "Personal Space.") How about leaving our dining partners stranded while we talk to other people recognized across the room? (See "Spotting Chums and Table-Hopping.") Just how do we complain about a meal without making perfect asses of ourselves?
Then there's ordering. Always be simple and unobtrusive; if you want paupiettes de saumon avec petits turbans de concombres au jus de l'oseille sauvage, save time and say, "I'd like the salmon, please." And smoking. Morgan reminds us that "restaurants are public places and thus require public toleration." When you're sitting in the smoking section, and especially if the smoker shows the thoughtfulness to refrain from lighting up till after the main course is finished, be a good sport and smile when he finally does. You, after all, with your name-dropping, nightmarish get-up, conspicuously righteous social concerns, and ape-like grammar may not be the best of company yourself. But you too are tolerated. In other words, if we all can bear the mental scars of second-hand boorishness, a few whiffs of tobacco smoke will do us little harm.
It all comes down to other people. Morgan tells us to do things as adults that we might have been smacked for not doing as children. But whenever we talk about bad manners in modern America (or modern Britain, for that matter), there's always more to say. To the next edition of this guide, Morgan should consider adding a chapter on "Road Etiquette," as most of us feel the sharpest brunt of contemporary selfishness and barbarity while driving. A driver gunning your car out of a lane on the interstate by riding its bumper is not only dangerous, it advertises the speeder's conviction that his time is more valuable than yours; your crawling at 45 mph in the left lane may signal another sort of egotism. Yet how many of us have had our morning moods changed for the better by another driver's slowing down to allow us to ease in front of him before an exit? We don't need to have been formally introduced to someone to show him kindness.
NOR do we really need to hail from the gentle classes in order to feel the more expansive, if more subtle, satisfactions afforded by committing simple acts of decency. Whether worn by the nouveau riche or--in Washington, say--by the nouveau puissant, good manners have always been hard to uphold, and that's particularly so now when they're denigrated for acting as brakes on our "authenticity" and inhibiting what we gratuitously like to call "self-expression." They do. Yet it is by these liberating rules that we avoid giving offense, always a prime object of proper behavior. With them we create pockets of comfort for people around us. They make for ease. They lift us, however momentarily, above our cloddish and grisly natures. So from time to time we ought to remember that we're not alone on this planet, flick off the cell phones, and give others a little more elbow room, if only out of the desperate hope that they might give us a little when the time comes. The effort is rarely wasted.
Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin" is being published this spring by ISI Books.