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Etiquette: The Art of Refinement

May 2019

I was raised with a ton of etiquette. Manners were the strong suit of my mother. Morals is where she fell down, precipitously and often. I have therefore always carefully pondered the relationship between manners and morals, and the ruses that an immoral person can use to cover up treachery. My tendency has always been to give the lout the benefit of the doubt: maybe he hadn’t been taught proper etiquette.

It was once quite possible to cover up inner corruption with a coat of shellac in the form of courtesy. The hypocrite was usually eventually found out, but one ought not blame the veneer of courtesy for the underlying corruption. A mask can have many uses, both good and bad. The tossing out of the mask has led to dire consequences in an America that used to understand sophistication and elegance as ideals of aspiration, not denigration.

Good breeding, good taste, and good form have increasingly been replaced by the in-your-face “honesty” of the quickly-rich people who, through their crass codes of conduct, unknowingly admit that they never had dignity and never will. They are flashes-in-the-pan of vast wealth who believe they run America, much like the veritable titans of industry of the 19th and early-20th centuries. These present-day parasitic pretenders-to-the-thrones of capitalism leave behind them twitter-trails of indecency and irrelevancy.

Their egos, like their fortunes, are massive, and that symmetry is why they are irrelevant. Their credo, if they have one, is: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Demand what your country must do for you!”

These 21st-century fat-cats are most definitely not of the same stripe as a Marjorie Merriweather Post. That intrepid woman of resolute refinement conducted a mission of arts and culture which rescued many imperiled Imperial Russian objects d’art from being melted down by Stalin to produce even more Communist weapons in the Cold War. Money meant something back then, in the 1920s-1950s. It meant creating a world that the future could deem priceless.

That priceless world has become very cheap for the technocrat millionaires of millennial modernity. Manners and morals don’t count for much in a world where abundant instant gratification has become the benchmark of success. Nowhere is that sad statement more obvious than along the West Coast of America. The Code of the West regrettably has not extended west of Interstate 5.

After decades of living in northern California, I have come to the conclusion that you can’t clean up Dodge City. You can, however, most certainly maintain an elevated sense of dignity, decorum and decency around the vulgar people who haven’t a clue as to how to treat another human being with kindness and concern — the basic building blocks of manners and the foundation upon which etiquette is built.

The notion that there are rules of etiquette for how to deal with digital devices at the dinner table — in a way that accommodates the boorish behavior — that very idea completely and tellingly misses the mark of the intrusive disrespect that has just entered the sphere of the communal feedbag! For, you see, once a device other than a fork, knife or spoon has been set on the tablecloth, or table, any and all etiquette has just whooshed away.

Divinely beautiful plates were long-ago painted by anonymous artisans in France and in Russia for the purpose of palatial eating-by-candlelight. Those highly-sought-after paints were devised and invented to permit certain shades and tints and tones to luxuriate in such exquisite illumination. The eyes, mind, and spirit of the eater were appreciated as much as his stomach. And now we must stomach texting-at-table!

The Philistine concept of adapting oneself to electronic signals at the dinner table is, for me, tantamount to the Wife deciding upon where to most properly seat the Mistress at the Master’s banquet. I fully understand that Hollywood-types and Political Icons have carried on for ages in such an atrocious non-mannered manner; but one might contemplate (mercifully with brevity) the fate and state of Hollywood and Politics today, and find a direct line between the brutish-and-offensive of Then, and the brutish-and-offensive of Now.

I once sat at a rather expensive dinner-party table, set with the latest in California-chic dishes, and hosted by a wealthy hot-shot in local business. And I watched him toy with his iPad as if it were an every-day occurrence. Indeed, it was. The truism, money does not buy manners, was on display every day in that domicile.

The idea that people at a small celebration or dinner party can talk about politics is uncivilized. Presently, the reason, the raison d’être, for the “social” gathering IS to wage verbal, if not physical, war about the political classes. I speak from long and laborious experience. Many years ago, I was not in agreement, etiquette-wise, with the cloddish behavior of an invitee to my Christmas luncheon. In my own house, she informed me, as well as the other guests, that there was to be NO talk of politics. I did understand her need to avoid a topic that would only cause even more angst and embarrassment to her. I therefore smiled and silently thanked her for her social malapropism.

Every day I encounter rudeness in the name of civility. Surely, I am not alone in this jarring experience.

What in the world has become of the world of courtesy? When did improper behavior become tolerated, then accepted, then approved and, ultimately, set up for emulation?!

Admittedly, my exposure to the crude faux pas began quite early in my life. The whispers of whether “She” would show up at the funeral of my dearly dearly-departed alerted me as a child to the social fact of tact: there are certain rules and proprieties that would not be countenanced at a solemn public occasion. Nowadays, it’s a free-for-all at any funeral!

It had been years, many years, perhaps decades, since I’d attended a “private” service to honor the dead. My most recent experience was so ghastly, so filled with social gaffes by people who believed they were being sooooo sensitive and suavely cultured, that it took almost a week for me to focus again on my writing. Their cloddish intrusions upon protocol, good taste, and ceremony — at a ceremony — kept intruding on my ability to focus upon protocol, good taste, and ceremony in life and in fiction!

I’d question-whispered to my husband if I could leave and he sternly said: NO. You must stay.

Yes, my conscience dictated. I must stay. Even though the son of the deceased just took a hike from this God-awful gathering!

I know that it was rude for me to roll my eyes when the Mistress of the Remembrance Ceremony announced: “Let the healing begin.” My level of politesse nonetheless exceeded that of the occasion itself, since the decedent demanded, not requested, but demanded, in writing, no such fiddle-faddle take place once she had passed through the Pearly Gates! True etiquette would have respected the final wish of this person.

True etiquette is being overtly stomped out by the miasma of political correctness in this nation, if not in the world. It may be that some people are so ignorant of genuine good manners that they believe the prevailing wind of virtue-signaling is tantamount to polite comportement, which it is not. Political correctness is quite rude and abrasive to anyone’s sense of dignity. It corrosively demeans the very people it pretends to exalt. It is an abomination upon real feelings, real opinions, real rapports between human beings.

All that political correctness produces is the noxious fume of falsity that attempts to pump up the ego of a fawning phoney through intimidating freedom of thought and sincere emotions in other people. Ergo, the pontificating elites become even more pompous and less polite. In reality, many people who worship at the altar of political correctness feel justified in NOT being polite. Centuries-old, time-honored rules of refined social behavior are too classist! Far better to stir up a class-less brew of spit-and-tarnish bromides that make a mockery of civil liberties, civil rights and civility!

Due to the superficial nature of these faux-manners, every-day life in America is found wanting of the many once-cherished traditions and conventions that formerly dictated and guided long-established rules of etiquette. As a result, there have sprung up in America innumerable “social service” industries. These “consultants”, “experts”, “facilitators” and, most ironically, “planners” — they plan to take full advantage of the grief and ignorance of the socially-inept, even though these “professionals” lack any sense of taste, class, and savoir-faire. They know only how to rip-off the bereaved and the great unwashed in social graces who then get hosed by these frauds.

The wedding-rip-off artists have always been with us, in one form or another. Wedding Planner all too often means Wedding Scammer. The advent of the hearse-chasers is more recent. Death is always a touchy subject, but there is no reason to get touchy-feely about it!

Those clumsy consultant-ghouls are unseemly as they encourage the lurid spilling-of-guts and phonied-up sentiments in public at all sorts of ceremonies, rituals that are best left small and private, perhaps even unattended by anyone outside of the family. The email/contact list has become the Social Register!

I perhaps am too sensitive to the trampling of the rights of the dead. I perhaps feel too much a sense of revulsion over the mangling of memories that a corpse cannot protest! The modern-day funeral has hideously morphed into a grotesque caricature of last rites that seemingly never end! The parting has become part-fund-raiser, part-revenge-ritual, part psycho-babble, and part-one-upmanship by the bereaved. It’s such a quaint custom, letting the dead rest in peace!

There are two types of people in this world where manners are concerned: those who try to abide by the rules of etiquette, and those who really don’t care a lick about social niceties and proprieties. They stick it to decency every time, and the decent among us are too well-behaved and restrained through a sense of decorum to let’em have it.

One day I shall roll more than my eyes. I’ll roll my tongue. And Emily Post will roll in her grave.


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