Pulling up to the drive-thru window to grab my order and seeing no cars behind me, I opened the bag to make sure I’d received the proper items. The glare from the woman behind the glass made it clear she felt insulted.
I wondered how many times a day she must have to watch people double-check her like this.
I’m always hyper-sensitive about being rude, which is ironic considering I grew up with six siblings in a house where etiquette was a rare indulgence.
I hate the feeling I’ve offended or that I’m somehow inconveniencing people. It’s a sign of my insecurity that my daily life involves a series of conversations with my inner Emily Post.
Double-checking my order is a survival technique after years of getting cheeseburgers instead of hamburgers and onion rings instead of fries.
For that matter, I count my change before I drive away because so many people don’t know how to make correct change anymore. (And yes, I stress that I’m slowing others down when I pay by cash and not with my debit card.)
Avoiding the obvious landmines
It’s getting worse as I get older. I know enough to avoid the obvious landmines like asking, “You gonna finish that?” at a restaurant or asking a woman if she’s pregnant.
However, what constitutes a “gimme putt” on the golf green? Do I have to leave the workshop to check a voicemail if I’m not going to talk? Do I have to give up my seat on the train to a woman in better shape than I am?
I search out answers in strange places, like Vogue’s “Book of Etiquette” by Millicent Fenwick. Published in 1948 as a 648-page opus, it’s a crutch for my timidity.
On being a polite male: “Men’s manners, like their clothes, should be unobtrusive… but noticeably good manners, according to the Anglo-American standard, are almost unattractive in a man.” (Stop being polite. Check.)
Millicent’s take on growing up socially awkward: “When there are no friends sitting in groups and no boys anywhere in sight and everyone else is dancing gaily, the best thing to do is go home.”
Where was this sage when I was growing up? I could have saved myself a lot of embarrassment as an adolescent by simply running from all uncomfortable situations.
(Editor’s note: Millicent Fenwick later served four terms in the U.S. Congress from New Jersey, from 1975-83, where she was a well-liked and highly-quotable moderate Republican.)
Aunt Rebecca’s advice
A drugstore pamphlet distributed in the 1920s titled “Aunt Rebecca Says” offers more specific advice. To avoid being rude, “Never apologize when you shake hands with your gloved hand.” To avoid permanent scarring, “Never use the knife to carry food to your mouth.”
She even offered a helpful chart listing “normal” weights for women. I’m guessing Aunt Rebecca never married because she had awfully high standards.
Etiquette for cheerleaders
She would have appreciated some of the modern books on etiquette such as the recently revealed Oakland Raiderettes Cheerleaders handbook. This tome seeks to teach “elite etiquette” to “football’s fabulous females.”
It mandates that, “A handshake should last about three seconds, be firm and be web to web” (they even think of people with webbed hands, evidently). It suggests, “If you don’t like your meal, try a little of everything and strategically move the rest around your plate” (I’ve done that my entire life).
Like Aunt Rebecca, it offers precious gems every woman needs to know, like, “Keep nail polish pads in your car for emergencies.”
They cover other emergencies as well, such as recent allegations of date rape at a Raider party: “ … situations where, quite frankly, the Raider organization and the Raiderettes narrowly escaped ruined reputations.” Because, you know, date rate is so embarrassing.
As for those cheerleaders at the party who weren’t raped: “ … just think how narrowly you missed having your photo in all the local papers and/or being assaulted.” Oh my, two equally horrible things!
In the end, there are probably too many Aunt Rebeccas out there for my own good. Life is rude enough without looking for further reasons I might offend. (I think my column gives offense enough.)
You may read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.