I’m sad to say that this will be my last Table Manners column, since I am leaving to pursue another project. Plus, as the mom of a one-year-old, I am now usually the person committing the faux pas. It would be hypocritical of me to demand elegant behavior from others when, for example, I recently picked a booger from my child’s nose while having a friend over to tea. (I’d like to say I did not then flick it on the floor.)
Nearly five years have elapsed since it was suggested to me that I write this column. At the time I said: “There’s nothing to say about etiquette that Emily Post hasn’t already said. It’s a stodgy subject, and people just don’t care.” Boy, was I wrong. The first letter asked: If a friend gives you a food gift, such as cookies or leftovers, are you obliged to return the container? I had no idea that my answer—no—would be so wildly controversial. One reader emailed: “Helena, you are an idiot. … To suggest that [people] steal their friends’ containers … is unbelievably WRONG ADVICE. How did you get this job. I’m feeling sorry for the spineless girls who listen to you.” But his hatred didn’t sting—I was delighted. Apparently, people did still care about etiquette. A lot.
In the beginning, I had many doubts about my expertise (as did my friends and loved ones, who pointed out that I ate salad with my fingers and forgot to RSVP). But readers seemed to believe that I knew what I was talking about. Their letters filled my inbox. Some had contemporary etiquette questions that Emily Post had never had to think about: “If I take a girl out to dinner, will I look cheap if I ask the server to apply my Groupon?” Some had questions that I couldn’t answer because the answer was too obvious: “Is it permissible for children to be excused from the dinner table to use the bathroom, or should they be expected to ‘hold it’ until the meal is over?” And some had questions that were too big for me to answer: “I was in the U.S. Army for we’ll just say a lot of years, and most of those years were spent in the woods or deployed to foreign countries. Now I would like to entertain the thought of dating and eventually settling down. Is there a book for this?”
For every reader who thought my opinion was worth asking, there was one who thought I was a moron, a bimbo, and/or an alcoholic. These readers were often witty and convincing. In 2007, I argued that bringing your lunch to work could hurt your chances of promotion. Chowhounds passionately defended the lunch brought from home—thrifty, healthy, and delicious—and I later retracted my advice. My most inflammatory column of all addressed the question of when women can use the men’s bathroom in a restaurant. “Squirming in Line” wished to know: “if there’s no line for the men’s, and I’m desperate, I’ll duck in there instead. Is that OK?” My answer: Yes, if it’s a one-unit stall and there is therefore no chance of intruding on someone at the urinal. That column was published in 2009 and people are still disagreeing with it.
Why do people care about etiquette so much? I used to think it was because most of us learn about manners from our parents, and it’s natural to get upset when others challenge beliefs that have been ingrained in us since childhood. This may be partly true; but really etiquette matters because it’s about much more than place settings and thank-you notes. The restaurant-bathroom question is about feminism and what it means for women to have equal rights. The office-lunch question is about changing workplace politics.
Etiquette questions also intersect with personal politics, psychology, history, fashion, and much more. This is why the debate is often more interesting than the answer, and why you, my amazing readers, are the ones who have really made this column a success. Whether you love me or hate me—or, most typically, love to hate me—I’ve been awed by your intelligence, passion, and commitment to proper behavior. I will miss dishing out advice, but more than that, I will miss receiving it.