Manners change

June 10th, 2014

My favorite etiquette reference book, the 17th edition of Emily Post, copyrighted 2004, begins thus:

“While scientific and medical advancements have made life easier over the years, the stresses and strains that have come with population density, technological advancements, all-pervasive news and entertainment media, and a redefinition of the family have resulted in a whole new set of challenges. People behave no worse than they used to (rudeness and other social offenses are nothing new), but the pressures of modern life make it all the more difficult to stay civil.”

My fifth edition 1943 Emily Post Blue Book ends with this:

“Etiquette like our living language is seemingly rigid but actually fluid. The times in which we live rare constantly producing new and, therefore, puzzling situations. We gladly accept forms that are helpful but we have little patience with those whose purpose is the preservation of form for form’s sake. It has long been my particular occupation not only to urge keeping those precepts and customs of practical use and to discard those which no longer serve, but also to meet the new problems constantly arising. It is this increasing fusing together of the new with the old, that has kept this book from becoming a collection of dry-dust maxims, to which ‘Finis’ might otherwise have been written twenty years ago.”

My friend Lisa, an English professor at Emmanuel College, gave me a wonderful 1962 Chandler Guide to Beauty, Style, and Poise, which features the following in its etiquette section:

“In our present-day society, social usage is a dynamic, changing cog in the wheel of social progress. It is interesting to refer to ‘The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Correct Manners’ by Miss Leslie. In 1864, a lady did not go out by herself after dark, She sent her male caller home by ten o’clock and never called him by his first name. She would not think of corresponding with any man except her husband or a member of her family. Nowadays the telephone, radio and television, to mention just a few inventions, have changed our way of living and our social usages as well. In large cities, it is even considered proper now for a young woman to go to a man’s apartment for dinner, because it is his home.”

Change is the only constant! Do you have any etiquette books, old or new? Do they include a passage about how times have changed and manners must be based on common sense and kindness rather than clinging to old conventions? My book has a rather lengthy one, of course. At the time I thought I might have actually said something new. Now I’m merely content to have said it well.

Sunday column: Performers are people

June 8th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. This is the second question, and the beginning of my answer:

At a concert in a small venue, when the artist asks for requests, is it rude to request a well known cover by the artist as opposed to one of his original songs? Assuming the cover by the artist is relatively popular as a recording but is obviously not his own music.
R.J. Canton, OH

Miss Conduct wants to throw flowers and bravos at you, R.J. for your understanding that live performers are human beings, and not meat-based streaming platforms for music and spoken-word poetry. Live music, theater, or comedy should be seen as a social event, not as a consumer experience.

I wrote this column shortly after reading a piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books in which the author gets himself trapped–temporarily, but for much longer than he, or you, or the Supreme Court’s legal fiction of the “reasonable person,” would ever desire–at a dreadful avant garde production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I clicked on the article expecting a hurr durr, experimental theater is stoopid screed, but it was a good deal smarter than that.

The performing arts are inherently social in a way that, say, literature and painting aren’t, because the artists are right there in the room with you. They can see you. This creates a certain pressure to conform to social norms–having Capt’n Crunch staring at you can affect your behavior, never mind Blanche DuBois–including sticking around and acting like you’re paying attention at least until intermission. And this can open audiences up to artistic experiences they might not otherwise have.

Parks points out that not every work of art is instantly pleasing. Some take time to get into. In a museum or gallery, there is no social pressure to continue to gaze at a painting that doesn’t immediately thrill your eye. You glance and move on. Imagine if the artists were all standing next to their work, though! You’d feel bad to do that. So you’d look at everything longer, and maybe ask a few questions to be nice. (This is what the “poster sessions” of scientific conferences are like.) You might end up developing a great and genuine fondness for some paintings that didn’t grab you at all at first.

Theater does exert that social pressure:

In the theater on the other hand the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors, good or bad as they may be, creates a sense of reality and immediacy, a heightened state of attention. Having paid for your seat, having promised yourself a special evening, and finding yourself sitting in the middle of a long row beside others who have also paid and promised themselves a special evening, others whom you imagine have similar interests to your own, people willing to spend time and money supporting avant-garde culture, a community almost—in these circumstances you are probably always going to hang on at least thirty minutes, however bewildered and sceptical you may be. And thirty minutes should be enough for Beckett’s enchantments to begin to work. Simply the emotional experience of being in the theater, the sense of occasion, the positive atmosphere of people engaging in an intellectual pursuit together, provides the necessary momentum for tackling the great enigma of Beckett’s work.

Park’s column influenced my choice of and answer to that question, and then after I’d turned it in, this happened:

An actor in a Santa Clarita, Calif. production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was fired Saturday after physically removing a heckler in the audience who lobbed anti-gay slurs at the cast for nearly half of the show.

John Lacy, who played Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ classic play that tackles homophobia among other themes, was fired after jumping off stage and physically confronting an audience member who repeatedly made noise and yelled “fag” during emotionally tense scenes, according to audience members’ accounts of the incident on Facebook.

The show apparently continued following the confrontation and concluded to a standing ovation. Lacy was apparently not let go until after the performance.

OH HELL NO.

Where in the name of Joseph Papp was the producer? The front-of-house management? The stage manager? Mr. Lacy should not have escalated–responding to words with hands is never the right thing to do–but he was absolutely in the right to do something, and the fact that he chose an unwise something is not on him. A person who is disrupted in the middle of a task that requires 100% of their emotional, physical, and intellectual energy is not wholly responsible for how they respond to that disruption. Mr. Lacy should have been protected by management, and since he wasn’t, there is no way in hell that he should have been punished for protecting his fellow actor, the dignity of his craft, and the rest of the audience’s right to enjoy the play in peace. (There has been, if not a happy ending, at least a silver lining to the whole story reported here.)

This story enraged me, because it seems less about an isolated case of extremely bad theater etiquette than it does part of a whole complex of entitlement. Every student who has ever demanded a grade as though that is what tuition pays for. Every customer who thinks they’re always right. Every blog commenter who whines that the blogger isn’t writing about what they, the commenter, thinks is important.

The customer isn’t always right.
The customer isn’t always even a customer.
Sometimes the customer is a participant.

And that is a much bigger and better thing to be. Live up to it.

Friday roundup

June 6th, 2014

Miss Conduct’s best reading for the week. First up, this article on Soylent, the new food-replacement beverage, and why people might want it, and why other people might fear it. Foodies and crunchy folk object to the social ramifications of food replacement, but as author Lee Hutchinson amusingly argues, “not every meal needs to be a festive life-affirming display of cultural pageantry where we march from kitchen to table bearing the carefully plated masterpieces of locally sourced delicacies while hidden speakers blare the “Circle of Life” song from the Lion King.”

I agree with him–and given my occasional stomach troubles, I plan to get me some Soylent to have on hand for those times I simply can’t eat:

[A] lot of people are turning to Soylent seeking rescue as much as they are seeking basic nutrition. Food can be a wonderful thing, but for people struggling with food-related issues, it can be like a damaging drug that you can never quite quit cold turkey.

Soylent is food methadone. It’s not quite the magic food pill from science fiction, but it does have a lot of that pill’s qualities. It’s satiating without being delicious; eating it won’t provide the endorphin rush that overeaters experience when gorging; and it’s easy to prepare. It’s a thing you can replace snacks or some meals with (or even all meals, if you want), without having to fight urges.

Hutchinson is writing about chronic overeaters, here, but there are all kinds of eating disorders, from the psychological to the physiological. As someone who has one, I can very much see the appeal of Soylent.

Most of the time, though, I’m not suffering from stomach problems, and then I really enjoy a good kale salad. You call this kale salad? I’m so honored that one of my oldest friends thought of me when he read that, and posted it on my Facebook. I’m totally doing it as an audition monologue. Kale is shakti.

My husband sent me this, and when he sends me anything about sports I always read it, because he knows I find the games themselves boring and incomprehensible. It’s about the “unwritten rules” of baseball–baseball etiquette, baseball corporate culture–and how such rules develop and sustain themselves, whether they’re any damn good for anyone or not. (Spoiler: They’re not, apparently.) From the piece:

Young players, most of whom are just worried about keeping their jobs and fitting in, will pick an older player to emulate. They pretty much have to since if they don’t fall in line with a veteran’s whims, they will get labeled selfish. Those young players will eventually come into their own, and turn into older players themselves with rookies looking up to them. They’ll perpetuate their received wisdom about what “playing the game the right way” entails, and on it will go, cycle after cycle, players learning to play the game correctly as first laid down by God knows who, with the nonbelievers being summarily shunned.

Some of those players will get traded to other teams where other leaders with different views have imprinted other rookies. Lockers rooms will face an unwritten code schism. Sects will form. Doctrines will mutate. In many ways, unwritten rules are like religious views, with different values assigned to different doctrines, all of which must be taken on faith. And just like with many religions, believers will embrace things for which they have no clue of the origins, just because they’ve been told to believe them, and that there will be hell to pay if they don’t.

Speaking of hell to pay, check out this long, thoughtful essay by a mother whose life got up-ended when she made the decision to leave her four-year-old child in a locked car on a 50-degree day for five minutes. Someone saw, someone called the cops, and months-long trauma ensued for the entire family. I knew things were bad, but as a non-parent I didn’t realize they were this bad. I wonder if there are many people for whom the questions “Do you want kids?” and “Do you want to raise kids in 21st-century America?” would have very different answers?

Book-wise, this review in Slate had me ordering “A Bintel Brief” immediately. My copy arrived last night:

Starting in 1906, the Forward began running an advice column for Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the tenements of New York City. The column, “A Bintel Brief”—Yiddish for “a bundle of letters”—gave the voiceless community a chance to ask about love and loss, to express the challenges and triumphs of assimilation into American life. Each letter in the column was selected and thoughtfully answered by the Forward’s legendary editor, Abraham Cahan, and the column now gives us a surprising picture of the everyday life of a disappeared turn-of-the-century culture.

And finally, I picked up Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves at the library and read it in one sitting. I’m honestly a little tired of the family-secrets, the you-don’t-really-know-your-spouse-daughter-brother genre that’s so popular nowadays, so I almost didn’t get this one because it sounded like more of the same: Why did my parents give my sister away? But oh, my, why they did! And what happened then! It’s a great read.

Happy weekend! Happy reading!

Why your parents buy your kid too many presents

June 5th, 2014

You may have seen this graph that’s been making the rounds, on how prices for necessities have risen while those for luxuries have fallen.

From the New York Times article:

Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory. The result is that Americans can buy much more stuff at bargain prices.

Here’s what popped out at me: toys. It wasn’t on my radar before I became Miss Conduct, but every year I can count on a handful of letters–usually around Christmas, but some timed to birthdays or graduation/wedding season, like now–from parents whose own parents go overboard on gift-giving. I’m not the only one–addressing the issue has become something of a cottage industry at the NYT.

The above graph makes it so vividly clear why this happens. The highest increases have been in education and child care costs–that’s what your parents hear you complain about, or know that you worry about even if you don’t complain. And they might not be in a position to do anything about that. But toys! They can give toys! And such a bargain–you can’t afford not to buy them at these prices, really.

Because that’s what’s hard to break your mind from, that stubborn insistence that the economic conditions of your childhood were the “real” ones, and any subsequent change is a mere epiphenomenon to be exploited or ignored, but not actually adjusted to as though it were the new state of things. If toys were expensive and rare in your childhood and now they are plentiful and cheap, you do what people do in times of temporary plenty: you splurge and binge and give and hoard.

I have a tendency to do it with clothes, myself. As a lower-middle-class child in the 1970s, to paraphrase Woody Allen, my clothes were ugly and I had so few of them! Now I live in the age of Zara and 6pm and eBay, yet I’m still afflicted with the fear that this grey v-necked cardigan at a reasonable price might be the last grey v-necked cardigan at a reasonable price I ever see, so I had better buy it. And maybe get one in black and burgundy too, just in case. You never know–tomorrow everything could be made out of scratchy polyester and cost a month’s allowance again!

It doesn’t feel stupid, which it is. It feels wise. That’s the problem.

How do you make it special, not scary?

June 3rd, 2014

Arts marketers and party hosts face a similar dilemma: How do you make a special occasion feel truly special, without intimidating people?

Everyone wants moments, artifacts, that are special, above and apart from the normal humdrum of life. All week we drink water from a glass; on Shabbat we drink wine from a goblet. It’s human nature, it’s what parties and art and religion are for. All cultures have special events.

And then, for some reason, in the US in the 21st century, we have that basic human need but we hate it. We worry. What if I don’t know how to eat the special food? What if I don’t know the steps to the special dance? What if I don’t have enough money for the special clothes? What if I don’t even know what the special clothes should be? Performance anxiety around special events is natural–all the world’s a stage, but during a wedding or fancy dinner party the spotlights get turned up all the way. That natural performance anxiety is intensified, here and now, by all the usual culprits: increasing diversity, which means a breakdown of commonly held social customs; increasing inequality and economic doldrums that make people insecure about their social status; the unflattering contrast between one’s performance in meatspace and the carefully filtered and curated image one can project on social media; and probably ever so many more reasons.

We need special events, we love special events, but we hate them because they make us feel afraid of failure, and failure in 21st century America is not an option.

Do you see the position this puts hosts, and arts marketers into?

Parties are special events. Art is a special event. How do you get guests and clients to join you on that elevated plane?

I was walking around Newbury Street with a friend one day and wanted to stop in one of my favorite art galleries. My friend–whose scientific and literary accomplishments are so impressive she can admit to virtually any other ignorance with no shame–said that she had never been in an art gallery, and was therefore vaguely intimidated to go into this one. I told her it was just like a museum except you get treated like a potential customer instead of a potential vandal–and that if you see something you truly love you could actually buy it–which convinced her to join me.

This wasn’t some underserved urban youth, you understand, this is a woman with a PhD who grew up on the Upper West Side. The fact that she’d never been in an art gallery isn’t a problem. The fact that she felt put off by the idea of entering one really, really is.

Some gallery owners have found a fascinating way around the special-is-scary dilemma–art trucks:

[M]obile owners say they are trying to avoid the confines — and politics — of the gallery system; to help people think about art in different ways; or to reach more communities, especially those with young and old people who tend not to visit art districts. That was what motivated Berge Zobian of Providence, R.I., to create his truck in 2012, equipped with 44 linear feet of exhibition space, a stereo system, security cameras, projection monitors and even a bar for making coffee. On one occasion he took 40 paintings to a church, one priced at $35,000.

Look at this picture, also from the NYT article.

You want to go in there. Of course you do. How could you not? It looks like a doorway to Narnia. It looks like a gypsy caravan. It looks magical.

Magic.

Is that it? How do we make things magical? How do we bust people out of their self-consciousness about etiquette and appearance and get them to focus on the magic of the moment?

I like the art trucks, I like them very much. I like the gothic-themed party I threw a few winters ago, when people were asked to wear “Formal dress … from any era, in any state of repair.” One way of keeping things special-but-not-scary would be introducing this kind of ironic distance. Yes, we’re dressing up, but we’re playing dress-up. Everyone knows those aren’t your real clothes. Art trucks are inherently ironic–it’s art! In a truck!

But irony can’t be the entire answer. It’s reactive–the art trucks wouldn’t be ironic if we didn’t have knowledge and expectations about art galleries to upend. A razor-slashed prom gown and ratted hair (I looked amazing at my Midwinter Macabre!) needs a vision of formal dress to contrast itself to. And irony always holds something back, which ultimately is antithetical to creating a truly special occasion. You can’t always play dress-up. Sometimes you need to actually dress up.

Information helps. I subscribe to Central Square Theater, and before shows, you get an email reminder with information about parking and restaurants. The theater lobby and restrooms are papered with signs telling the audience the show’s running time per act and how long the intermission is. This weekend I attended a wedding at which a large board with the day’s schedule of events painted on it was propped up where everyone could see. These things are helpful, and beyond that, they set a tone. In addition to the facts the convey, such signs say, “There is relevant information about this event that you may not have known when you walked in. That is perfectly understandable. Feel free to ask if you need more help.”

Irony and information–two ways you can make an event special without being scary. But those aren’t full solutions to the dilemma, just the tools I happen to have in my kit. What’s in yours?

Costumes! Props! Action!

June 2nd, 2014

A friend triumphantly posted the below on Facebook:

“Found! At Bob Slate’s in Harvard Square, a relic of the old ways, specially ordered because so many folks asked them to bring it back.”

Her post was followed by this comment from a former Globe reporter: “There is something special about a reporter’s pad. When I started out in newspapers, I was very shy and apprehensive about talking to strangers. The pad was like a piece of armor that helped me overcome that. I always give my students reporter’s pads at the beginning of the year. You should see how they perk up and stand straighter and feel ‘professional.’”

Their conversation reminded me of the report that came out last year showing that people are more precise and attentive at tasks if they are wearing a doctor’s coat. The researchers called the effect “enclothed cognition,” the “systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” You wear a lab coat, you feel on point and focused—as long as you think it’s a lab coat. If you think it’s a painter’s coat, the same effect doesn’t apply.

Costumes are important, and so are props—I wonder how the experimental subjects would have fared if they had been given stethoscopes to go along with their lab coats? How many of you have a talismanic tool-of-the-trade that makes you feel authoritative? I’ve been wearing reading glasses for a couple of years now, after a lifetime in contact lenses, and I find that even now, putting on glasses to read makes me feel committed and professorial.

What are your props? Have any of you had to renounce one of modern life’s best props—cigarettes? What was it like not having your smokes to pose and play with anymore?

Blogging returns!

June 1st, 2014

I’m back!

And so is the blog. For a year. We’ll see after that.

The Boston Globe and the Boston.com website got divorced this spring, and the Globe got custody of me, which means that Miss Conduct doesn’t have a blog on Boston.com anymore. (My column still runs in the newspaper, both print and online.)

The thing about blogging is that it’s such an open-ended endeavor. Are you posting too much? Not enough? Being interestingly varied? Yet staying on topic? What’s the end goal of any blog, besides a large number of readers to be disappointed when the blogger quits? Which almost everyone who blogs does, sooner or later, unless they’re getting paid.

And when people quit blogging, they tend to abandon their blogs for long stretches of time first, or start re-running old material, or generally behaving not like people who are bringing it home to a triumphant conclusion, but people desperately trying to gun an engine intent on sputtering to its death. I’ve done it myself. I think if we’re ending our blogs like that, maybe we somehow didn’t start them right.

So here’s my new idea: I’m going to blog in this space until next June, when I’ll decide whether or not to keep going. I’d like to get picked up as a blogger by another publication by then, or find some other way of supporting the blog. If not, I’ll re-evaluate, but having an end date in mind will, I think, help keep me focused and energetic.

The blog’s new tagline will be, “The Art & Science of Social Behavior,” and that’s what it will be about: the intersection of the arts, the social sciences, and everyday life. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and read and comment often. Coming up this week:

- Do the right clothes and props make you better at your job?
- “Mad Men” explains everything about my other job
- Why your parents buy your kids too many presents

Also, today’s “Miss Conduct” column is online here—a threefer, this week—and you can catch up on past ones here, now without a paywall to worry about (here’s information on subscribing to the Globe). I hid a little Easter egg in the column for Monty Python fans.

Welcome back! We’re going to have fun.

Closed for Renovations

March 20th, 2013

Hello! This website is currently shut down for renovations, although you may feel free to browse its cobwebbed shelves and peek into its nooks and crannies. Sometime, probably summer 2013, I will be reviving it as a general website and archive of my work. In the meantime, check out my blog at Boston.com.

Fringe theater

November 4th, 2011

Didn’t I just say that I never wear patterns of things — martini glasses, poodles, flamingos? Well, take a look at this scarf. It’s a pattern of lipsticks, necklaces, and similar girly things. Something about the color and irregularity of the pattern, however, make it less obviously representational than it really is. It’s a gorgeous scarf of a thick, heavy silk, and I always get compliments on it, and I can’t for the life of me remember where I got it.

I wore this to the theater with a black leather skirt and a sage sweater.

Skirt: eBay
Sweater: Eileen Fisher, eBay
Pearls: bought while traveling
Scarf: ???
Rhinestone hoop earrings: eBay

Spooky style

October 31st, 2011

If you aren’t the costume type, it’s easy to dress “up” for Halloween without dressing “as.” One way to do this is to start with a black base and add accessories in appropriately Halloween-y colors. On Friday I did a segment for NECN on tips for appropriate Halloween style, wearing a little black dress, orange tights, and an orange ruffle scarf:

Poison-green tights would also work beautifully with a black dress or skirt, particularly if you have pointy black shoes to go with them. (A similar look can work for men: a dark suit with green or orange socks and tie. Modified, the style can work year-round: check out this sharp dresser caught on camera by PeaceBang.)

Color-blocking on a black base also works. NECN morning host Bridget Blythe’s gold jacket is festively autumnal. Orange isn’t your only option: fall colors, like Bridget’s, work, as do “evil” colors like dark or vivid green, red, or purple. Mrs. Obama wore glowing fall colors to dress up-but-not-as for White House trick-or-treaters:


Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Images

Another option is to add a touch of punk or goth to your usual look. I scored a grey cashmere hoodie at Found in Davis Square last week. It’s got a rhinestone skull on the back. I plan to wear it tonight with a long-sleeved lace t-shirt, leather skirt, fishnets and short boots.

I do love gothic and spooky jewelry, from antique cameos to steampunk inventions to more directly evocative pieces. This necklace is called “Scar” and was designed by my friend Yleana Martinez:

Happy Halloween! Be spookyfabulous!

“It’s a Sweeney Todd Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!”

October 27th, 2011

Signs from my neighborhood:

Let’s take a closer look at that …

… brought to you by our friendly Community Savings.

I love my friends

October 18th, 2011

Last night, I wrote on Facebook “See, I woud never survive the zombie apocalypse because I would say things like, ‘Shane, you mean the FEWER guns we have floating around, the better, not the LESS guns.’ And Shane would shoot me.”

My friend Matt responded:

I dunno… I mean, if you shoot an etiquette columnist, that pretty much destroys any credibility you have in social situations later on. Imagine if he gets into a relationship and his significant other disagrees with him about the type of gift to bring, or the appropriateness of a comment he made. He or she would only have to say, “well, remember that time you shot the etiquette columnist” and he’d pretty much have lost the argument. It’s like a mummy’s curse or something! That type of thing stays with you!

Against which my friend Huey argued:

Ah, but throughout history there are many traditions that hold that when you kill someone, you take some or all of their power for yourself. If this turns out to be true, then the person who has killed the most etiquette columnists would have the most authority on the subject.

Of course, to substantiate this one way or the other, I’m going to need a government grant to do sociological research on everyone who has ever killed an etiquette columnist, to find out how polite they were, whether they knew which fork to use, if they knew the difference between a business card and a calling card, and so on. Could take years. I’ll probably need at least a quarter of a million dollars. MACARTHUR FOUNDATION, ARE YOU LISTENING?

Today’s column …

October 16th, 2011

… is online here.

Palette: Make like a leaf and display an ever-changing symphony of rusts and golds

October 14th, 2011

I haven’t quite figured out the calculus of this, but sometimes colors that don’t “go” can be made to harmonize if surrounded by enough other colors. I wouldn’t normally pair a rust-colored tank with an orange cardigan, but here it works as part of an autumnal theme.

Brown tights: We Love Colors
Rust tank: Chicos, eBay
Orange cardigan: Max Mara Weekend, eBay
Brown skirt w/zippered gussets: Looks boutique
Denim jacket: Levi’s, Oona’s
Brass & crystal bracelet: eBay
Pearl & grosgrain necklace: Talbot’s