Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Etiquette Revisited

Are you challenged, confounded or simply puzzled by social situations brought about by a technological explosion happening at the speed of light?    Pitfalls are many and manners are in crisis.

Back Chat reviews the niceties and nuances of etiquette in a new age.

This guide deals with rules of civility and also acts as a reminder that however much the rules of courtesy appear to have changed with the times - manners matter!   We need to adapt to a new etiquette.

But are you still at sea?   Do you still have niggling doubts about this new etiquette?  Then remember that help is at hand.   Contact me by email at les@leslieback.co.za or leave a comment on the blog.  I would love to help you sort out the tricky situations that are troubling you.

Etiquette is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the conventional rules of behaviour in polite society.”

Goethe wrote,  “A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.”  {Fine words often forgotten.}

The generation gap has produced a chasm of difference one must accept that youth view situations differently, act differently, but should nevertheless behave according to a code of conduct.


The workplace is an area that embraces many of the changes of attitude.   The feminist movement has created different expectations.  Gender rules have been pretty much discarded in the corporate culture.   A woman who is confident and gracious enough, may accept a door that is held opened for her, but it cannot be expected as a right.

Familiarity and nicknames are considered sexist and patronising.  Sexual harassment is the new ogre. This applies to everyone.

Inter-personal skills are paramount, one has to interact with people of so many backgrounds and mindsets. Colleagues should be treated courteously and superiors with dignity and respect.

The use of first or surnames is generally dictated by the office ethos.  Beware!  The use of a first name does not confer familiarity. 

Never underestimate the importance of dress in the business arena.  Abide by the dress code of the organisation and when in doubt, take your lead from your superiors.  ‘Sexy’ is strictly out.  Even if you are a member of MENSA, you will be thought of disparagingly if you are dressed as a sex kitten, no cleavage and thigh high skirts.  Dressing appropriately for any occasion is a good maxim.

The niceties, nuances and details of conduct in the workplace will be revealed in time through exposure.  Good Luck!

Please refer to my article ' What To Do When You Mean Business'  - 'Etiquette Rules' -  for a fuller run down of  'Etiquette In The Workplace'.


Cell phones are now taken for granted. The cell phone explosion has produced a need for a new set of manners and a new etiquette.  There are exhaustive arguments supporting both concepts.  Marvels or monsters?

Marvels!   They provide communication in an emergency, are a boon away from a landline and essential when the telephone system is down.  They have modernised developing countries for those without landlines.

Monsters!   The frivolous use of cell phones in public places is old news and produces horrendously bad manners.    It is a ludicrous sight seeing people dining together, but busy communicating with others on their cell phones.  Why do invisible people take precedence over table companions?   These conversations are usually loud, showing no regard for fellow diners who are not in the least interested in the caller’s travails.  Indeed, they can thoroughly ruin the dining experience for others.

Shopping is made more unpleasant by the loud chattering of fellow shoppers with cell phones glued to their ears in supermarkets.

Driving whilst holding a phone to one’s ear is dangerous and hazardous to fellow motorists.  Thankfully, this has been outlawed, unless hands-free devices are used.  The system is still being abused.

Leaving cell phones switched on in cinemas, theatres, lectures, meetings, hospitals, doctor’s waiting rooms, courtrooms etc, is unforgivable.   One marvels at the complete oblivion of those having intensely private conversations in lifts.  There is no discreet avoidance mechanism available to unfortunate trapped ‘cellmates’.   Cell phones can be switched off or put on silent and messages retrieved later, so there is no need to deliberately ignore signage requesting that they not be used.  The same principle applies to beepers and Blackberries or any smart phone that is in use; they can be switched to vibrate when necessary. 

Cell phones are used frequently by today’s upwardly mobile generation and their parents  to text or SMS their friends, thank hostesses for occasions attended or to acknowledge gifts. They usually repeat their gratitude when they next telephone.  Students SMS their lecturers with queries, avoiding the need to be connected via a switchboard.  Direct communication with parties hitherto difficult to contact is made easy once cell numbers are known.  This is an intrusion and the ease of access has removed boundaries previously rigidly observed and etiquette has yet to be developed to deal with this.

Perhaps the new etiquette for the use of cell phones might be - if you must use your phone in public, be brief and as quiet as possible and always observe signage referring to your phone.  As to the question of intrusion, just use basic good manners and good sense.  Imagine there is a switchboard or secretary you have to encounter first.  Then assess your chances of getting through to the person you are seeking.  Another time might just be more acceptable.

“There is nothing more pleasant than receiving a beautiful letter,” said Amy Vanderbilt.  Notes or telephone calls are often necessary.  A hand written note is always preferable to a typed offering unless your handwriting is illegible.
Whichever method you employ, it is essential to communicate with your host or hostess after the event.   It is unspeakably rude to merely express your thanks at the door when leaving and to make no further contact.   And believe me, many people are guilty of just that.

Presents must be mentioned specifically and it therefore may be necessary to make a list of gifts received.

It takes so little time to acknowledge effort, energy and kindness and it is always appreciated.  The abuse of this gesture is contrary to all rules of good manners and etiquette

The ease of e-mailing makes for casual correspondence.  This method of communication can never be a replacement for a personal ‘thank you’ letter or call.   A formal letter or telephone call is required in situations such as expressing condolences.

In our age of technological marvels, hand written correspondence exudes a charm and graciousness that smart phones,  fax machines and e-mails cannot replicate.  There is a danger of the heritage of beautiful words being lost.  The richness of beautiful prose.  E-mails are easily deleted and the e-mail shorthand has produced a generation of younger people who really do not know the correct spelling of words.  Perhaps one day the Oxford English Dictionary will include the truncated words.  Imagine ‘gr8’ or ‘emul8’ in that august publication.

Never forget the might of the pen A personal note is almost like a gift, perhaps to be kept and handed down to future generations.  The collections of letters of famous people have provided wonderful history and beautiful literature.


Punctuality means so much.  It has become less important to some who are late for everything.  Being too early is as irritating as being late.
Timing is important for a hostess.  An over eager early guest can be as great an embarrassment and nuisance as a guest who has no regard for time and is unconscionably late.   Punctuality is the courtesy of princes; some would do well to remember this.

Knowing when to leave is also important.  There are various rules of convention.

Some suggest waiting until fifteen minutes after coffee is served.  Whichever system one chooses, it must be flexible, but not so flexible as to leave hosts exhausted and disenchanted by guests that just don’t know when enough is enough.


Being entertained in someone’s home is a forum where manners and etiquette prevail.   Punctuality counts for much, as do many other factors.  The dress code should be observed if at all possible.   If uncertain, a telephone call to your host or hostess will clarify this point.

It is a courtesy to advise hosts and hostesses about food constraints.  The ‘healthy eating’ explosion has accompanied the techno-explosion.

A hostess needs to know if you are a vegetarian, have food allergies, observe kosher or halaal laws or just simply avoid certain foods.

For the hostess there are many things to do and remember.   A party is an opportunity to bring people together, so invite those that will appreciate the invitation and will make an effort to contribute to the success of the party.   The chemistry of the group is vital.  While it is pleasant to be able to invite like-minded people, do not invite one type of person only, just doctors or lawyers for example.   This can be deadly dull, whilst inviting well-known adversaries may be abrasive.

A host would be wise to work out the seating in advance and never let it happen by accident.  Choose your guests’ dinner partners carefully, using place cards or table plans or merely by verbal agreement.  Woe betides guests that rearrange place cards to suit themselves.   Beware the Romeo who has a dalliance planned and place cards that move mysteriously.

Serve your guests from the left.  Drinks are always on the right.  The starting point at a sit down dinner is the woman at the host’s right.   If the man on the hostess’s right is the guest of honour, he is served first.  After that the service goes round the table clockwise.

Hostesses go to incredible lengths to make their guests feel special, so do your bit and don’t go into a decline as to whether you eat your asparagus with your fingers or not.   The ideal guest should take part in conversations and be a lively and happy presence.

Home etiquette largely applies when dining or entertaining in a restaurant.  Certainly, punctuality and seating arrangements apply, as well as making food preferences known beforehand.  Don’t spend an eternity studying the menu and hogging the waiter with zillions of questions.  Try and keep a steady pace with the rest of the party and do not keep people gasping for their next course whilst you pick at your starter.   Table-hopping is an example of grossly bad manners.

Tipping is generally dependent on service and tends to be between 10% and 15% of the bill.


If you find the correct way of eating certain foods daunting and are uncertain about certain dos and don’ts of convention and it does matter about how to eat the asparagus, here are some simple guidelines:

The entire slice of bread or bread roll is not buttered all at once.  Break the bread or the roll into bite-sized pieces and butter each piece, as you need it.

Cutlery should be loosely held and the knife not used as a dagger.   Do not wave your cutlery in the air and once used, the cutlery should not touch the table again, but rest on your plate.

Do not refold your table napkin at the end of the meal but place it loosely on the table, to the left of your plate.

The rule for handbags and briefcases, keys, spectacles etc, is that they are kept off the table.  If it is not part of the meal, it should not be on the table.

The dreaded smoking issue.  If you are sitting in the smoking section of a restaurant, you should never light up between courses.  It affects your dinner partners’ enjoyment of their meal even if they are smokers.   Wait until after the meal and ask if anyone minds if you smoke.  Smokers’ rights have been completely eroded.   If you feel more comfortable, smoke at the bar.   Never use a plate as an ashtray.   In private houses, it is the hosts’ prerogative to allow smoking.   If they do, the same rules prevail.  Else, if you are gasping for a cigarette, step outside if the weather permits.

There are some difficult foods if one insists on eating them absolutely correctly.  When in doubt, use a knife and fork or just watch what the others are doing. 

Asparagus can be eaten with your fingers.  It is quite a sensuous experience.  Fingers are delicately washed in individual finger bowls, which are usually placed near your plate.  It would seem unnecessary to advise against drinking from a finger bowl, but it has happened when some unfortunate guest has been ignorant of its correct use.  Legend has it that Queen Victoria, in order to make a guest comfortable who had done just that, raised her finger bowl to her lips and pointedly drank, which was a signal for the whole table to follow suit.

Eating artichokes can be tricky.  Pick it up with one hand, remove one leaf at a time and dip the soft end in the accompanying sauce.   Place the soft end in your mouth and pull gently through your teeth to remove the edible part.  Discard the rest by placing it on the edge or side of the plate but not on the bread plate.  You will reach the heart when you have removed most or all of the leaves.  Scrape the fuzzy part off and then cut the rest into bite size pieces.

Cake can be eaten with your fingers if it is in bite-sized pieces.  A cake fork is used if you are presented with a complete slice.

Caviar is spread on bite-sized pieces of toast and then condiments added, or just take a little on a caviar spoon and add a squeeze of lemon.

Chicken and fowl are eaten with a knife and fork unless at a picnic.

Eating crustaceans requires a whole host of techniques, which depend on which variety you are eating.  Hands and special implements are used.  Generally you can get away with your own style, so eat with confidence.

Olives are eaten whole if they are pitted.  If they are not pitted, hold them in your fingers and take small bites.  Kiss the pit into the palm of the hand and deposit it on the edge of your plate.

Pasta can be easy if eaten a few strands at a time, turning them on your fork without the support of a spoon.

Certain fruits have rules to follow when eating, if you wish to be strictly correct.  It need not be embarrassing if you break one of these rules, just make whatever you do look natural.  Again, just watching what the others are doing is an infallible guide.

Here are just a few of those hallowed rules to quieten your anxiety:

Avocado if still in its shell, use a spoon.   If it is in pieces on a plate, use a knife and fork.

Berries are eaten with a spoon if they have no stems attached.  If served with their stems, hold the stem and eat the fruit in a couple of bites, dipping the berry into sugar or sauce if necessary.

Grapefruit Halves are generally served with their sections cut and loosened.  Eat the sections with a spoon.  Never squeeze the juice.

Lemon Wedges should be handled with care.  They can be secured with a fork and squeezed with the other hand.  Alternatively, pick up the wedge and use your other hand as a cover to avoid squirting your companions.

Peaches are halved and then quartered with a knife and the flesh eaten with a fork.  Either eat the skin or peel it off with a knife or your fingers.  There will no doubt be finger bowls should you need them.

Pineapple is eaten with a spoon if served in small pieces and with a fork if you are presented with slices.

Watermelon is eaten with a spoon if served in small pieces, otherwise use your fork.  Put the seeds into the palm of your hand and transfer them to the side of your plate.

Bon Appetit!


Planning a wedding can be a major manoeuvre with many factors to be considered.

In the 21st century, new rules have evolved as to who pays for what.

Traditionally the bride’s family bears most of the cost of the wedding, but nowadays some couples, wanting no expense spared and the perfect wedding, share the cost burden.  This is a personal and individual situation.

The bridal couple agree on a format, which is then presented to the families for their opinion and approval.
Generally the bride’s parents make the announcements in the press and there are formulas for these that they can follow if they wish.

Imagine the volume of e-mailing and text messaging that now takes place.  BUT it is still not necessary or acceptable to make cell phone calls publicly and loudly.   The whole world is not interested in your catering arrangements etc.

As a guest, it is essential to return a reply card if enclosed with a printed invitation.

An e-mail, SMS or telephone call is acceptable if there is no card.  A written reply is still the preferred response.

No two weddings are alike and are enriched by religious and cultural differences.

Everything is less predictable now, but brides remain beautiful, and the occasion memorable.  There is comfort in heritage and tradition.

Technology!  How on earth did we ever manage without it?

Illustrations by Katherine Lauinger


Anonymous said...

Would it be concidered outrageuosly brazen to invite guests to a wedding via SMS? Lynn.

Leslie Back said...

In a situation where a wedding is being arranged at very short notice, an SMS is perfectly acceptable. One would hope that the replies are equally swift.

In such cases, telephone calls to good friends and relatives would also be appropriate,

SAY said...

You just write so beautifully, the words flow like music.
Great article; I only have one tiny disagreement, and I know you are correct etiquette wise, but I like my butter on hot bread. If you don't butter it when hot, & break into small pieces, it is not going to be yummy.
I hope you will allow me one breach of manners. I would suffer & do it correctly at a formal dinner.

Leslie Back said...

Thank you for your kind and very generous comments
Hot bread and butter is quite delicious. As with all rules of manners and social convention, there are marvellous exceptions, and one would certainly be how to enjoy delicious nibbles of bread eaten hot and fragrant with lovely melting butter.
I say 'go for it.'