Etiquette For Life

Cassandra Konz, Concordia College

Learning etiquette must begin early, in order to create the habit of polite and considerate behavior.  If you come from a good family, these habits should have begun in the home, with members of the older, wiser generation being your initial mentors.   They have much to teach you, no matter your age, and it is your obligation to learn.

For example, three years old may seem quite young, but you really should have learned by now to hide your baby blanket from your grandmother.  In her home, do not suck on the satin-edged corners, or use it as a trampoline to save your stuffed animals from imaginary fires.  Do not tie the blanket around your neck and turn yourself into a superhero.  When her friends with the hard metal jewelry and tweed pencil skirts stop by, it is not appropriate to hide behind the couch, sucking on your blanket and refusing to come out until they’ve left.

Do not cry when she pulls your blanket away from you, and talks sternly at your mother about how you are too old to be emotionally dependent on a blanket.  Let your mother pick you up and then bury your head into the soft cotton of her sweater as you are held against the hollow of her waist.   Let her take the blanket back for you.  She won’t hand it to you until you are back in the car seat.  You will learn to leave your blanket at home when you visit.  You will notice that your parents have found other people to watch you when they are at work.

You don’t need to know what “improper,” “embarrassment,” or “emotionally dependent” mean yet, but tuck those words away.  A good vocabulary is a powerful tool, and your grandmother knows many big and powerful words.  Although she doubts it, you are a clever girl.  You learn quickly.

For example:

By age seven you will learn how to sit in a skirt: you keep your knees clamped together and your ankles crossed, while you watch for the moment when she isn’t paying attention so you can run off to climb trees with the boys.  If you destroy the dress, apologize and keep your eyes down.  Do not kick dirt at the boys even if they are laughing at you.  Do not make a sound when she grabs your upper arm too hard and drags you to your parents.

By age ten you will learn to stay quiet at dinner, elbows off the table, and holding the knife with your left hand even though it feels unnatural.  Any food you do not like will have to be eaten anyway.  A young lady must not waste food.  If you refuse, you will sit at that table for six hours, until the milk you refuse to drink gets warm and the whipped potatoes start to stiffen on your plate.  You will learn that although you are stubborn, she is even more so.  Do not tell your parents about these moments.  It only makes them worry.

By age thirteen you will learn that no grade less than an A is worth telling her about.  Even As are not worth mentioning unless you are prepared to discuss the idea of college.  Ivy League is encouraged.  Small private schools are acceptable.  You should simply smile when your grandmother puts a hand on your cheek, and reminds you that it is never too early to build up your college applications.

Dining with Relatives

Family dinners are an important part of sustaining relationships with your relatives, especially those who live out of town.  If you cannot host it at home, due to the precarious stacks of ungraded papers, the pile of unwashed plates and coffee mugs in the sink, or the light your father broke jumping up and down during the last football game, be sure to pick a nice restaurant.  Pick one that is not so expensive that your grandmother will comment that your parents must have earned a raise, nor so inexpensive that the word “quaint” is used, as she tucks her beige leather purse closer to her leg.  An upper-level chain restaurant with unlimited breadsticks and wine samples is a safe bet.

Remember, good conversation makes for good dinners.  If your grandmother mentions, deliberately, suddenly, that every young girl wants to be a debutante, you must refrain from gagging, snorting Coca-Cola out of your nose, or disagreeing out loud.  It is uncouth, and will only reinforce the idea, sixteen years in the making, that you are not ladylike.  A short nod followed by a shared look with your mother is not recommended, but acceptable.

If your grandmother notices, sit back as your mother explains that you are already so busy with soft ball, guitar practice, and confirmation classes.  It is impolite to discuss money, so keep silent the fact that the cotton ball dresses and gemstone tiaras cost more than your teacher parents are able to pay.  Your grandmother already knows these things anyway.  Your grandmother will of course offer to pay, and you may notice your mother clench her teeth before refraining as politely as possible.

These are the necessary motions.  Allow the adults to discuss the matter.  Be thankful you are still a teenager and don’t have to deal with this alone.  Above all, keep quiet as you imagine drowning in tulle.  It is a soft, but inadvisable way to die, and voicing those concerns will only lead to a quarrel in public.

Wait to groan until her pearl white E-class Mercedes has pulled away, and you can collapse into the cracked leather of your parents’ Subaru.  Avoid the stains on the dashboard as you repeatedly hit your head against it, punctuating each word as you say “Are. You. Freaking. Kidding. Me.”  Enunciation is important.

Over the following weeks, she will call to ask if your mother has thought this through yet.  She will hint at times she would be free to look for dresses.  She may hint that there would be plenty of time to drop a dress size or two.

You are not obligated to answer the telephone, even if you know it is her.  This is what answering machines were invented for.  You can sit in your worn-in blue armchair, in an oversized Packers sweatshirt and yoga pants.  You can press your thighs to your chest, press your nose in the space between your knees, and wrap your hands around your ankles while you stare at the phone.  Make sure to watch the red number on the answering machine so you know what the number was before she called.  It would be impolite to delete any of your parents’ other messages.

Eventually, she will understand that you will never be a debutante without the need for a distasteful confrontation.  Eventually you’ll be too old for a coming out party anyway.

Rites of Passage

Graduating from college is an important step for a modern young woman, and you should be proud of your accomplishment.  A party to commemorate this achievement is expected.  To be properly prepared you must have sent your invitations well in advance, have thank-you cards ready to be filled out, and have practiced your speech about what you are going to do with an English degree.  Invite friends, professors, colleagues, and, of course, your family.  Expect your grandmother to make the long drive to campus for the event.

Thank your grandmother for the pearls she gives you as your graduation gift, and be sure to tell her that they are beautiful, because they are.  It is best not to tell her that you don’t know when you would ever wear them since you refuse to go to the country club dinners anymore, and you own only one dress as nice as this necklace.   This would seem ungrateful.  Let her tell you how important it is for a young woman to have a string of pearls.

When the inevitable question of what you plan to do now comes up, be sure to smile.  Explain that you want to be a school librarian and to work with teenagers, and keep smiling when she drops her voice to ask if you are aware of how little librarians are paid.  She is only trying to help.  Do not try to explain how much you love the work.  Simply nod and try to steer the conversation towards neutral topics.  Say something like “Yes, I was aware.  Thank you though.  Have you tried the shrimp puffs yet?”

Do not comment when you overhear her telling your mother that she hopes you can manage to find a decent husband who can support you.

Gentleman Suitors

It is mandatory that your family be well acquainted with any gentlemen that you could consider marrying.  Six months into your relationship with a twelfth grade English teacher would be a good time.  Bring him home for the next holiday to properly meet your parents.  They will approve because they will recognize how he makes you happy.  He will make you smile when he tells bad jokes about classic novels, when he leaves fresh coffee on your desk for you, and when he whispers, at unexpected moments, that he loves you.

Arrange a dinner to introduce him to the rest of the family.  If you lack the necessary culinary skills to make an impressive dinner, pick a restaurant quiet enough to facilitate conversation.  You may hope that a public setting will diminish the risk for embarrassing questions, but do not rely on this assumption.

Be sure to warn him of what to expect.

Do not cringe when your grandmother’s first question is what his father does for a living.  Allow him to explain, with pride, that he comes from a long line of farmers.  She will only say “ah” or “I see.”  You will notice that she tilts her chin up half an inch and smiles with only one side of her mouth.  Let her ask what he does for a living.  Let her ask if it pays well, even though she knows it doesn’t.  Let her ask if he ever considered going back to school to become a lawyer or a professor.  There will be a line of questioning that will last the entire evening, ranging from his weekend hobbies to when his family immigrated, and it will be exhausting if you try to deflect every question.  Hold his hand under the table and squeeze it every time she asks another.  Although this gesture is more for you than for him, it will seem supportive.

Remember, the first meeting is the most difficult.  Thank him for being so patient with her, and apologize no less than seven times on the drive back, even when he tells you that there is no reason to apologize.

The Next Step

When you become engaged, your family should be the first ones told.  Your parents should not be expected to tell your grandmother no matter how much you wish they would.  You are an adult and it is your responsibility.  You should not put it off for over a month, picking up the phone and setting it back down at least once a day.  You should not decide to tell the collected family weeks later, at Christmas, under the excuse that it is more convenient.

If you choose to do this, make sure to pay attention to the timing of the announcement.  It may be difficult to do it early as people arrive at different times of the evening.  When you see your grandmother, quickly turn your ring around so the diamond isn’t showing.  When your fiancé shows up half an hour later, tell him that this is to keep it a surprise.  He does not need to know that your grandmother was hoping to set you up with her doctor’s son.  He does not need to know that she told you she was glad to see you come up the driveway alone.

Making the announcement at dinner may distract from your mother’s meal, and there is plenty of conversation as your grandmother asks if your fiancé is still working at a public school and comments on how to improve Christmas dinner for next year.  Better to wait until after dinner, when everyone is relaxing in the living room, talking and complimenting the meal and generally content.

Remember to turn your ring back around.

Let your fiancé take your hand and ask for everyone’s attention.  Be sure to hold up your hand so they can see the ring when he makes the announcement.  Keep smiling as your grandmother’s mouth becomes a straight, tight line.  Her face may be pale and you may be able to see a thick vein pulsing in her neck.  She will not come over to offer congratulations, but it is not your obligation to point out her misstep.

Later that night she may pull you aside, clutching your upper arm until it hurts.  She will ask if you are sure about this, if you don’t want to just live with him instead of marrying him.  She will say “don’t you dare settle” as you extract your arm from her grip.  It is best to realize that nothing you say or do will bring an amicable end to this conversation. She will never see what you see in him.  Find the most polite way to get out of the situation. If you are lucky, someone will want you to help with some festive activity, or want to give you their opinion on veils.  If not, feign that you hear your mother calling, or that you promised to help her with dessert.  Once you have made your excuses, avoid your grandmother as much as possible for the rest of the evening.

There is no need to tell your fiancé what happened, even though he can tell something is wrong.  It is unladylike to spoil the holidays by making a fuss.

Planning the Wedding

When the time comes to plan your wedding, the guest list is both vital and treacherous.  These are the people you are sharing the most important day with.  It is advisable to draft multiple guest lists.

The first draft will have three hundred people, including every third cousin whose name you can still remember.  The second will have only four, including yourself and the groom.  Your fiancé will laugh when he sees this one, and kiss you on the head before reminding you that you don’t believe in eloping.  Be grateful that he knows you so well.  Write another guest list, and this one will have exactly one hundred and seventeen people on it.

It may be useful to buy a book dedicated entirely to wedding etiquette as the process is full of unspoken rules and little-known traditions.  They can be found at any well-stocked bookstore.  When you find one that you like, open it to the chapter on guest lists.  See where it lists close family as the first people to go onto the list – parents, siblings, grandparents.

Close the book if that chapter makes you want to reconsider your stance on elopement.  Do not leave the book on top of the shelf in the wrong section or you will get a look of exhausted annoyance from the shop girl with the green-framed glasses.

Draft a final guest list with your mother and fiancé.  Say nothing as you leave your grandmother’s name off the list.  Discretion is paramount.


Cassandra Konz is a senior attending Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.  She is majoring in English Writing and Classical Studies, and has a minor in History.  She has published poetry and fiction in Concordia’s in-house journal Afterwork, and has had an academic essay published in Inquiry Matters.  She is also the associate editor for the 2015 edition of Afterwork. After graduation, she intends to move halfway across the country, and become a librarian so she can be around the books she loves and continue to write.

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