The times they are a-changing in ways even Bob Dylan didn’t foresee.
I have an early childhood memory riding my bike and coming across a discarded booklet on proper social etiquette. It had the perfunctory rules. Gentlemen always open doors for ladies. Stand when a lady comes in the room. And so on. But the one that I remember vividly is this: A lady always extends her hand first in greeting. Why? Fifty years ago I could understand the concept, but even then, I thought it was a bit much. Today that rule’s been abandoned.
Who decides these things anyway? Miss Manners (Judith Martin) entered the arena in 1978 and instantly became America’s politeness pundit, writing thousands of columns printed in more than 200 newspapers ever since. She’s arguably the nation’s most influential arbiter of social etiquette.
In 2007 she addressed the hand-extension issue, updated. The question from a reader: After spending dinner with a new acquaintance, is it appropriate to give her a kiss on the cheek? Answer: “Wait to see what the lady would do. If she put out her hand, you should have shaken it; if she offered her cheek, you should have kissed it, or rather the air close to it.”
Some advice is Laura Schlessinger-esque, tough: “Deadbeat Dad Not Welcome.” “Snippy. Never.” “Motherhood Is Not for Fathers.” And my favorite: “Dress Properly for Court.” Some columns deal with broad policy. “Flag Etiquette.” “Rules for Touring Tragedy Sites.” “Protocol for Courtship.”
There are those topics that best reflect the Prim & Proper Etiquette discussion while best defining the Miss Manners genre. “Left is Right for Passing Plates.” “Hold the Door.” “Speak Your Mind, but Mind What You Say.” “The Polite Way to Disapprove.”
And then there’s the advice worthy of the Delphic oracle herself. “Forks: To Spear or to Scoop?”
Oh, but how we’ve moved on from that.
The Washington Post has carried the Miss Manners column forever. Move over, Miss Manners, it’s 2014 and it’s a brave new world and you now have company. Make room for the Post’s new columnist, Mr. Manners.
You see it coming before you read the words.
“Steven Petrow will be joining our advice ranks,” declares the Post, “with a special emphasis on LGBT and straight etiquette issues.” Petrow, states his bio, is “the go-to source for modern manners…known as Mr. Manners.” Why was he chosen for the job? He will tell you it’s largely because he’s the former president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
His column is called “Civilities” (get it, homophobes?) and Mr. Manners will tackle many thorny etiquette issues as well. In his introductory piece, he outlines some of the issues he’s dealt with in the past. He muses about the gay cop who wrote in to say he was subjected to homophobic jokes, feeling it was his colleagues’ way of convincing him to resign. Or the gay widower upset that his in-laws omitted him from his husband’s obituary. Or the most vexing question of them all: How to introduce a married same-sex couple? (Answer: They “should be referred to as you would any legal spouse, and that’s ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’”)
Questions, questions. “Do parents pay for their gay son or lesbian daughter’s wedding?” “Is a dad expected to walk his son down the aisle?” “What pronoun (and restroom) is appropriate for a person who is transgender?” “How do you respond to ‘assimilated’ gays who find ‘flamboyant’ ones embarrassing?”
How do you respond to an entire industry you find embarrassing?
For the record, Mr. Manners would like it established that he is not infallible. “As I’m always quick to point out I’m far from perfect (just ask my husband!).”