Etiquette Training: Outdated or Totally Necessary?

For the final event of the school year, my daughter’s Brownie troop hosted a mother-daughter tea, at the home of one of the girls in the troop. Now, this would have been lovely, except that the tea was not just any old tea. This tea was being billed as an “etiquette lesson,” and was to be led by an expert in etiquette and manners. Oy.


I was not raised in a particularly formal home. Which is not to say that I was raised by wolves or anything, but “etiquette” was not a word that I learned until I was well into college. Of course, my parents taught us to say please and thank you, that napkins should go on our laps, that we shouldn’t eat with our fingers. But that was about the extent of it. The rest I kind of picked up as I went along. After some embarrassing faux pas in my teens and early twenties, I discovered that my bread plate is to my left and my water glass is on my right, that once you’ve used a utensil, you should rest it on your plate rather than putting it back down on the table, that when you’re invited to someone’s home, it’s nice to bring a hostess gift. As a parent, I’ve tried to teach my children these and other lessons as they come up, and while I’m quite sure there’s a whole lot I still don’t know, the thought of a full-fledged etiquette lesson for a group of nine year-old girls just seemed kind of silly to me. I couldn’t help but wonder what was next; perhaps to be in Girl Scouts next year she’d need to bring proof of her dowry?


The day of the tea, my daughter put on a dress and then freaked out about what shoes to wear, since her shoe collection consists of Toms, turquoise and purple high-top Air Jordans, Havianas and a pair of gold flats I got for her at Target. After trying them all, we decided to go with the gold flats as the lesser of all evils, but it was clear that I had inadvertently learned Etiquette Lesson #1: a girl should always have a pair of proper dress shoes, even if she isn’t scheduled to be a flower girl at any weddings in the near future.


When we arrived at the tea, the Etiquette Expert was waiting in a yellow suit and heels. She scared me a little, if only because I was self-conscious about breaking rules I didn’t know existed. And I was right to be scared, because no sooner did I sit down in an overstuffed chair, lean back and cross my right leg over my left knee, than the E.E. explained to us that the proper way for a woman to sit is straight up, knees together, with her legs crossed at the ankles. Which, for the record, is really uncomfortable. After teaching the girls some intricate rules of making introductions (introduce the older person or the person with the most seniority first), how to appear interested and engaged when someone is talking, and how to curtsy in the event that they ever meet the Queen (one leg behind the other, and you don’t hold up the sides of your skirt), my daughter was rolling her eyes and some of the other moms and I were engaged in some snarky whispering. It all just seemed so ridiculous and outdated, not to mention slightly anti-feminist and beauty pagent-ish.



Are you Canadian? Or a US citizen? Because if you are not a British subject your daughter will, indeed, embarrass herself, and her history teachers, if she ever curtsies to the Queen. We fought a war about that, remember? The Fourth of July was celebrating our independence from British rule. Americans(US citizens) do not bow or curtsy to anyone, other than one's deity, perhaps.
Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of etiquette, having read all the usual books on the subject, but especially Judith Martin's Miss Manners books, which, in my opinion are the most relevant. I highly recommend all her books, as well as her column in the Washington Post.
Your daughter would likely enjoy them as well. Miss Manners is very funny, sometimes scathingly so, and has a marvelous perspective on how we as human beings should relate to and treat each other. I find her advice to be very feminist and somewhat subversive as well, which tickles me to no end.