Practical Lessons in Etiquette

There’s no disputing the hardline Commonwealth history of etiquette. Its basic principles, however, don’t necessarily reek purely of waspishness, but rather serve as evidence of a nice, kind and considerate person. I know that sounds a little too soft and cushy for some of my fellow citizens, but as long as you’re not being gagged with loveliness, wouldn’t you prefer someone to be polite?

What exactly is polite? To find this out I turned to some of the many etiquette books available today. They had thousands of lessons on how to do things like address invitations, but none contained what I feel to be the one true element that defines class which is, of course, what etiquette implies. A truly well-mannered person never makes another person feel "below" them in any way. Reading these books puts a whole bizarre twist on the plot of proper; it distorts manners into rules, something to aspire to, rather than a common sense way of living that anyone can employ.

I am particularly fascinated by etiquette books from the Fifties and Sixties when men’s and women’s roles were so defined and so separate. Books of this era did little more than tell women to keep their legs shut and groom themselves to be trophy wives. Men’s roles were clearly defined as protectors of the frail and delicate women. Nevertheless, there are some day-to-day considerations that transcend gender and help make the harsh realities of everyday life a little easier.

There is no question that being polite sometimes requires thinking of others first which seems to be the antithesis of our "civilised" society. There are a few inconsiderations I could not find covered in any of the etiquette books and these are things that continue to irk me on a daily basis, especially here in Singapore. I share them with you in the hope of ridding the world of these nasty unmentionables.

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SMELL

The most basic way that you can be considerate of others is to bathe. It’s downright rough to be on the Metro with someone whose aroma is wafting indiscriminately throughout the car. You try to turn your head or hold your breath to avoid it and nothing works. You look at the person across from you and you know exactly what they’re thinking because they’re doing that same thing. Smell is the perfect example of how poor etiquette forces others to suffer your presence.

This is particularly nasty at restaurants. Last Father’s Day, one papa was so stinky that we had to request another table. Others followed in short suit and the offender was left alone with a wife who knew all too well why they now had a private dining room. Miss Thing could have done the world a favor by buying her big papa a six-pack of Arrid Extra Dry rather than forcing him upon the unsuspecting public.

Surely she could tell how stinky he was in the car on their way over, if not before that. She could and should have told him. Any proper person finds a nice way to point out the "unmentionables" that someone might not notice about themself, but needs to know desperately.

Just as people fail to bathe, others erroneously douse themselves in cologne. This is most horrible when you can recognize the scent from previous overexposure – Obsession, Charlie, Poison, Giorgio and, of course, patchouli. Being stinky is more than not proper, it’s cruel.

DRIVING

Driving could be such a joy if people kept a few basic points in mind. Always use your blinker. Don’t honk unless absolutely necessary (ie: your horn is not a doorbell). I know we’re all New Paper tabloid gore whores, but if there’s an accident on the road and everyone slows down for a glimpse of blood, traffic gets snarled and it’s really not worth the wait. Stay the f*ck out of the fast lane if you’re not going fast. Do not cut someone off only to go slowly or step on your brakes. Never use your brakes for no apparent reason. Be kind and let someone make that left turn they’ve been trying to make for ten minutes. Don’t drink and drive unless it’s bottled water or banana smoothies.

People also seem to have a problem with general merging. Although it has nothing to do with driving, it is general movement and it seems to go together. What’s up with the lines to get on MRT? In New York they were fairly formal, you did not get in the car before someone you knew had been waiting longer. Here, people don’t give a f*ck and cut right in front of you, snatching the seat that was rightly yours.

And when you get off the train people don’t wait until everyone’s out of the car before they pile in. What’s up with that? I don’t know if it’s that people are rude here or if New Yorkers were scared someone would blow them away if they cut in line. (I like the New York system better even if it is somehow deep down based on intimidation.)

NOISE

This is where I’m a big wimp and no fun to live near. I need lots of sleep. I go to bed early rather than getting up late and I get bummed if someone is blasting music past 11 PM. Think of your neighbors before you crank it. Let them know beforehand if you are going to have a party so you can give them the option of not being there. Invite them even if you know they won’t come, maybe they’ll be more sympathetic at 4:45 AM when you’re still rocking.

There is no excuse for not taking your shoes off so your downstairs neighbor doesn’t have to hear you thumping around. Loud orgasms are not necessary and are often grossly exaggerated. Everyone should get off – it’s important – but it’s not necessary for the neighbourhood to know when, where and how many times. Some people just live differently than you and although that can be hard to understand, unwanted sleep deprivation is easy to sympathize with. Everyone should do their part to rid the world of it.

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DATING

Be honest. The worst part of dating is not knowing. Not knowing if he really likes you, if he’s going to call, if he’s lying when he says he can’t see you anymore because he’s starting to fall for you and he’s "not ready for that." The worry and obsessiveness that goes along with all this can be avoided by simple honesty. If you don’t want to see someone again, tell them. Tell them nicely, but tell them nevertheless.

Don’t drag it out until they finally guess. Don’t say you’ll call if you won’t. Don’t leave anybody hanging ’cause you’re too big a wimp to fess up. Not knowing really sucks and if people were honest nobody would have to go through the torture that accompanies it. Another cardinal rule about dating and sexuality is never assume.

Never assume someone likes boys or girls or peacocks and that your attention is warranted just cause you think they’re "something." Don’t assume that they will be turned on by getting their butt spanked just like you do. Ask your partner or "potential love interest" if something is okay, or suggest it lightly (physically or verbally) before literally diving in. Respect people’s choices and boundaries. What’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.

To define that gender rule once and for all, everyone should strive to pay their own way. The only reason someone shouldn’t pay their own way is because of financial circumstances, not gender. Back in the olden days of etiquette it made sense that a man had to pay a woman’s way because she had little opportunity to make money of her own. But this isn’t the case anymore so to all of you gold-digging, alimony seeking girls and boys: step off! Of course it’s nice when someone wants to take you out and enjoy your company, by all means accept and enjoy, but don’t expect your date to pay every time just because he’s got a penis. That’s wimpy and pathetic.

BEING A GUEST

If you are a guest in someone’s home pick up after yourself, offer to help with dishes, etc., and offer to bring something or chip in for food. Chances are your friend will pshaw you, but the offer will nonetheless be appreciated.

This is a partial list of the uncovered basics. If you want to read a book that demonstrates true graciousness rather than stupid rules, read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess whose heroine rapidly goes from rich to poor to rich and shows the difference between true manners and learned etiquette by never stooping to other’s nasty levels even in the face of hardship and adversity.

This is true style because it breaks down the condescending "money" part of manners. It doesn’t take money to be polite, and being polite will grace you with more smiles than any dollar bills. Once one can get over the class divisions of etiquette, they’ll realise that it’s all good and, hey, table manners can be really sexy. A heartfelt please or thank you or even an "I’m sorry" can make all the difference in my feeling towards a person. What is most important to keep in mind is that roles, rules and expectations should not be defined by gender, but only by what makes sense.


Publisher’s note: Lovers & Thinkers is generally not qualified, nor has the time or inclination, to answer your personal etiquette questions. Sorry.
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