Good manners sometimes means putting up with other people’s bad manners.
H. Jackson Brown
Spring is in the air! Lovebirds are all a-flutter, the weather is waffling dramatically, cute woodland animals are batting eyelashes and getting twitterpated, and humans are muddling along as best we can.
And here at Orthogals, we have manners on our minds. We’ve seen both admirable and facepalm-worthy examples lately, and it got us thinking.
Etiquette is defined by Merriam Webster as “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life,” and by Google as “the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.”
Courtesy is defined as “behavior marked by polished manners or respect for others” (Merriam Webster) or “the showing of politeness in one’s attitude and behavior toward others” (Google).
But the great Emily Post may have said it best:
Manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality—the outward manifestation of one’s innate character and attitude toward life…. Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners. Certainly what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be.
In the dating world, etiquette and courtesy and manners can mean a lot of things, but generally what it boils down to is behaving in a way that’s respectful to others and fits within appropriate cultural boundaries. The nature of the beast here is that some of what I have to say is going to be preaching to the choir. To make up for it I’ve stuck a rather scandalous story in the middle that you’re going to laugh yourself silly over.
Once upon a time there was an entire industry based upon telling people how to be on their best behavior in a variety of different circumstances, based on whether there was dancing or fish forks or mother-in-laws involved. There were a number of etiquette authorities, some of whom are still prolific today. (Sidebar: Miss Manners makes for delightful rainy-day reading, by the way. One of my favorite questions was from a child who’d been snubbed by a friend and wanted to know why she couldn’t go punch the other girl in the nose. The unforgettable reply was that, “…Miss Manners cannot think of a more succinct definition of a lady than ‘someone who wants to punch another person in the nose, but doesn’t.’ You may ask why not. The obvious answer is that blood ruins white gloves.” And of course she went on to give useful advice about how to navigate the situation.)
There are many old-fashioned standards that still apply, like opening doors for women, small children, the elderly, people carrying packages, and quite frankly anyone who gets to the door shortly after you do. There are also old-fashioned standards that don’t apply any more, such as how going out of doors without a hat, stockings, and gloves was nearly the same as being naked.
But in this new and crazy world, there are also a lot of other ways to show or abandon etiquette. Texting, splitting the check, Facebook stalking, Googling photos and resumes before you ever meet–some of today’s conundrums were impossible in 1945, or even 1990. The Emily Post Institute is on Twitter, for fred’s sake.
Because American culture today tends to value casualness, openness, and connection, politeness here means a far different thing than it did in the time of Jane Austen, Downton Abbey, or even the mandatory-girdle days of Pan Am.
And frankly, your etiquette towards others–not just your date–can make you seem irresistible or repulsive in an instant. Your date will notice if you thank or warmly compliment your waiter, text in the middle of a conversation, help a stranger with spilled groceries, act entitled, smile at exuberant children, speak ill of others, etc.
Especially with online dating, how you write sends a strong initial signal. Grammar, spelling, comprehensible sentences, and lack thereof all combine to form a strong impression before you even meet the fella. Don’t get me wrong, mistakes are understandable. Typos and misspellings happen, especially if you’re in a rush or on your phone or typing at warp speed on IM. Frankly, there’s no one guaranteed correct way to write or speak in our language. But making an effort indicates something, regardless of any errors.
I get a lot of messages that say “hi im so-n-so how r u”. That’s it. It comes across lazy, unintelligent, and thoroughly unattractive. I am begging you not to do that to someone you’re interested in. Full sentences, decent grammar/spelling, and appropriate capitalization. Shoot, up the ante and throw in an interesting topic. He or she is worth the effort.
However, it’s worth noting the exceptions. Many intelligent, careful, dateable people have dyslexia, or English is their third or fifth language, or (insert perfectly reasonable thing here). Some people with obnoxious grammar still manage to be perfectly wonderful spouses; what a shock. We at Orthogals are not advocating you dump your funny, reliable, warmhearted boyfriend just because he messes up on the I-before-E rule in a love note he sent from his phone.
You don’t have to marry a descendent of Strunk or White, and you definitely shouldn’t prioritize grammar above other qualities like respectfulness, religious compatibility, and not being a serial killer. We’re mostly just advocating that you capitalize your own sentences and run a spell checker from time to time.
A male friend of mine was recently emailed a four-page, painfully detailed “sexual manifesto” by a rather enthusiastic prospect on a dating site. She came across like a bubbly, wholesome cheerleader who was just a smidge self-centered and open with her fetishes. She dictated every detail of what she would like her paramour to do and how to do it, from specific words to use and avoid to the ideal length of his armpit hair. I’m not kidding.
But here’s the paragraph that wowed me:
Your spelling/grammar/punctuation is your digital first impression. The use of misspelled words, improper use of capitalizations, and the unintelligible abbreviations of text-speak look sloppy, analogous to taking public transportation to meet your date at a Chinese restaurant with a reputation for cockroaches in the rice. You got off work, went to the gym, then threw on your day-old khakis and wrinkled Polo shirt without so much as a refresher of deodorant; you hop on the bus, sit next to a homeless bum who has just soiled himself, then step in a puddle as you’re getting off. You split the bill, ask her for a ride home; she drops you off, and you never hear from her again.
Whereas the general writing and style in this paragraph arrived exactly ontime to pick up their date, wearing freshly laundered and pressed business-casual attire and bearing a small bouquet of irises. He greets her with a kiss on the cheek accompanied by subtly fresh breath. The fleeting feeling of that gloriously smooth, freshly shaved, skin of his cheek against hers leaves her longing to have that same cheek on that smooth and handsome face…
Aaaand there we fade to black for the sake of your sanity. Did you catch the mistakes in that paragraph? Switching tenses, missing conjunction, ontime vs on time, missed hyphen, extra comma, switching from second to third person….
Don’t do that. It’s not just ridiculous, it’s insulting. Though you can and must set healthy boundaries, you do not get to dictate how another person is. You do not get to gerrymander the parameters of your encounters and experiences. That is not how reality works, particularly in intimate relationships.
The emailing sensitive and rather icky information to a total stranger bit is worse than the preachy controlling lecture bit, but both show shockingly poor manners and a lack of common sense.
This segues nicely into noting that there are such things as appropriate topics and tones of conversation–even within normal topics, it helps to remember that he’s not your girlfriend, and she’s not one of the bros.
One of the sweetly respectful things I’ve seen lately was someone switching the topic in order to include her spouse. I don’t remember what it was, but it was definitely a conversation to have with a girlfriend rather than a gent. It’s not that he was incapable of adding to the conversation, it was that he wasn’t going to enjoy it. I’ve been on the other end of that, and I really loved when the group of guys kept their off-color humor or discussions of movies I never wanted to see in check long enough for us all to have fun together, on common ground.
I’m not advocating censoring others or developing Victorian sensibilities about what you’re allowed to discuss in front of the opposite sex. But if you’re going on about your favorite videogame and your bookworm boyfriend’s eyes are glazing over, it may be polite to start talking about mutual hobbies instead.
Politesse has an impact. Miss Manners had a column the other day with a letter from a girl who was rejected for poor manners. She had a lovely time with a gentleman she was very interested in, and she complimented the place and the food, but she did not specifically say thank you. He called her uneducated.
Miss Manners, unsurprisingly, fails to see how the man is such a catch. She replied, “When you said how much you enjoyed yourself, your thanks was implicit, although it is always nice to make them explicit. But even if you had been rude, it would have been infinitely ruder of your host to scold you.”
So there you have it. Etiquette politely looks the other way. If you see a breech of etiquette in someone other than your offspring, the general rule is to smile and pretend you didn’t just see them burp and scratch their nose with their fork. Of course, you don’t have to eat with the cretin again.
Speaking of that, what if you’re the one who’s not interested?
Be brave and honest. You’re allowed to reject someone (it’s kind of inevitable for most people), and you can do so respectfully. Don’t stand them up, and don’t just go AWOL and stop responding to their calls or messages. It’s absolutely okay to say, “I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know you. But I don’t see this going further. I wish you the best.” If you had a terrible time, you can reject a second date offer by saying something along the lines of, “No thanks, I don’t think we’re a match. Thank you for our time together.” (hat tip to Laura)
And if a person has the courage to say that to you, especially in the very early stages, have the courtesy and self-respect not to argue with them. I got a message the other day from a guy that I was just not interested in–no shared hobbies, different religion, poor grammar, not my physical type, and a boring profile. I responded with a polite rejection, and he said, “But u dont know that”. He got blocked.
Also, quick aside re online dating: You can block people even if they’re not evil, creepy, or supervillains. You are not obligated to talk to anyone. You are not obligated to reveal anything to anyone. You are not obligated to meet anyone. You owe them nothing.
The last one on the list is especially important: Establish clear consent. This applies at every stage, from sensitive topics of conversation to physical touch. Even handholding can be awkward and intrusive if you don’t bother to check if they’re up for it. “May I?” is a great question, and when said with a wink can be very attractive. Absence of a no ≠ a yes. This is my favorite article on the subject.
So. The world we live in is complicated and wild and a bit like the Wild West but pretty much everywhere. A mad mix of pressure and expectations and a lack of guidelines. It’s enough to drive a person out of his or her or the hive’s collective mind. So I will leave you with this. If you do your best, if you consider others, if you remember that they too are a temple for the Holy Spirit, chances are it will work out fine. It will not always be comfortable. You will discover faux pas you’d never heard of at the least opportune moments you could have imagined. And that’s all right. You’ll survive. You will humiliate yourself and probably at some point others. You’ll blush shades of fuschia to the tips of your toes. You’ll survive that too. So will they.
You get to make mistakes. Etiquette is not an immobile standard to which you compare yourselves and others. Manners aren’t codified in stone and steel. It’s just a language of behavior we humans use to show respect to one another.
Keep on muddling, dear ones. It’s enough.