Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

November 21, 2001:
Who's rude, and who's not?

Etiquette Girl Lesley Carlin '95 on the occasion of her new book of manners, Things You Need to Be Told

(And it would be highly rude to omit mention of her coauthor, Honore McDonough Ervin.)

Why does the world need another etiquette book?

Because, sadly, people in general are terribly, terribly rude. The big etiquette books are useful for figuring out how to word your wedding invitations when you're in the military, your future husband is a doctor, your parents are divorced and your father's had a sex-change operation and remarried a man, but they don't tell you when you should turn off your cellular telephone. Or what your e-mail address should be. The Etiquette Grrls do.

What should your e-mail address be?

It's easier to say what it should NOT be. Steer clear of anything cutesy (e.g., "KittyKat2001MEOW@hotmail.com"), impossibly long and/ or annoying to type (e.g., "PhreakY0ne81339c83nx82@hotmail.com"), or, especially if you're going to be using it for professional e-mails, anything less than sedate, like "ChugAndVomit@hotmail.com." First initial + last name is good. Unless you're trying to be totally anonymous. Then one might turn to History and Literature for appropriate pseudonyms: "MaudGonne@hotmail.com," etc.

Do you think there's an interest in etiquette these days?

Yes, despite society's rampant rudeness — or perhaps because of it — I think there is. We operate a website, www.etiquettegrrls.com, where we answer etiquette questions every week, and I'm amazed at the amount of e-mail we get. So many people say they really want to learn basic etiquette because they've grown up without knowing it. We have a lot of readers in their first jobs who are facing situations where they really don't know how to act. And there are lots of people who have an idea of the right thing to do, but aren't sure, and want confirmation. They'll know they should bring a hostess gift, but not what would make a good hostess gift...that sort of thing.

You concentrated in creative writing...any plans to move beyond etiquette?

I'd love to. As an undergraduate I wrote poetry (you know, the Profitable Genre), but I've since started working more in fiction. The Etiquette Grrls project has been very successful; my coauthor, whom I've known since middle school, and I are having a blast with it. We've signed on for another book, so that has to take precedence over any sort of novel...while I still have a day job, that is, at least.

So, how rude or how polite are Princetonians?

In general, I think the students here were quite polite — I remember seeing a lot of traditional manners there. Boys would open doors. Of course, this was in great contrast to some inexplicable, bizarre behavior like the headbutting of perfectly innocent lampposts just because they were there. I sincerely hope that stupid trend is passé now. But it was when I went to grad school and taught undergraduates that I realized how polite Princeton students really were in class. On my first day of teaching, one student asked me why I wasn't wearing shorts. Excuse me? I'm the teacher; you don't get to make editorial comments on my clothing, even if it is 90 degrees out! But I digress.

What do you think of name-dropping, of people or of Princeton itself?

I find particularly irritating the euphemistic references to Princeton that obviously mean, "I went to Princeton but I want you to think I'm modest, therefore I'm just going to refer vaguely to 'my college years in New Jersey' so you'll have to ASK me where I went to school and I can then mention Princeton in a calculatedly offhand manner." PLEASE. You have a degree from this school; if it comes up in conversation, don't skirt the issue. At the same time, you do not have to make sure you get a Princeton reference into every single sentence you speak. And for the love of God, don't add your class year and school to things that have nothing whatsoever to do with Princeton, e.g., your wedding invitations. This is snooty and ridiculous. With people, well, don't name-drop unless you really do know someone. Otherwise you're just asking to be caught. And as with mentioning where you went to school, don't do it all the time. There are better ways to impress people, like being genuinely smart.

You worked at PAW for a year or so. Any egregious rudeness there?

You mean apart from the "DAMN IT MY CLASSMATE / HUSBAND / BROTHER / GREAT-UNCLE DESERVES A 2,000-WORD MEMORIAL, and why can't you print it in the next issue, and why can't we have a photo of him on his yacht, and while you're at it, why haven't you covered the water polo team lately?" angry telephone messages? And the one lovely reader who took it upon himself to circle the (very occasional) wee typo with a red pencil and mail it back to us? Those were actually rather amusing, in retrospect. On the whole, working at PAW was a blast. Wes Tooke '98 and I used to take turns answering the main number, and we would compare Angry Reader Phone Calls. The day after an issue arrived in the mail was always the worst. But most of the class secretaries were great people; the staff was wonderful. And very polite.

What's the rudest thing you've ever heard of?

Oh, I hear of so many egregiously rude things! It's funny, etiquette books are usually in the same bookstore section as the wedding-planning books, but I've heard about a lot of rude brides and grooms. One bride asked guests at her shower to pre-address envelopes for their thank-you cards. Someone else included information on how to direct-deposit money into the couple's checking account in the wedding invitations. The mind boggles. How can anyone possibly think this is okay?

What's your biggest pet peeve, etiquette wise?

Everything to do with cellular telephones. In emergencies, they're great, of course, but they do not need to play "Bolero" or "The Yellow Rose of Texas"; they do not need to be color-coordinated with your outfit; and they do not need to be used at every opportunity. I heard one ring this very morning at a funeral! And it's rather tiresome to listen to an endless, one-sided conversation about topics which are inevitably mundane (e.g., "Should I highlight my hair?") or too personal to discuss in public (e.g., "My ingrown toenails look particularly vile today!"). Just because you can make a personal phone call on the train does not mean you should — nobody else wants to hear it.

What are the top three questions people ask you?

1) Can I wear white shoes after Labor Day?

2) I'm entitled to bring a date to a wedding, right?

3) Why is it not okay to put my elbows on the table?

What are the answers?

1) No. Unless you're a nurse or a bride.

2) No. Unless your invitation says "and escort" or "and guest," you must attend alone.

3) Because the EGs said so.


Things You Need to Be Told (Berkley Books, October 2001)

Learn more about The Etiquette girls at their website, www.etiquettegrrls.com.