I am a total old literature snob. I resist reading anything written after 1960 (unless it is Harry Potter, those books are awesome). I just feel like good literature died with the cultural revolution. So, I spend most of my time reading Wodehouse and Austen, and I can’t help but notice certain practical social conventions have inexplicably died with the passage of time. I think we should bring some of them back. I will list some examples.
Honoring a previous engagement. I will base this one on something that has actually happened to me several times. The names and situations have been changed, of course. My husband and I have invited “Mabel” and her husband over for dinner and set the date that this dinner will take place a week in advance. Accordingly, I spend that week cleaning the house, planning a menu, buying groceries, and making whatever such preparations are needed for entertaining. The day of the dinner arrives, and I receive a call from Mabel that morning. “Hey!,” she says. “I know we had planned on having dinner tonight, but something has come up. Some friends of ours just called and said they have two extra tickets to the Falcons game tonight. My husband is a HUGE fan, and probably won’t get another chance to go to a game. But I know we told you we would come to dinner, so I’ll leave this up to you. Would you rather we come over? Because we totally will if that is what you want.”
Now, Mabel has made two enormous social faux pas. The first is obviously calling and canceling an engagement she made with me because something more fun came up. She is basically telling me that whether she will hang out with me is contingent upon whether a better offer comes along between now and then. The second is that she clearly felt a twinge of guilt in doing this (that is called your conscience, Mabel) and decided to assuage that guilt by essentially “getting my permission” to be rude to me and leaving the “choice” of whether she is going to be rude to me “entirely up to me” knowing full well the only possible answer I could give her is: “go ahead, have fun!” I mean, what am I supposed to say, “No, I am forcing you and your husband to have dinner with us when there is clearly something else you would rather be doing.” Honor your previous engagements, people! A good rule of thumb is that the only acceptable excuse for canceling on someone is for something you would rather NOT be doing, like sickness, work, your babysitter canceled on you, car trouble, etc. If something more fun comes along, tell the person inviting you to the more fun event you are sorry, but you have a previous engagement, honor that engagement, and pretend to have a good time! You never know, you might actually have a good time. And you have the added bonus of being kind and considerate to a friend.
Introductions at parties. This one kills me at parties and social gatherings, especially if there are a lot of people that know each other well, and a few people who don’t know very many people. The person that doesn’t know very many people is left alone in the corner if the people he or she knows are otherwise engaged. It used to be that (the host or hostess in particular) would make sure to make all the necessary introductions. Also, if you are talking to someone who might not know anyone and you have to leave them for whatever reason, you introduce them to someone else and start a conversation topic that they might have in common. For example, “I’m going to go refill my drink, but have you met Alicia? She lived in D.C. for a few years too!” Don’t just leave and dump that poor person all by themselves! The only two people I know that are reliably successful at observing this wonderful social convention (outside of the books that I read) are my two cousins. They have all of the practical social graces, and they were both homeschooled. So whenever someone tells me that homeschooled children are doomed to be socially awkward, I just roll my eyes because the two most highly socially functioning people I know were homeschooled. But I digress.
Dancing. This one might be less practical and more for fun, but my generation has no idea how to dance, and it is just pitiful. And no, the guy just standing there while a girl does things that he used to have to give her monetary compensation for doesn’t count. Dancing used to be a beautiful art form that everyone knew how to do. It didn’t look like something that should be restrained to the bedroom, so you could partner with anyone and have a great time. You could be of any age, size, or description and get out on that dance floor with the best of them without fear of a raised eyebrow. My grandparents will still put on some Cuban music and start dancing with each other, just like they used to at parties back in Cuba. They look like they are having so much fun. I really feel like our generation has lost something important because we really will never be able to do that. (This also might be just an American problem. Thoughts?)
Offering to pay. Granted, this one isn’t in any Jane Austen books, but I feel it should be mentioned. We, as young adults, have all been dirt poor and quite frankly unable to treat everyone to their dinners. But, as we are all coming to our own and lunching with maybe only one other person, it is a nice gesture to offer to pay. Your server will be eternally glad because splitting checks is a huge pain in the behind. And next time, let your friend pay for you! It is a beautiful thing. I just feel like eventually we need to grow out of our teenage stage where we are having the poor server at the Mexican restaurant split the $50 check six ways, according to exactly what we ordered. And then can you split the cheese dip six ways? No wait, Susan didn’t have any, so just split it five. Stop the madness! I know, God willing, for us this might be several years down the road, but my grandfather and my father (and if they are both present, my grandfather has seniority) always offer to pay for the whole party, no matter the restaurant, no matter the number of people. And they are not fabulously wealthy people. Whenever we object, they tell us that it is their pleasure to pay for their loved ones, and to pay it forward. So if you are taking a young person, young family, elderly relative, anyone really out to dinner and you are financially able, offer to pay for them! You never know, your generosity might have a profound positive effect on them (because people don’t do that very often these days.)
Imposing on other people’s kindness. Pretty much anything you could have hired someone to do, like helping you move, pet sitting, driving you to the airport, letting you crash at their house while you are in town on business, etc. that you are having a friend or family member do for free is a HUGE favor and you should respond in kind. Usually by giving them a small gift or treating them to a meal, or whatever it is that would make sense for you to do. Just a little token of your appreciation. Basically, don’t take advantage of people. I do realize that this is something people have been doing since the dawn of time and not necessarily a social convention that has been lost, but I think it is worth noting.
Those are the only ones I can think of for now. I’m sure an endless amount of additional ones will occur to me while I’m showering (that is where I get my best thinking done.) What antiquated social conventions would you like to see brought back? And if you say dressing for dinner, I totally agree. (Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey in his tux springs to mind. Oy.)