Friday, January 23, 2009

Excuse My Manners (or Lack Thereof)

by Susan McBride

I don’t claim to be an expert on etiquette. Everyone in my family has probably caught me talking with my mouth full once too often (although I try not to, really!). My Midwestern mother worked hard to instill a sense of etiquette in me, and I can still quote the infamous ditty about “Mabel.” If you're unfamiliar, it goes like this: “Mabel, Mabel, if you’re able, get your elbows off the table.” I can’t imagine asking for anyone to pass the pepper without prefacing the request with a “please.” No, I was never sent for lessons in How to Use the Proper Fork like my debutantes in THE DEBS, or even to Little Miss Manners classes like Andy Kendricks, the debutante dropout in my mysteries. But I do know that one’s bread dish should be placed on the left and one’s drink on the right (something I remember by making a “b” and a “d” with the thumbs and fingers of each hand, a trick learned long ago).

I realize that everything I need to know about etiquette I learned in kindergarten, or at least by grade school. The basics my mother taught me way back when still seem to apply pretty well to almost everything I do, like these golden oldies:

**Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve (er, unless you can’t find a Kleenex and the hem of the tablecloth won’t reach that high).
**Don’t blow your nose in public (particularly if you honk like an elephant).
**Don't put peas up your nose (hmm, I'm noticing a recurrent "nose" theme).
**Don’t swallow your gum, or it takes seven years to digest (I believe Wrigley’s did a study on this using the Doublemint Twins as guinea pigs, God rest their twisted intestines).
**Always wear clean underwear, because you never know when you may be in an accident (hence, my request for Victoria’s Secret gift cards last Christmas).
**Don’t run with scissors (though it did work for Augustine Burroughs, didn’t it?).
**Never sit with your knees apart (someone should tell Britney Spears about that one).

For the most part, these are excellent rules, and I break them only in extreme cases (say, if I can't find a Kleenex). As a published author of 10 years who tries to be as well-mannered as possible, I've developed my own set of "Road Rules" for promoting books which I'm happy to share. Granted, I’m no Letitia Baldridge or Emily Post. More like Marge Simpson (whose directness I admire). If my pearls of wisdom seem obvious--or odd--well, it was late when I wrote this and my nightly cocktail of chamomile tea and Benadryl had already started to kick in, so cut me some slack.

**Cleanliness is next to Godliness. I don’t know how often the Man Upstairs (or Goddess Upstairs) showers, but I’ll bet it’s everyday, and almost certainly before a book signing. I can’t guarantee that smelling like Irish Spring will draw the buying hordes, but it makes a far better impression than reeking like unwashed gym socks.

*Be polite to fellow airport dwellers during travel delays. I figure it's okay to talk to these strangers, as the people at your gate have already been prescreened to some extent. If they’re allowed to fly, you know they’re not on the terrorist watch list, and they’re not packing lighters, bottles with more than 3 ounces of fluid, or other weapons of mass destruction in their carry-on bags. And you never know whose conversation will become fodder for your writing some day. A layover in the Columbia, SC, airport years ago allowed me time to chat with an author from Mississippi who happened to be on her town’s debutante selection committee. Without her, I never would have heard the terms “debu-tank” and “debu-trash,” which I promptly stole for my DEBS series about Houston debutantes. See what I mean!

**Never rearrange a bookseller’s display to more prominently showcase your titles, unless you’ve got Nate the Decorator from “Oprah” with you and he’s re-doing the space on Ms. Winfrey’s dime. I know, I know...word on the street is that turning your covers face-out at every opportunity is mandatory. But it’s more polite to approach the bookseller and offer to sign any available stock (upon which “autographed” stickers will promptly be slapped), practically guaranteeing that your books will be turned cover-out or even moved to more expensive real estate, like an end-cap. Think about it: when booksellers visit your home, they aren't allowed to rearrange your furniture. So fair’s fair.

**Always say “thank you” any time that people have gone out of their way to help you. If you don’t like writing notes on monogrammed stationery then a gracious email will suffice. Like my great aunt Gertrude always said, “A thank you is worth a thousand peas up your nose, so long as your legs are crossed and you’re wearing clean underwear.” That Gertie was a wise woman.

P.S. Thanks again to the fabulous ladies of the Stiletto Gang for inviting me to join their ranks. I look forward to posting the first Friday of the month from now on. And I promise to be on my best behavior or you can tattle to my mother.


  1. That was a great one! A funny my mom told me when I was a kid was not to swallow a loose tooth (wouldn't let anyone pull them out) because a tooth tree would grown out of the top of my head. Swallowed several, not tooth tree.

    As for the etiquette stuff, I was Job's daughter and we had luncheons where they taught us about what fork to use, which glass and cup belonged to you, etc.
    Wonder if they still do that?

    Anyway, it stuck with me all these years.

    Thanks, Susan, you made me smile this a.m.


  2. Hey, don't forget "always wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a bus." (And never start a sentence with "hey.") Or was that just my mother who told me that?

    And of course, there's the time-honored "don't make that face (you know the one) unless you want it to stay that way." I'd say that just by looking at me, you know that one is true.

    Susan, this was hilarious. I host many people here at chez Barbieri who have the manners of billy goats. Thank you for sharing your "manners for writers." I've found that working alone for as many hours as I do every week has made me a little socially awkward. I have to get out every now and again to remind myself of how to behave in polite society. Maggie

  3. Marilyn, I was on a local TV show last fall and struck up a conversation with another guest, who happened to be an etiquette expert. She apparently gives lessons at the Ritz Carlton hotel. So, yes, there are still people who make a living teaching manners!

    Maggie, sometimes I feel like I have to turn the switch from "isolated writer" to "social butterfly" in a blink when it's book promo time. I told Ed the other day that it must be lovely to be so renowned in literary circles that you don't have to leave your house anymore. Although if that were the case with me, I'd never get out of my jammies, and Ed might not appreciate that after awhile.

    Glad I made y'all chuckle this morning!


  4. We were always told never to groom in public (come your hair, etc.), you had to go to the LADIES room for that. And, don't every brush your hair in the kitchen--certainly don't set a comb or hair brush on a kitchen surface, like the table. That was considered disgusting and bad manners.

    And, I think you meant to say running with scissors worked out for Augustine Burroughs, not our pal David Sedaris. He'd probably be running with cigarettes!

  5. Ack, Vicky, you're right! I'm going to correct that this minute (blame my overworked brain). Thanks!

  6. Stop by my blog Weds. for a meme I tagged you for!