Miss Manners: Simplicity and dignity are timeless virtues

May 6, 2012

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have been reading about calling-card protocol in a few dusty old etiquette books and something puzzled me. Several authors writing in different time periods indicated that simpler is better when it came to the style of the calling card; they described using simple text, with the person’s name and perhaps an address, being careful to avoid ostentation.

If that is so, why is it that all the surviving Victorian-era calling cards I have seen in antique stores are so outrageous? They have fabric fringes, names hidden underneath little cutouts, poems, photos, riddles, birds, flowers and other embellishments. Some of them even have phrases like “Happy New Year” or “Kind Regards” printed on them. They don’t look anything like the simple white cards prescribed.

I know Miss Manners does not generally like preprinted sentiments, so I am curious to know what she makes of all this frippery. Were calls for order and simplicity falling on deaf ears as much then as today? Am I missing all the more plain cards because those were the ones tucked underneath the pillowcase, or is it something else entirely?

GENTLE READER: You may have succumbed to the common delusion that Victorians behaved properly and exhibited impeccable taste. If that were the case, they would not have needed all those etiquette books trying desperately to improve their behavior.

The passing of years does not make the examples you cite, with their fussy decorations and preprinted sentiments, any more acceptable to Miss Manners than to her predecessors. Then, as now — when the style unfortunately survives on many wedding invitations and business cards — we urge simplicity and dignity for formal means of communication.

But (sigh) does anyone, in any era, listen?

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I were at an intimate dinner party (six very close friends). He had a deadline the next morning, yet he kept expecting me, as the wife, to make the move to leave.

While I watched for clues from him, so that I would avoid opening another subject for discussion and, before we arrived, told him I would be doing so, he thinks that it was my place to excuse us.

I disagree. We are all professionals. I have no problem ending an evening when I have an early morning, but he is certain that it is always the woman’s role to make the move.

GENTLE READER: How long have you two been married? Miss Manners does not understand how you could hope to have a successful marriage without a social exit strategy.

Gender and professional status have nothing to do with it. Draw lots, if you can’t think of any other way to decide who stands up and says, “It’s been such a lovely evening.”

The important part is that the other person make distinct signals. Raised eyebrows and a pointed look, somewhat disguised from others by a thin smile, mean, “Can we go soon?” When the head is also tilted, it means, “Now? Please?” And when a slight nod is added to that, it means, “Before I say something I’ll regret?”

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2012, by Judith Martin

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