How does one conduct a courtship backward? What are the steps for proceeding from the greatest intimacy to opening an acquaintanceship that one hopes will lead to friendship and then romance?
It took Miss Manners a long time to understand the question. When people first started asking her what to do after they spent the night together, she thought they had confused her area of expertise and were consulting her about what makes a nutritious breakfast.
Sometimes it would be spelled out to her that the social event was what is known as a one-night stand, and that the question was what was required afterward. Most of those who made the inquiry were feeling aggrieved because nothing had happened afterward. Then she would have to spell out what the name meant and explain that no, dear, she could not chastise a participant for not calling and sending flowers the next day, because those gestures had to do with another, unrelated social form called courtship.
The surprise was that the two forms are sometimes related, at least sequentially. Some people apparently do call the next day, voluntarily, but are then stymied as to how to proceed from there to begin the courtship.
My, my, isn't modern life full of surprises? Now that Miss Manners understands the question, she is perfectly willing to address it.
The answer is that there are stages of courtship that cannot be skipped if any sort of romance is to ensue. Getting to know something about another person's background, opinions and tastes is essential, in addition to memorizing the features so as to be able to recognize the face by daylight.
Drawing out the thrill and uncertainty of discovering that a person you find attractive also finds you attractive has generally been considered one of the most rewarding aspects of courtship, and that, of course, is lost if there is no intermediate step between the exchange of glances between strangers and the exchange of everything else, except possibly surnames, between strangers. It does seem to Miss Manners a shame to remove the suspense from the drama of life.
But be that as it may, it does not serve as an excuse for removing the civilities as well. In courtship, these consist of:
1. Establishing what seems like disinterested interest in the other person. That is, one shows a lively attention to discovering the other's attributes but with no sense that one is going to appropriate them. You would be, for example, fascinated by the other person's field of endeavor, but not the least curious about how much disposable income this might provide to anyone who teamed up with that person.
2. Indicating an interest that you seem to be fighting, because your life is in good order and, rather than hoping to improve it through an alliance, you are afraid that an alliance might disrupt it.
3. Allowing yourself to be won over, in spite of yourself, because of the other person's superiority.
There will be those who disdain this sequence as being baroque, which indeed it is, and demand to know why they cannot simply state their needs at the beginning and skip these preliminaries.
Well, you tried that, didn't you? The fact is that no one is pleased to find that he or she has simply filled a minimal, uncomplicated need. We want to have all those individual interior complications examined, admired and adored, along with our outsides.
So one must, however incongruously, refrain from using the ultimate intimacy as an excuse for assuming other intimacies, which have not been duly earned. By being pleasantly aloof in other respects, one encourages others to pursue emotional intimacy through the time-honored steps of courtship.
Anybody who remembers when movies were routinely shown continuously, and it was necessary to be able to see a finale and then dismiss it from one's mind and start at the beginning as if fresh, will understand what Miss Manners means.
Q. Have you ever heard of a bride-to-be being reproved for writing her thank you notes too soon?
My daughter had a shower on a Saturday evening and wrote and mailed the thank yous the very next day. Some of the guests received their notes on Monday. Her fiance' gently chided her for being so prompt. Having never seen such a question raised before and not being able to find an answer, I hope you can come to our rescue. She has written each thank you on the day a gift was received, but is now holding the notes for fear of being chided again.
A. Is it too late to put a stop to this wedding? That child of yours is a treasure and Miss Manners does not want her marrying someone who does not appreciate her.
If only he realized how lucky he is. Her promptness is not only a sign of efficiency that could fill the rest of his life with ease and pleasure, but her politeness--and what is it but the most flattering politeness to appear to be so enraptured with a present that you cannot stop yourself from showing immediate gratitude?--is a rare graciousness that will be the crowning touch to a well-organized household.
The immediate benefit to him, if he but knew it, is that he will never encounter his own mother in a state of anger or despair, passing on the complaints of her friends that Charlotte hasn't thanked anybody, along with the request that he "make her" do so.
The long-range benefits are beyond description.
Q. I say the engagement ring is to be worn on the left hand, and my friends say it is to be worn on the right until you are married. After marriage, they say, the engagement ring is switched to the left hand. Please settle this argument.
A. You are both right, but your friend's rule applies only to that part of the engagement which is from the moment the bride dresses for the wedding until the ceremony is completed.
Q. My daughter was saved from extensive injury and maybe death because she was wearing a seat belt. About the same time, the daughter of a friend of mine was not wearing a seat belt, and was involved in an accident not far from her home, in good weather, in the afternoon. Her face hit the instrument panel. She had to have a knee fused, and a great deal of plastic surgery, which did not restore her former beauty.
I insist that my passengers use seat belts in my car, and have them set up so they are easy to fasten. I try to do this in a tactful way, saying that I can be a better driver knowing that I am taking every precaution for the safety of my friends. Some tell me about people being trapped in a car and burned. More often, they protest at the bother, with an air of amusement and condescension at my foolishness.
I try to use a seat belt when I am riding in another's car, but they are stuck down inside the seat, won't pull out, or I feel I am putting the driver to a lot of bother and implying he or she is not a good driver. What are the rules in these cases?
A. Miss Manners makes rules of etiquette, not safety rules, although she must admit that matters of safety do take precedence. (In the choice between the impoliteness of criticizing a friend unasked, or allowing him to drive you while drunk, for example, politeness loses.)
But etiquette will help you here, because the driver of a car is entitled to the prerogative of the captain of a ship in setting the rules that passengers must obey. You may soften your commands by assuming an air of lovable fastidiousness ("Well, I know, but it just makes me feel better") but you need not--you should not--abdicate your power.
Similarly, in another's car, you merely murmur, "I feel happier with the seat belt on," while digging it up. Grisly stories with sobering morals are not necessary.
Q. Since solid sterling silver is so expensive, I suggested to my daughter, who is filling out her bridal registry, that maybe she should go with silver plate for her formal affairs, and stainless steel for everyday use.
She didn't like the idea of cleaning the silver, or the idea that the silver plate could wear off after years of use. She consulted the salespeople in the bridal department, and they suggested she pick out two stainless steel patterns, one for formal and one for everyday. They said a lot of new brides are doing that now. Is it perfectly all right in entertaining to serve guests with stainless steel?
Will she be considered out of class or tacky? Her husband-to-be is a professional, and they will be associating with the upper class.
A. Contrary to widespread opinion, etiquette does not discriminate on the basis of price. Miss Manners does not want to turn your stomach by rhapsodizing about the charm of an honest steel fork, graciously laid out and properly used, and the pretentiousness of a silver one that is misused, but the fact is that one does not ensure a charge of tackiness by using the one, or ensure against it with the other.
At the risk of destroying this lofty posture of oblivion to the monetary value, Miss Manners feels obliged to point out that it doesn't cost a cent more to put down sterling silver on a bridal registry than it does to write in stainless steel. If your daughter doesn't want silver, or doesn't plan to clean it, she shouldn't register it--but then, she may not get it anyway.