The Washington Post

Letitia Baldridge, master of manners

Here’s a display of etiquette. (Susan Biddle/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Several books were the bane of my childhood. There was the psychology book that I whipped out to insist that we had fallen into a “dependent love cycle” every time my parents tried to change my bedtime. There was the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations that made me the bane of any convivial gathering. “As Noel Coward articulated,” I would say, “I can take any amount of criticism, so long as it is unadulterated praise.”

“Please,” everyone would say, “stop.”

And there was Letitia Baldrige’s guide to etiquette, which informed me that it was acceptable to eat asparagus with your fingers.

I was a menace. For me, books of etiquette were things to be quoted out of context in order to bother people.

“Yes,” I said, dangling buttered asparagus spears menacingly over the table, “Renowned etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige would want me to do this.”

But with etiquette, as with so many dying forms of refinement, it is the spirit that counts, not the letter.

Letitia Baldrige, who passed away this week at 86, understood this.

She leaves table settings everywhere flying at half mast.

The etiquette maven, associated strongly with the Kennedy administration, where she served as Jackie Kennedy’s chief of staff and social secretary, knew that it all came down to kindness.

Etiquette is increasingly unpopular these days. So, for that matter, is kindness. Trying to have class sounds distressingly 1 percenty. Set out all those forks of varying size, stick your pinkie out, and people worry that you think you’re better than they are.

Of course, that is the opposite of what is meant by politeness.

Yes, the rules seem silly and dated. But the sentiment behind them is what truly counts, as Baldrige noted. Lose the sentiment, and none of the rules make any sense. Why should you let anyone else be the first through a door? Civility just makes it harder to be heard over rude people. Without it, the race just goes to the loudest.

That’s why it’s unpopular — and why it’s essential.

Civility is a series of inconveniences, willingly undergone, to make the people around you feel at ease. It allows you to demonstrate respect for people even as you disagree with them and devour your asparagus in angry, large bites.

Manners themselves vary from place to place, author to author. But the essence of civility remains intact even as the scenery changes.

“There is nothing settled in manners,” Emerson wrote, “but the laws of behavior yield to the energy of the individual. The maiden at her first ball, the countryman at a city dinner, believes that there is a ritual according to which every act and compliment must be performed, or the failing party must be cast out of this presence. Later, they learn that good sense and character make their own forms every moment, and speak or abstain, to take wine or refuse it, stay or go, sit in a chair or sprawl with children on the floor, or stand on their heads, or what else soever, in a new and aboriginal way . . .

Wave asparagus around or not. That’s not what counts.

True courtesy, as Baldrige saw, consists of more than the arcane rearrangement of forks. It’s an attitude. She understood it well. And she’ll be missed.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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