Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mind Your Manners

The original etiquette queen
With our entertaining season revving up into full gear, I've been thinking a lot about good manners and proper etiquette.  What is etiquette and what role does it play in our lives?  According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, etiquette is defined as "the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life."   Etiquette may be cultural with what is acceptable in one country not being appropriate in others.  (The proper way to show appreciation for a good meal immediately comes to mind).  Emily Post, the ultimate etiquette guru had a more universal view when she said "manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.  If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

So what is proper etiquette and manners when living and working in an international community?  Do you adopt the traditions and cultural norms of your current country or do you stay true to the etiquette of your country of origin?  (After all, as Americans here in Albania we represent the United States).  And what exactly are the cultural norms for America?  Are we all as brash and uncultured as many perceive us to be?  Is it acceptable for me to assume that what is an etiquette must for me is the same for others?  I don't know the answers to many of these questions but as an American there are several etiquette pet peeves of mine that I avoid committing at all costs.
  • R.S.V.P.  Yes these four little letters are abbreviated from French for Respondez Si'l Vous Plait.  In practical terms this means let the host know whether or not you will be attending.  Respond as soon as practically possible but no later than the date stated on the invitation. This allows the host to have enough food, chairs, and place settings for all of their guests. Nothing is worse, or more embarrassing, than having to squeeze in additional seats at an already crowded table or having to downsize portions to ensure that each guest has food. 

  • Who is invited?  Unless specified, invitations are not open requests for you to bring your friends, visiting relatives, or even your spouse with you to an event.  Much to my relief, I am not included on many of Glenn's invitations.  I don't take this personally and often welcome the fact I can stay home.  I remember my sister-in-law's horror as my brother started casually inviting people to stop by their formal wedding reception.  (see the R.S.V.P. note above for clarification). If you are in doubt please ask the host for clarification but never assume and just show up with additional "plus ones".

  • Children  I don't have anything against children (I even have one of my own) but unless clearly named, or included in the "and family" catch-phrase, don't assume your children are welcome to attend.  Despite your protests otherwise, your children may not be as well behaved as you claim and many events are just not appropriate venues for children.  I have actually turned someone away who showed up at a clearly adults only formal function with children in tow.  Have someone watch your children or chose to stay home - after submitting your no R.S.V.P. but please do not put the host in the difficult situation of having to ask you and your brood to leave. 

  • What (Not) to Wear  Use your invitation as a cue and if in doubt, ask the host.  Casual, business casual, formal; what does it all mean?  European casual means a jacket and no tie which is a far cry from how we define casual in America.  If unsure, it is always better to be over dressed rather than under.  And for women in particular, don't be afraid to err on the side of conservative.  No one wants to see heaving cleavage or exposed thongs. Under no circumstances are flip flops (rightfully called slippers here in Albania) and cut offs acceptable attire for a formal reception.

  • Arrival and Departure  (This doesn't apply to many parts of the world, but as Americans, I still believe it is important).  Start and end times on an invitation are not arbitrary numbers.  If dinner is to be served at a set time, arriving after the fact is just not good form.  The same goes for departing.  As a guest you should leave long before the waiters start rolling up the table cloths and turning out the lights.  I've found that as Americans we are often the worst offenders and have actually seen the above scenario play out on more than one occasion.  If the host asks you to stay longer then do so but unless the invitation is extended follow the lead of the other guests and depart in a timely manner.

  • Blackberry blackout From the most basic models to the fanciest, all cell phones and Blackberry devices have that little button that silences your phone.  If you are afraid of missing an important call, put your phone on vibrate then excuse yourself from the group before taking the call.  We've hosted too many sit down dinners where cell phones ring then guests proceed to carry on extended conversations of a personal nature right at the table.  What are the rest of the guests supposed to do?  Do we sit in silence and pretend we don't hear anything while you talk or do we ignore the situation and continue on? 

  • Bring a hostess gift  It doesn't have to be ornate or expensive but bringing a small gift is a nice token of appreciation for your host.  Regardless of whether or not they cooked the meal themselves or got it catered time and energy was put into arranging the event.  The gifts I give out range from bottles of wine to mementos from America.  None are fancy but all convey thoughtfulness.  Over the course of the past year I've received my share of hostess gifts ranging from the edible (wines, raki, olive oil, and chocolates) to displayable (porcelain trinket boxes, pottery, and magnets).  The strangest gift I've received was a bottle of SPF 15 sunscreen and a key chain.  I kid you not.

  • Say thank you  Everyone likes to be thanked for their efforts.  For larger events this can be done in person as you depart but for smaller events, or those that are hosted in one's home, a hand written thank you note is the way to go.  (It is also a great excuse to buy pretty cards and accessories at Paper Source).  Thank you notes are not the norm here in Albania but as an American who grew up writing (on paper) a thank you note every Christmas before I was allowed to play with  my gifts, I feel it is the right thing to do.  I try to send a short note to my host within 24 hours of the event; unfortunately I don't always achieve this.  However, late is better than never.  Only this past week I was thanked for sending a thank you note.  The recipient, was apparently surprised by my efforts yet touched that I had taken the time to write.  It makes me think I am one of the few people in Tirana who actually do this.
The above list is by no means exhaustive but are just a few of the quirks that grate on me.  I'm by no means perfect and I know there are things I do that make others cringe but I hope Emily and my grandma would be proud of my efforts.


  1. Oh please add something that has become a modern problem - bizarre and sometimes arbitrary dietary restrictions! Two of my yearly Thanksgiving guests have celiac disease. I did not know this for some time as they, being older and raised in a different time, simply politely refused foods they knew they could not eat and did not set up a fuss or complain that we had dared to serve wheat when they could not eat it. Upon finding out about their celiac, and probably because of their gracious attitudes, we now willingly make several gluten-free options for them, and sometimes they even bring their own to try and share! But so often today folks, when and IF they RSVP, inform the host about a "host" of foods they do not eat. COme to the party, be gracious, if you cannot eat something, just smile and say "no thank you." If it is a friend you dine with often, discuss it later, or perhaps often to bring a dish to share. But do not, DO NOT, come to my home and spend an hour complaining about the food selection not meeting your needs when I barely know you!!!!!!

    1. I agree completely. I was taught to politely decline or carefully move the food around the plate to create the illusion of eating. Making your dietary needs and restrictions the vented of the conversation is just plain rude (Americans seem to be more prone to this behavior). If something served offends you or you can make it better, please keep that to yourself.