Last month some friends gave a party in my honor, which was completely delightful except for one moment when a cranky, dumpy looking man I didn’t know from Adam tried to buttonhole me at the bar into explaining why I’m against gay marriage. I don’t know why some people think any social encounter is an invitation to a grad student-style bull session, but I think I deserve credit for at least trying to hide my impatience.
“I wrote two columns a few months ago explaining why,” I said evenly. “If you’re really that interested, you could look them up, but I’m certainly not interested in getting into a policy discussion about all that right now.”
“But I just don’t see why a woman would even care…” he began, before I cut him off with a curt, “This really isn’t the time or place for that.”
Then I lowered my third eyelid like a lizard as a literal demonstration of glazed-overness. I hate having to do that, but sometimes party bores need to be shown just how tedious these attempts to get into a heated debate really are.
I do wonder sometimes, though, about people’s manners these days, because an awful lot of them seem completely unaware that running into someone at a party isn’t an invitation to a political debate. For instance, shortly before the last presidential election I went to a barbecue at an old friend’s house, and happened to mention a funny John “Do You Know Who I Am?” Kerry story I’d been told earlier that day. Another guest at the barbecue happened to overhear me telling that story, and so felt justified in demanding huffily, “Have you ever met Kerry personally?”
“Well, then you don’t even know him, so you shouldn’t talk.”
I smiled pleasantly. “That’s funny,” I said. “You sound just like a teenage girl arguing with her dad about why she should be allowed to date the leader of the local biker gang.”
Ladies, I’m passing on this tip free of charge: If you want a man to back away from you pronto at a party, use some variation of the above line. It worked like a charm for me.
But then another guy, noticing I was eating two sausages without buns, leaned over and asked: “Low carb diet?”
“No,” I said shortly (and truthfully.) I may like to eat greasy, mustard-soaked sausages with my bare hands, but that doesn’t mean I’m so uncouth as to talk about my digestive preferences in social situations.
I guess sometimes people are just searching for a way to begin a conversation with a stranger, but really, they could be a little smoother about it. But speaking of parties and etiquette, here’s a manners problem: What do you do with someone who isn’t invited to a party and demands to know why?
I actually had to deal with situation myself some times ago, and was fuming about it when I ran into perhaps the politest and most proper person I know: Karen Grigsby Bates, a correspondent on NPR’s Day By Day radio show. I still remember how appalled Karen was when we went to the downtown Los Angeles library with our kids several years ago, and my daughter and I took off our sandals and put our feet in the fountain.
Karen wouldn’t let her son take his shoes off, though, because “two hillbillies around here are enough.” So, as an expert on non-hillbillyish behavior, I knew she’d appreciate the little etiquette conundrum I’d been presented with: An acquaintance who wasn’t a journalist kept sending me e-mails demanding to know why she wasn’t including in certain small gatherings of journalists I help organize. Were there bad feelings between us? Could we have coffee to “clear the air?”
I tried to defuse the situation by saying there was no air to clear and that I looked forward to seeing her at the next big media mixer where we sometimes ran into each other. No luck. Instead I got a seconde-mail saying that she wished she could believe I looked forward to seeing her, that this was all a bad dream, but unfortunately she knew the truth. And so on.
I figured Karen would know what to do — since she’s a co-author of an etiquette book called Basic Black – or at least she’d find the situation deliciously appalling, which of course she did.
“I think you would be entirely justified in sending a rather sharp response after that second e-mail,” Karen said.
I thought so too, but I also thought I’d just ignore it. Even one e-mail if that nature was enough of an imposition on my time and attention, especially when I thought I’d answered the first one rather graciously. Basic Black, by the way, is described by Publishers Weekly as “a modern African-American alternative to Emily Post and Miss Manners,” but it probably crosses color lines.
Although maybe not always. Maybe I’d just run into one of those White People Who Really, Really Want Things situations. Or maybe it’s a generational issue, and both Karen and I are far too old to understand. Because I remember a media story not long ago warning about young people today who feel entitled to begin their writing careers as, say, columnists for Esquire and can’t understand why they’re expected to put in any time as editorial assistants, instead.
Perhaps the expectations of these kids are so large because they’ve been raised by parents who praise every tiny effort as special. You see the result in an adolescence that never seems to end, with teenaged displays of frustration at any perceived unfairness.
But I do sometimes find myself wondering these days: When did 30 become the new 13? Maybe that’s the real question.
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.