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On Making Other Comfortable

A reoccurring theme on the www.Etiquettehell.comforum is the concept that etiquette exists to “make others comfortable”. As with any code of law, it gets taken to an extreme interpretation of comfort equating to being a doormat upon which we allow the boors of the world to get their way while wiping their feet all over our politeness.  But does etiquette really expect its practioners to extend “comfort” to everyone in every situation? To answer that question, let’s start by reading what Miss Manner has to say on the subject:

At a great London banquet, dear Queen Victoria lifted her finger bowl and drank the water. She had to. Her guest of honor, the Shah of Persia, had done it first. At a Washington embassy dinner party, the king of Morocco plunged his fingers into his teacup and wiped them on his napkin. He had to. His guest of honor, President Kennedy, had done it first. Then there was the time that Mrs. Grover Cleveland attempted to engage a tongue-tied guest in conversation by seizing on the nearest thing at hand, an antique cup of thinnest china. “We’re very pleased to have these; they’re quite rare and we’re using them for the first time today,” she is supposed to have said. “Really?” asked the distraught guest, picking up his cup and nervously crushing it in his hand. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” said the hostess. “They’re terribly fragile. See?” She smashed hers. Mr. Grover Cleveland, on another social occasion, carefully added sugar and cream to his coffee, stirred it and poured some into his saucer. Observing this, all his guests felt obliged to do the same. There they all were, pouring their coffee into their saucers, when the President leaned down and put his saucerful on the floor for his dog.

Miss Manners relates these alarming incidents to illustrate a great danger. It is not the peril of serving watery tea, engaging in diplomacy with foreigners, permitting dogs in dining rooms or other such grand-scale hijinks. It is the terrible burden one assumes when attempting the practice of Making Others Feel Comfortable. Miss Manners is sensitive to this because she often hears the great and subtle art of etiquette described as being “just a matter of making other people feel comfortable.” As if etiquette weren’t magnificently capable of being used to make others feel uncomfortable. All right. Miss Manners will give you an example, although you are spoiling her Queen Victoria mood: If you are rude to your ex-husband’s new wife at your daughter’s wedding, you will make her feel smug. Comfortable. If you are charming and polite, you will make her feel uncomfortable. Which do you want to do?

Oh,  there is no question what I’d want to do.  I would want to make ex-husband’s new wife as uncomfortable as possible. One of the sublime pleasures of etiquette is the ability it gives a person to maintain decorum while simultaneously inflicting excruciating discomfort on deserving boors.  Miss Manners talks about her “meager arsenal”…

Miss Manners’ meager arsenal consists only of the withering look, the insistent and repeated request, the cold voice, the report up the chain of command and the tilted nose. They generally work. When they fail, she has the ability to dismiss inferior behavior from her mind as coming from inferior people. You will perhaps point out that she will never know the joy of delivering a well-deserved sock in the chops. True but she will never inspire one, either.

She’s being modest…her arsenal of verbal retorts is a little more extensive as her many syndicated columns attest.  As an example,  “So kind of you to take an interest” , a Miss Manners recommended phrase in response to rude questions from strangers. Say it “coldly” then turn away, presenting your back as a sort of non-verbal barrier and rebuff.  That is certain to elicit at least mildly uncomfortable bafflement from people who have enough conscience to realize they might have done something wrong but aren’t really sure what it was. 

I’m not sure I comprehend Miss Manners’ last comment about not ever inspiring a well deserved chop in the jaw.  Does that mean her own chop or someone else’s?  I’m of the belief that women can be the recipients of vulgarity by boorish men solely due to having mammary glands and an X chromosome.  Through no fault of their own, i.e. not deliberately “inspiring” a man to react vulgarly, they are on the receiving end of vile innuendos, proposals, inappropriate touching and other forms of sexual harrassment.  It’s situations like that require more in the arsenal than a withering look.

I’ve used the example of the pervy wedding DJ who “inspires” the crowd and garter catcher to hitch that garter as far up the bouquet catcher’s leg as possible.  They are playing that skanky wedding reception game whereby every inch the garter gets placed above the knee of the bouquet catcher is another ten years of marital bliss (can someone explain to me how gropping up a woman’s leg is a predictor of someone else’s marital longevity?) and he has a willing accomplice in the garter catcher who is all too eager to  plumb the depths of feminine privacy for the good of his friends’ marriage.  If he ignores the not-so-subtle cues of knees locked together and hands holding a dress firmly in place barring any further advance past the knee cap, a swift kick to his man bits is in order followed immediately by rising from your seat in faux concern for his health while apologizing profusely about your “ticklish knee” having a mind of its own.

I’ve personally elbowed a man in the lower abdomen who made the mistake of coming up behind me with his pelvis too intimately acquainted with my buttocks.  My elbow made contact and I immediately turned around in faux shock as if having been startled into reacting reflexively.  “Oh!  I am sorry! I had no idea that was you behind me!  I’m so ticklish that just kinda happens sometimes.  Can I help you?”  I was quite comfortable watching him double over in discomfort.  He never did that to me again.

Obviously this short blog entry is not going to address every single situation and how to react to it.  Miss Manners has a point that reactive rudeness to someone else’s rudeness by escalating it can yield unsavory results.  Etiquette empowers people to restrain themselves by building upon the idea that it debases a person to lower oneself to the same level as a rude boor.  Ignoring rudeness may look like a wimpy cop-out but when you really understand etiquette, there is power in having so much self-esteem that you simply cannot abide the thought of even associating with “inferior people”, as Miss Manners calls them. 

But sometimes there comes a point when you believe icy looks, cool retorts, and scathing glares aren’t working and there is no one higher up the chain of command to appeal to. I’ve been fortunate over the years in those rare situations to be able to afford paying my lawyer to figuratively slap the legal bejeebers out of annoying people who crossed a serious legal line.  In those instances, I’ve quietly relished the discomfort of sputtering, nearly frantic backpedaling when my lawyer delivers the legal version of the “chop to the jaw” to those most deserving of it.  Oh, yes, making others uncomfortable by use of etiquette approved means can be quite satisfying.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Margie Wunder July 29, 2008, 1:43 am

    “Oh, there is no question what I’d want to do. I would want to make ex-husband’s new wife as uncomfortable as possible.”

    I find this quite rude. My husband’s ex-wife has always made me feel quite welcome and comfortable, and the benefit to all of our children has been immense. She and I have always been at least civil and polite to each other, and now we’re quite good friends. There’s no reason for hostility just because I married her ex-husband.

  • Alicia July 28, 2009, 6:55 am

    Working in my family’s business I have to deal with the public a great deal, and they’re not always civil. My mother’s motto has always been,” the ruder the customer gets, the nicer you become.” It is often successful in either diffusing a situation or shaming the other party into pulling their horns in.

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