Old-fashioned etiquette is alive and well and living in Palm Beach. While vacationing there last week, I saw the kind of extreme posturing and genuflection which one associates with 18th-century Versailles. Everywhere you look, there are doddering titans of industry kissing the backs of ladies’ hands and deftly inserting gilt dining chairs under lifted bottoms. When these grandees leave or enter a P.B. restaurant—Chez Jean-Pierre, for example—they exhibit the kind of magnificent, regal deportment that leads one to believe they might practice at home with books on their heads.
All this hilariously unself-conscious campiness serves a purpose: It gives Palm Beach an identity. Take away the anachronistic folderol and the place would be Boca.
Upon returning home, I realized that, while Palm Beach might have its act together, New York’s code of civility is badly in need of an overhaul. New Yorkers are no longer sure when to be foofy and formal and when to be fabulously oblivious. We are clicking our heels or curtseying at all the wrong junctures. Here is my 11-point charter for a revised Manhattan social etiquette:
1. Handshaking. I’ve ranted about it before, and none of you listened. The result? Mumps is about to sweep the nation, and it’s all your fault. Air kisses only! I won’t tell you again.
2. Unwanted erections. Whenever a group of people comes to our house for dinner, I have a terrible time getting it to sit down and lounge à la Parisian salon. In a bizarre and incomprehensible gesture of politesse, the guests all stand in an erect cluster in the middle of the living room, looking like a choir of retarded children. Let me reassure you that this pet peeve has nothing to do with the fact that I am a midget and prefer not to be reminded of the fact by towering guests.
3. Asking how much things cost. Long considered the height of nouveau riche vulgarity, asking the price of something is not only necessary, it’s now a life-and-death matter. This is because expensive things now look cheap and cheap things are now made to look expensive. This is especially true of handbags.
4. Asking a lady’s age. Now that every woman on Earth has fake hair and fake boobs and looks like a high-class, bleach-blond, thirtysomething prostitute, it is vital that the rule against this be abandoned. If you have absolutely no idea whether someone was born before or after the War—the Crimean War!—it is extremely hard to engage in normal conversation.
5. Asking if a person has had work done. Now that women of all ages are going through the torture and expense of transforming themselves into high-class, bleach-blond, thirtysomething prostitutes, it’s only polite to show an interest in how they achieved this look. Following on Nos. 4 and 5, it must now be socially acceptable to ask someone whether they are, in fact, a high-class, bleach-blond, thirtysomething prostitute.
6. Shrieking on a cell phone in public. Boring rants about cell-phone usage are part and parcel of any conversation about contemporary social etiquette. (See Lynne Truss’ latest book, Talk to the Hand.) As someone who would much rather listen to other people’s cell-phone chats than to my own, I find the prevailing anti-phone attitude very twee. I am always fascinated and grateful to hear a complete stranger making plans for the evening. Where are they dining? With whom? What will they be eating? Why aren’t they more excited about it? Is this a break-up date? What could be more riveting?
7. Being gynecologically inquisitive. In the past, it has always been thought good manners to keep your nose out of other people’s vaginas. Not any more. Now that women are spending vast sums of time and money getting knocked up—and popping out twins left, right and center—information sharing is positively de rigueur.
8. Asking people’s gender. As the transgender frenzy continues and cross-dressers and post-operatives proliferate, it is vital that we be permitted to ask complete strangers, “Are you a man or a woman?” I personally would welcome this revision to social etiquette. Being on the petite side, I am constantly being mistaken for a woman, especially if I wear a tightly belted coat and dark glasses. I have noticed that, intriguingly, people tend to get very irate when I correct them. If I say, “Actually, it’s ‘sir’ and not ‘madam,’” the stranger invariably gives me a how-dare-you-make-a-fool-out-of-me-by-not-looking-more-like-a-bloke kind of look. This could all be avoided if the interrogator had carte blanche to establish gender in a straightforward manner.
9. Talking in yoga. Yoga devotees have lost the ability to keep their traps shut during their asanas. The silence that once provided such a great counterpoint to the cacophony of city life is now broken by motor-mouthed morons blathering on about their weight loss,
10. Hostess gifts. Thanks to the easy hookups of the Internet, the cost of dating has plummeted. The three candle-lit dinners that were normally required before you could put your hand in somebody’s blouse are a thing of the past. The cost savings have been so spectacular that a new etiquette seems in order. When descending on a stranger’s pad for a bit of slap and tickle, it seems only fair to bring a host/hostess gift. Since you probably don’t know his or her décor style, it’s best to stick with food (e.g., chocolate-covered pretzels, $14 per pound at Li-Lac Chocolates, 40 Eighth Avenue). Or, for an aura of mystery and faux spirituality, how about a Slatkin & Co. Kabbalah Candle, $22 at slatkin.com?
11. Pot-dealer etiquette. Having your pot dealer drop by someone else’s chichi art-world dinner party never fails to cause a shudder of horror and indignation among host and guest alike. As a non-smoker—and therefore a Switzerland of sorts—I feel I can bring some neutrality and objectivity to this situation. Honesty compels me to admit that I am pro–pot dealer: The arrival of a mysterious and attractive criminal adds a memorable frisson of excitement to any occasion.
Just don’t dare try it in Palm Beach!