Like Any Social Activity, Even Sex Demands Proper Etiquette

By Manners, Miss | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 27, 1994 | Go to article overview

Like Any Social Activity, Even Sex Demands Proper Etiquette


Manners, Miss, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


THE POPULAR BELIEF that one cannot practice both etiquette and sex has always puzzled Miss Manners. While it is recognized that both have inspired strong feelings, the thought seems to be that one cancels out the other.

The Victorians' enthusiasm for etiquette is generally excused because they were born before sex was invented, and what else was there to do? It is hard for modern people to imagine that one could do something in private and not talk about it on television.

But it turns out that there are no exemptions from the fact that social activity - even between two people, one of whom, at least, has some predilection for the other - does not function well without etiquette. In both work and social settings, the same people who discarded all those pesky etiquette rules are busily devising one rule after another to regulate behavior between the sexes.

But first they go and misrepresent what proper etiquette is. The idea that the present climate is a bewildering change, because pouncing on ladies used to be an officially approved sport, is a nasty one, and not even true.

Etiquette has always hissed villains who tie ladies to the railroad tracks, foreclose their mortgages, or give them poor job ratings if they do not surrender their virtue, and has snubbed suitors who press their suits, so to speak, with force. Miss Manners is only too happy to hand these people over to the law, which should have been after them long ago. Etiquette's weapon of disapproval is not strong enough to discourage outright scoundrels.

Proper workplace manners (as opposed to the phony social manners now common at employee birthday parties and showers) do not include any recognition of gender at all, even that couched in gallantry. Neither "Ladies first" nor "Ladies get the coffee" can be assumed. Precedence there, as well as the assignment of tasks and salaries, is supposed to be by rank.

Miss Manners is therefore nonplused at the definition of sexual harassment as: unwelcome sexual attention on the job.

What, pray, is welcome sexual attention on the job? It may be all very well for the two people concerned, but how welcome is it to those paying for their time, expecting service or having to cover for them?

The problem of sexual harassment would not exist if that counter-intuitive etiquette rule about ignoring gender were observed.

And to those who add that the world would soon cease to exist, as no one has a chance to meet romantic partners except on the job, she admits one exception. An invitation to socialize after work is allowed, provided it is unaccompanied by coercion or the insinuation that it is part of the job, and that no is taken for a final answer.

Basic etiquette training starts with yet another counter-intuitive idea, which is that other people's feelings have to be observed and respected.

By the time people are old enough to seek romance, they are supposed to have had enough practice in reading the social signaling system to understand whether they are being encouraged or rejected. But a society without such training cannot be trusted with subtleties.

Etiquette has also long known how to deal with the troublesome matter of approving or disapproving of people's romantic partners, whether individually or by gender. This dictate, which vastly predates "Don't ask, don't tell," but is more sophisticated, is: "Just don't scare the horses in the streets."

There is one time that people come to Miss Manners for an etiquette solution to what we shall loosely call courtship problems. That is when they want to know how politely to ask a stranger with whom they want to be intimate if that person can be trusted.

Having done away with the tedium of waiting to be properly introduced to eligible people, and the discomfort of enduring candidates put forward by their own friends and relations, unattached people have now taken to hawking themselves through advertisements. …

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