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Nov 28, 2009

Ms. Manners and Seating Arrangements

Miss Manners  I had a lovely Thanksgiving and hope you did, too.  For the second year running, my parents and I were lucky to join their neighbors -- dear folk who also happen to use place cards.  While I rarely feel that place cards are a necessity for modern entertaining, I do think they are often helpful.

So does Miss Manners -- or at least she did twenty-seven years ago when she published this:

Dear Miss Manners:

Last night we went to a dinner party at the home of some neighbors we've never visited before they have a big dining room, and it was all fixed up with candles and everything, so I asked the hostess where I should sit. She said, “Oh, just sit anywhere,“ and so I did. Then the host said, “No, I'm sitting there“ -- it was a sort of oval table, so I couldn't tell what was to be the head of it -- so I moved. I picked another place, but then we were told to get up to get our food from the buffet table, and somebody else sat down in that place. So then I took my plate and sat down again -- you notice that this is now the third time I've tried to sit down and have dinner -- and guess who comes and sits next to me? My wife. I know married couples aren't supposed to sit next to each other dinners, but I didn't know she'd been sitting there was now up to get her plate filled. I got fed up when the hostess saw where I was and said, “Oh, you two can’t can sit next to each other,“ and my wife sat there as if she wasn't ever going to move. But I still was nice, and I said, “Okay, where do you want me to sit? “ and the hostess said, “Oh, sit anywhere,“ and when I looked at her -- and this is now the third time she or her husband had made me move -- she said, “I mean anywhere else. “ So I took my plate and went and sat in the living room. Would you mind telling me what the hell “Sit anywhere“ means?

Gentle reader:

It means that the hostess has not taken the trouble to finish planning her dinner party. There is a mistaken notion that this omission is a sign of merry insouciance on the part of the hosts who would not dream of failing to orchestrate every other aspect of the party. If the hostess cannot carry the seating arrangement at her head so that she can give you a decent answer to your decent question of where you should sit, she ought to use place cards.

Miss Manners’ Guide To Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Judith Martin. 1982.


1.  I met my first etiquette book in 7th grade when I discovered Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette (~1957 edition) in the classroom closet of my Social Studies teacher, Mr. Robert W. Herbert. Looking back, I realize that Mr. Herbert was one of the most sophisticated teachers I had in Asheville. He'd traveled all around the world and knew his way around Amy Vanderbilt, Indian beggars (he taught me the word "baksheesh"), music, rock climbing and making your own scratch pads from scrap paper with a special kind of rubber cement.  He knew I was smart but didn't mind making fun of me (in a nice way) when I acted dumb.  Steve Richardson once noticed that I was the only kid in class who turned in an essay double-spaced and asked Mr. Herbert if that was what we were supposed to do.  "Only if you have very little to say", he responded. 

2.  I have an awesome ex-girlfriend who really disliked Miss Manners.  I think I understand where both women were coming from. And I'm glad to still like both women, though for different reasons.

3.  Wow, I just realized that the Amy Vanderbilt book was more current (~21 years old) when I first read it than the Miss Manners book is now.  

4.  I would love to co-author a modern etiquette book for teenagers -- a text that focuses on consideration, empathy, kindness and harmony and how these things can help us quickly figure out a well-mannered response to most social encounters.

I'm not so interested (any more) on the proper way to eat potato chips and asparagus ("in the fingers") or to address heads of state (or household servants).  But there are still many rules of etiquette worth teaching to young folk -- especially if we teach the whys behind the better rules.  Feel free to bring this up if I ever do something rude in front of you or your kids.

02:14 AM in Ideas and Yens, Quotables | Permalink


I love Miss Manners. What's not to like? She's all about explaining how manners is all about consideration for others. She's very fair-minded, IMO.

Posted by: Lisa B | Nov 28, 2009 8:16:16 AM

Hmm. I'd like to think I'd use place cards if I were (a) entertaining anyone other than family, and (b) lucky enough to have space large enough for everyone to sit at a table instead of balancing plates on laps in the living room. lol

Posted by: ACW | Nov 28, 2009 11:44:09 AM

I got fed up when the hostess that a store I was and said, “Oh, you two can’t can sit next to each other,

a hostess that a store I was? now I'm on cold drugs, but what the heck could this mean?

Posted by: pinky | Jan 12, 2010 7:06:57 PM