Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Etiquette Anxiety

Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) opines as follows on contemporary wedding invitation wording:

"Perfectly normal people go etiquette-crazy when planning to be married and demand to know the proper way of doing everything, including some startlingly improper acts.

But it is not the correct wording for inviting the guests for which Miss Manners is constantly being asked. On the contrary, the very correctness of that tradition annoys people who claim to want formal invitations. It's "too formal," they protest. And, apparently, using their names does not sufficiently "personalize" it. So instead of writing perfectly nice informal invitations, they mess with the formal sort, lopping off honorifics and inserting extra words and thoughts about their pride, happiness and cordiality."

To say nothing of "joy."

She captured the sentiments I expressed in my previous post perfectly, but that particular column quoted above dealt with the phenomenon of people looking for "gracious" ways to ask for money, instead of gifts. Miss Manners is horrified, and rightly so. Apparently, however, it is also taboo to say "no gifts, please," on one's wedding invitations. That information is supposed to get out word-of-mouth, and even then, it must be handled delicately. To state it from the horse's mouth on the invites is to suggest that gift-giving is actually expected. We must pretend that it is not. It's shockingly rude to let on that we fully expect people to come bearing pressed-glass candy dishes and sterling plate candlesticks, even in the attempt to avoid that happening. Miss Manners even goes so far as to suggest that the modern advent of the gift registry is questionable, but that we get away with this, because it allows the bride and groom to appear as if they are not directing the gift-giving of their friends and relations. "There is just enough distance between the giver and the receiver to make this a passable practice," she says (Martin 2005: 435). "They only tell their preference to a neutral business establishment."

She doesn't even like the trend of asking for charitable donations to worthy causes in lieu of gifts, because that, too, lets the expectation cat out of the bag: "Your wedding guests should not be asked to 'memorialize' you with a charitable donation in your name," she writes. "If they want to remember you charitably, they can invite you for dinner."

I love Miss Manners, but I have to say, we do have a rule of generalized reciprocity vis-à-vis weddings, meaning gift-giving with an expectation of eventual, but not immediate, return is built into our nuptial ceremonial structures. I doubt Miss Manners would really disagree with that. The ethnographic evidence is just too strong to deny it. But social etiquette dictates that we hide that expectation in a social cloaking device. In that respect, it's not dissimilar to the Southern ladies of 50 years ago, who, while they would avoid openly talking about a family's socio-economic standing, would instead run their fingers over invitations looking for the tell-tale tactile signs of engraving, nodding sagely to each other upon receiving the results.

So, where does this leave me? I'm both far too anthropologically minded to play along with the pretense that generalized reciprocity does not play a part here when it comes to my own nuptials, and far too anthropologically minded to poo-poo and ignore the pretense. All right, then. Because what seems to be the absolute hieght of bad taste is actually saying anything about gifts, even specifically requesting no gifts, on the wedding invitations, I won't make direct reference to this issue on the invites. Instead, I'll direct people to this blog for further information -- like directions -- and entertainment purposes. When here, they might notice that I do have a "registry" (not yet posted). I actually found one that allows us to "request" anything at all, and does not lock us into bowls from The Pottery Barn.

What I have in mind is a variation on the "potluck wedding," a subject upon which I actually have mixed feelings. But never mind those; they're the norm somewhere, and the evidence I've dug up suggests that they are actually not universally frowned upon by the etiquette mavins. Anyway, my parents belong to a "gourmand" supper club, and the way this works is that the members get together and plan out themed meals, then assign specific dishes to individual members. It's a controlled "potluck," with the only element of luck involved being whether or not a particular cook managed to successfully pull off the assigned dish. For our party, we'd like to come up with a tapas menu, and in the registry (from Alternative Gift Registry.org), people can (but are in no way obligated to) sign up to come bearing one of the listed dishes. I could even add a little greater element of luck by having more general 'categories' (e.g. pasta salad or vegetable dish) that would give room to the creative or tradition-minded who have a favorite dish they always bring to potlucks.

We've also thought about suggesting that people may contribute to our wine cellar and/or drinks cabinet so that we might more easily remember them charitably when we have them over for dinner in future, but that's probably pushing at the boundaries. Miss Manners has me feeling hyper vigilant. I'm tempted to make matters even worse by getting myself a copy of Miss Manners on Weddings, or Miss Manners on Painfully Proper Weddings. I just looked up her stance on enclosing response cards in wedding invitations. She "loathes" them (2005: 396).

::skulks off to rethink issues::

Martin, Judith
Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. WW Norton: New York.


Dee said...

I'm all for social niceties, but Miss Manners strikes me as "elitist" and some of all this etiquette stuff just drives me bonkers. I dislike elitism. To hell with what's "proper" and do what feels right to you!

I like the idea of the tapas registry and better yet, giving you wine or liquor and then you saving it for when you have me over for dinner. I think that's what you said . . .

MisAnthropology said...

YO... that's what I said....