What does the etiquette book say?

October 10, 2013

My mother has an anecdote about learning on the spot the etiquette for going through a receiving line at a socialite’s wedding.  One of the older women receiving the guests gave her a prompt for what she was supposed to say in response.  She was college age at the time.  She appreciated the prompt.

My mother had the advantage of realizing from the details of the situation that she was being called upon to do something, and the nature of a receiving line — its length — allowed her to climb the learning curve successfully during the episode.

I think sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances in which we don’t think of the appropriate response until we are descending the staircase afterwards.

I think it’s a mistake to think of this situation as an example of a failed imitation of the receiving line scenario I just described, during which there was time to learn, regroup, and respond as necessary.  Instead it is another sort of opportunity, one in which we are being asked to learn a different skill, I think.

I suspect it will be a new skill, not mere repetition of what we usually do and have done before, that we will find we are being asked to learn.  And, of course, we can not learn it, we can fail to recognize it, refuse to do it, etc.  We can mistake it for something it isn’t, especially if to make this mistake would support our trying to put our onus onto another person.

Sometimes I have figured out what to do in puzzling situations by taking the advice an elderly lady, who was my predecessor as treasurer for the Afro-American Society of Arlington gave me years ago.  She said her husband suggested she do the thing she was avoiding.  The example she gave me was revisiting her childhood home after her mother died.  She hadn’t wanted to do it, but it helped when she did do it, finally.

At the time, I was grappling with bereavement, and what I was avoiding was buying myself a necklace.  Sounds strange, but the two turned out to be connected, and buying myself a necklace freed something up and I was able to move on to a new step in the grieving process.

Costella didn’t try to tell me what to do or tell me what I was avoiding, that work was mine.  She gave me a process:  identify what you’re avoiding and try doing it.

In another example, I was avoiding having a difficult conversation with a relative.  In one instantiation of the pattern, I asked someone else to help me with the conversation, and I regretted the results.  Not surprisingly, the opportunity came around again, and this time I took the bull by the horns and did it myself.  It was rough.  On me and on the relative.  But I think it was necessary, for both of us.

I actually think we see people and even groups going through this in the public sphere.  They try the same thing over and over, and then they try doing what they have been avoiding and the pattern resolves.  But it takes gumption to take the road they are avoiding.

Learning a new skill and moving through our lives can involve accepted etiquette.  It can also involve diving deep within ourselves and discerning what we should be doing through that process instead.  I suspect making the transition from one method to the other is a difficult learning experience in itself.

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