For the final event of the school year, my daughter’s Brownie troop hosted a mother-daughter tea, at the home of one of the girls in the troop. Now, this would have been lovely, except that the tea was not just any old tea. This tea was being billed as an “etiquette lesson,” and was to be led by an expert in etiquette and manners. Oy.
I was not raised in a particularly formal home. Which is not to say that I was raised by wolves or anything, but “etiquette” was not a word that I learned until I was well into college. Of course, my parents taught us to say please and thank you, that napkins should go on our laps, that we shouldn’t eat with our fingers. But that was about the extent of it. The rest I kind of picked up as I went along. After some embarrassing faux pas in my teens and early twenties, I discovered that my bread plate is to my left and my water glass is on my right, that once you’ve used a utensil, you should rest it on your plate rather than putting it back down on the table, that when you’re invited to someone’s home, it’s nice to bring a hostess gift. As a parent, I’ve tried to teach my children these and other lessons as they come up, and while I’m quite sure there’s a whole lot I still don’t know, the thought of a full-fledged etiquette lesson for a group of nine year-old girls just seemed kind of silly to me. I couldn’t help but wonder what was next; perhaps to be in Girl Scouts next year she’d need to bring proof of her dowry?
The day of the tea, my daughter put on a dress and then freaked out about what shoes to wear, since her shoe collection consists of Toms, turquoise and purple high-top Air Jordans, Havianas and a pair of gold flats I got for her at Target. After trying them all, we decided to go with the gold flats as the lesser of all evils, but it was clear that I had inadvertently learned Etiquette Lesson #1: a girl should always have a pair of proper dress shoes, even if she isn’t scheduled to be a flower girl at any weddings in the near future.
When we arrived at the tea, the Etiquette Expert was waiting in a yellow suit and heels. She scared me a little, if only because I was self-conscious about breaking rules I didn’t know existed. And I was right to be scared, because no sooner did I sit down in an overstuffed chair, lean back and cross my right leg over my left knee, than the E.E. explained to us that the proper way for a woman to sit is straight up, knees together, with her legs crossed at the ankles. Which, for the record, is really uncomfortable. After teaching the girls some intricate rules of making introductions (introduce the older person or the person with the most seniority first), how to appear interested and engaged when someone is talking, and how to curtsy in the event that they ever meet the Queen (one leg behind the other, and you don’t hold up the sides of your skirt), my daughter was rolling her eyes and some of the other moms and I were engaged in some snarky whispering. It all just seemed so ridiculous and outdated, not to mention slightly anti-feminist and beauty pagent-ish.
By the time we got to the tea, where we were taught how to properly eat a scone with clotted cream and jam (rather than spreading it on all at once, you should spread on just a bit before each bite, so it doesn’t get on your fingers when you pick it up), I was ready to bolt, but then a funny thing happened. One of the moms raised her hand and asked where you put your napkin when you get up to go to the bathroom (on your chair), and suddenly, the floodgates were opened. We all started asking questions, from when it is okay to put your elbows on the table to what to do with your empty sugar packet after you’ve dumped it into your iced tea, and instead of focusing on silly, antiquated rituals, we shifted the conversation to the nitty gritty of real life situations. What do you do if you eat a piece of fat and you need to spit it out? (Apparently, you remove it from your mouth with your fingers and put it on your plate. Ew.) What do you do if someone at the table has a huge green thing stuck in her tooth? (You discreetly get up and whisper it into her ear). I picked up a lot of useful information, and we all learned an important lesson: though it might seem ridiculous at first, knowing the proper thing to do in any situation makes for a lot fewer awkward moments in life. After all, maybe my daughter will meet the queen one day, and as her mom, I’ll feel a lot better knowing that she won’t embarrass herself when she curtsies.