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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Humour: Surviving social etiquette

From table manners to online exchanges, rules can either trip you up or rescue you

brunch Updated: Nov 02, 2019 22:45 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
         

I recently met someone charming at a social gathering. She was impeccably dressed, with especially memorable shoes, and a pleasant yet not overfamiliar manner. When I asked our mutual friend about the lady, I was told she taught social etiquette. Immediately, my manner towards her altered. I wondered if I was speaking too much, dressed inappropriately or slouching. What a thing to teach! I thought, and slid quietly away, suddenly looking at myself through exacting eyes. Not of a particularly courageous bent, the social etiquette question keeps me up at night.

Which one’s the soup spoon?

I recently watched the big screen adaptation of the much-loved TV series, Downton Abbey. Social etiquette is to Downton Abbey what run-scoring is to T20 cricket, screaming is to news channels and potholes are to Mumbai roads. Okay, the analogies might not fit perfectly but you get the drift. There’s a lot of knives and forks, dos and don’ts, miladies and milords. But as a shameless fan of the unabashedly sentimental series, I feel the rules help control the fun, as Monica Geller pronounced in a totally different TV show. Will the butler actually walk out the front door? Will the silver be polished in time? And will the troubled lady leave the dinner table in a huff? Edge of the seat stuff for those of us who don’t much care for grisly thrillers or blood-soaked epics.

The Downton film takes the etiquette fixation to its logical end by pivoting the screenplay around a visit from the king and queen. Now the world is currently poised to disintegrate in 37,59,961 different ways, and the curve of a gravy boat might not be the top-of-the-mind concern of even the most party-minded among us. But let me openly admit that there was some consolation in spending two hours in a cool auditorium, engaging with easily resolved gown disasters, banquet arrangements and political intrigues. I get my reality from reality, thank you very much.

The argumentative Indian

When we talk about social etiquette these days, we’re more or less talking about social media etiquette. There’s an oxymoron to savour in these unhinged times. When Amartya Sen released his collection of essays The Argumentative Indian, little did he know that he would be pre-empting the surge of opinionated compatriots, armed with fiercely uninformed opinions and scarily nimble fingers.

There’s one shortcut to peace even in the most heated online argument: the humble smiley

In my younger and less prudent years, I too engaged in online “debate.” It didn’t take long to realise that all rules of polite discussion are thrown out the chat window in this digital world. Old flames, friends and families turn into duelling clansmen, with grammar and logic being the prime casualties, apart, of course, from relationships. But there’s one shortcut to peace even in the most heated online argument: the humble smiley. Whether it is a sheepish grin or folded hands, you know you can fall back on an infantile yet all-powerful symbol to defuse a gargantuan dispute. So many of my own WhatsApp messages are pulled back from the precipice thanks to a demented-looking emoticon.

Your claim is rejected.
Warm regards.

Nowhere is my commitment to social etiquette tested like it is in interactions with my bank or insurance people. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure that this resistance comes from my fear of numbers and paperwork. I try my best to conduct conversations in the Dear Sir/Madam vein, but the discourse rapidly spirals into darkness. As I leave the offending premises, I find I’ve waved my arms, raised my voice and quickened my pulse while not gaining any ground in the “discussion.” If only I expended as much energy on the running track…

In all our fierce defence of individual freedoms, I feel we somehow sacrifice a kind of politeness that is quaint but not meaningless. I like being asked how my day was, for example, and appreciate phone calls that begin with pleasantries rather than requests. Yes, there is a limit to politeness, too, but few of us are in any danger of reaching it. I hereby promise to renew my vows of social etiquette. I promise to mind my p-s and q-s and to make all kinds of allowances in conversation – unless you’re my bank or insurance company.

From HT Brunch, November 3, 2019

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