Our Backstreets #31: A Short Course in Etiquette

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The more I look around me, the more I see people who are absolutely confused about life. I don’t know whether to blame technology and its ability to both bring together people from all over the world, yet teach them nothing about other cultural norms (or even those in their own country), a rebellious generation raising children with little restraint or guidance, or Gordon Gecko. Maybe it’s the hole in the ozone layer, or global warming, or too much sugar in our diets, or guns, or Michael Bay. But it seems to me that it’s time to straighten out at least a few crooked lines we seem to be walking.

Proper etiquette for standing ovations

I’ve noticed that no matter what has happened on a stage, at the end of the performance, audience members give the performers a standing ovation. It seems the mere act of being a living, breathing person facing other living, breathing persons is an act of such extraordinary valor that it is to be encouraged with high praise at all costs.

I wish to let confused audience members know that it is perfectly all right not to stand and applaud wildly at every performance. Standing ovations are the ultimate compliment for performers and should be reserved for extraordinary work. If you give performers a standing ovation just for getting through a performance, you’re just encouraging them not to be the best that they can be. They won’t feel truly complimented, and they won’t respect your opinion because you obviously have no powers of discernment—unless, of course, they wish to believe that everything they do is extraordinary.

I’ve read that a standing ovation is proper for all children’s performances, but this is absolutely not so. It gives children a false sense of how their abilities will be judged when they get older and will turn them into confused adults who stand and clap for everything without knowing why. If you’re not praising your children properly while raising them, get some help and leave those of us who like to separate the wheat from the chaff alone.

Proper etiquette for flying the American flag

New Jersey governor Chris Christie caught some flak for lowering Old Glory to half-staff to mark the passing of Whitney Houston. I was pleased about this until I learned the nature of the criticism—doing so was honoring a person who indulged in recreational drug use. Not only is this criticism hypocritical—after all, which of us has not gotten shitfaced on our 21st birthday and many opportunities thereafter—but it also is erroneous.

Now I know that great statesmen and women are very, very scarce these days, and it could be argued that that fact alone warrants perpetual half-staffing of the flag in mourning this national tragedy. I also know that celebrities are now our new role models, and helping to build a successful franchise like the Twilight series, as Kristen Stewart has done, or becoming famous for no apparent reason a la Kim Kardashian, are great accomplishments that may seem to warrant serious respect and shows of civic pride. But according to the National Flag Foundation’s Standard Bearer magazine:

The Flag Code says, “by order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States government and the governor of a state, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.

“In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any state, territory, or possession of the United States, the governor of that state, territory, or possession may proclaim that the national flag shall be flown at half-staff.”

So, unless Whitney Houston served in the New Jersey government, which the record shows she did not, Gov. Christie made a huge faux pas, showing disrespect for those who actually serve all of us. And people, let’s all try harder to elect people who took a civics class or two and actually paid attention. We’d all be a little better off, or at least, not so confused.

Proper etiquette for personal space

According to proxemics studies for natives of the United States (yes, there is an actual behavioral sciences field devoted to personal space), these are the appropriate distances for various interactions:

0–18 inches: Intimate distance
18 inches–4 feet: Personal distance, for interactions among good friends or family members
4 feet–12 feet: Social distance, for interactions among acquaintances
12 feet–25 feet or more: Public distance, used for public speaking

It seems that some people in Virginia are kind of confused about personal space etiquette. The legislature has passed, and the governor will probably sign, a law that requires women who want to have an abortion to have their vaginas invaded by an ultrasound probe. Since a lot of legislators have gotten into trouble by disregarding intimate distance etiquette, I’m not surprised about the confusion here. Maybe they think that using an inanimate object negates this rule of etiquette, but the Commonwealth of Virginia has affirmed in previous case law that penetration with an inanimate object is criminal behavior, as evidenced in an appellate court ruling William Anthony Booker vs. Commonwealth of Virginia:

William Anthony Booker (defendant) was convicted in a bench trial of rape, two counts of inanimate object penetration and four counts of forcible sodomy. On appeal, defendant complains that the trial court erroneously (1) denied his motion to restrict the Commonwealth’s evidence to offenses committed on dates specified in response to a bill of particulars, (2) admitted hearsay evidence, and (3) found the evidence sufficient to support the convictions. Finding no error, we affirm the trial court.

It’s hard to believe, too, that when medical procedures are being denied coverage in large numbers, the Commonwealth of Virginia would force anyone to pay for this medically unnecessary procedure.

* * *

I hope my brief insights into common mistakes in etiquette have proven helpful to you, dear readers. When in doubt, think of this advice from the established authority on etiquette, Emily Post:

Amidst today’s fast-paced world of technological innovation and casual lifestyles, manners naturally adapt to new situations. Social and cultural traditions fuse and transform in new ways, and the roles and expectations of adults and children evolve to meet those trends. Despite continuous changes, however, social civility remains rooted in the guiding principles of respect, consideration, and honesty.

  • Hind Mezaina spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 11:37 am

    Sadly, the loss of etiquette is a worldwide phenomena. I could write a whole post about the lack of etiquette at the cinema.
    – Mobile phones, loud ring tones answering their phones and talking loudly. These people should be tasered.
    – People who think it’s quite ok to talk/chat during a film. These people should be tasered too.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 11:48 am

    Hind – Of course, cinema etiquette has taken a real nose dive. If we want to preserve the theatre experience, we will have to be more polite. I wished to turn a light on less obvious, but no less important breeches of etiquette in this post.

  • Pat spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 12:47 pm

    Marilyn –

    Great post.

    I am not surprised that someone has decided standing ovations are compulsory for children’s performances, because we live in age where anything children do must be praised to the skies lest they develop low self-esteem. I’ve now sat through two summers of my 8-year-old nephew’s baseball games where no score is kept because it’s apparently bad form to designate some as “winners” while others are “losers.” I don’t like to think about where all this going to lead us 10-20 or more years don’t the road.

    And the not-really-an-etiquette corollary to your first point is “Loud singing is not necessarily good singing.” It’s nice that singers can belt, but belting isn’t appropriate for every song; unfortunately, in the American Idol era, we’ve learned to equate big lungs with vocal artistry, and we’ve lost the art of true dramatic song interpretation. I bring this up only because I’ve sat through too many wild ovations – standing or otherwise – in recent touring musical productions where the actor/singer has done nothing more than take center stage and sing really, really loud.

    Interesting background on flags at half-mast, which also brings into question our state’s practice of lowering the flags whenever a policeman is killed in the line of duty or a serviceman is killed; however, those observances aren’t offensive to me. The Whitney Houston flag-loweirng is.

  • Tinky spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 1:11 pm

    Well put! I once wrote a letter to the New York Times which was published as “The Tyranny of the Tall.” It noted that in addition to being in appropriate in most cases, standing ovations for Broadway shows discriminated against short people like me (particularly short poor people like me who couldn’t afford front-row seats) by rendering it impossible for them to see the darn curtain calls.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 1:28 pm

    Pat – I couldn’t agree more. People do NOT work better in groups, and not giving grades or keeping score may reduce the excesses of competitiveness, but it also stunts creativity and performance. Many studies have shown the children benefit from high expectations. As for the singing, I didn’t want to say so during the days after Whitney Houston’s death, but she kind of started the whole constant climax in singing. She had a beautiful voice and could have done anything with it, but she chose to whip people up at a constant pitch.

    Tinky – I take note of the problem with seeing curtain calls, which are a nice thing to share with the performers.

  • Dave Enkosky spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 3:49 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with all these points. In particular the de rigueur standing ovation has been a particular pet peeve of mine. This act has really lost all meaning.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 3:57 pm

    Indeed it has, Dave. It amounts to peer pressure these days. I don’t buckle, however; only performances that I consider extraordinary get me on my feet.

  • Roderick spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 10:45 pm

    I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.

  • Patrick spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 10:55 pm

    I know this is heading off topic a bit, but I’m glad to see someone else say that about Whitney Houston. The few songs I’ve heard from Mariah Carey seem to be the same way, every song is pitched at full blast, I much prefer someone like Norah Jones, where there is a little subtlety to her songs.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/02/2012 to 11:06 pm

    Rod – Young people use CURSE WORDS?!?! Horrors and double horrors.

    Patrick – I think the lack of subtlety in singing like that is just an extension of all the other things people are confused about. They want to feel really excited all the time, so they give everyone standing ovations and want constant climax music, and well, that’s all part of having know idea what they should value and feel.

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