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The New Etiquette

Susan Bennett knows a thing or two about parties. The public relations pro is well-known around Southwest Florida society and appears at the top of many guest lists. So you might be suprised to learn that when she shows up to an intimate event, she often brings a loaf of homemade banana bread as a gift for the host or hostess.

“You wouldn’t believe the response,” boasts Bennett. “Sam Galloway (the famed Fort Myers car dealer) called me at midnight to tell me he had sliced off a big piece of my banana bread, had it with a glass of milk, and he loved it. He wanted more nuts in it next time.”

Banana bread? As a hostess gift? Quel horreur! Once upon a time, this simple treat might have been perceived as a bit on the cheap—a breach of standard etiquette that called for something more formal and expensive to show one’s appreciation. Not anymore. Times have changed, and new challenges and new norms exist in the world of etiquette.

Gulfshore Life interviewed three local doyennes of proper etiquette to discover the latest social graces in need of our urgent attention as another busy season of soirees and galas gets underway.

Can You Hear Me Now?

By far the biggest source of offense with new technology is the ever-present cell phone. “It would be wonderful to teach people cell-phone etiquette, but it’s already out of control,” says Nonnie Cameron Owens, owner of Etiquette Plus in Punta Gorda.

That’s the bleak assessment from Owens, who teaches business and social etiquette classes, including special seminars for juniors and seniors at Florida Gulf Coast University. “People are in their own little worlds,” says Owens. “Their phone rings, and they are completely oblivious. People need to be aware of (their) surroundings and think about other people. It’s common sense, but today so many people lack common sense.”

The modern invention of cell phones has created a new trouble spot, a new way to offend. Who hasn’t heard a phone ring during a speech, presentation or even a movie? Who hasn’t tired of listening to an unknowing boor as he loudly talks on his phone about a business deal or his latest trip to Vegas?

“People forget that the person they are with is the most important person,” says Suzanne Willis, an etiquette expert who teaches classes around Southwest Florida. “People think because they have the technology, they have to respond to the phone call or the e-mail, and that sense of urgency takes precedence over proper manners.”

Put your cell phone on vibrate so as not to disturb others.
If you must take a call or respond to a message, excuse yourself and leave the room. Preferably step outside.
Same goes for typing a text or e-mail. Don’t sit at a table with others, clicking and clacking away.
Even outside, talk in low tone or voice. People have a tendency to shout on a cell phone as if they’re in a magical, sound-proof bubble.
If you are expecting an absolutely critical call or message, alert your companions ahead of time.

“Then they won’t think you are rude for taking the call,” says Owens. “There are times—a parent in the hospital, a wife expecting a baby—where you need to have your phone out on the table—on vibrate.”

Are You Talking to Me?

While it’s easy to create offense with a cell phone, the tiny Bluetooth-type phones people wear attached to their ears are more likely to cause plain old confusion. Hard to see, especially under long hair, these tiny wireless devices often give the impression that someone is talking to herself or himself.

Worse—the user can be in the middle of a phone call and no one can tell. An innocent acquaintance or colleague approaches only to be ignored or waved off. “It’s similar to when you take a mouthful of food, and someone asks you a question,” says Owens. “If you are on the phone, just politely point to the Bluetooth and say, ‘I’ll be right with you.’”

Indeed, many of the same etiquette rules apply to both cell phone and Bluetooth ear phone.

Do not take calls at a dinner table or in the middle of another conversation. Just because you’re not holding a phone doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
As with cell phones, some people feel they need to raise their voices or shout when talking on a Bluetooth phone. Resist this urge. Your party will hear you just fine.
Don’t wear a Bluetooth headset when you’re not using it. It’s not hip or trendy to leave anything permanently attached to your head.

“We should probably give some people the benefit of the doubt, but certainly others probably do use it to make themselves look more important than they possibly are,” Willis says. “My recommendation is to use it only when absolutely necessary. In a car is a good time to use it. In a meeting or a restaurant—not a good time to use it.”

You’ve Got Mail

Designing, printing and mailing elegant formal invitations can easily run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In tight economic times, our etiquette experts say they have definitely seen a rise in electronic invitations—sent via e-mail or online sites such as www.evite.com.

“It’s definitely more cost effective, and I think because of the recession, it’s becoming more common,” says Willis. “But is it better? I think the jury is still out.”

An electronic invitation—in fact, any social communication done electronically—definitely has a more casual feel to it. An electronic invite may be fine for a backyard barbecue among friends or even a child’s birthday party. But for a more formal gathering? No way. “I would be appalled if I received an evite for a wedding,” says Owens, shuddering. “I’ve never seen that yet, and I hope it’s not coming.”

Don’t use electronic invitations for anything but the most casual events. Remember e-mails can easily get lost or overlooked in a crowded inbox.
One should RSVP in the method requested on the invite. Don’t send an e-mail response to a work e-mail address if the host requested you respond to his or her home phone number.
After an event, a thank-you note is almost always appropriate. Handwritten on stationery is best. A phone call is also acceptable. E-mail thank yous are becoming more common, but should be used prudently.

“The combination is perfect. I love hearing their messages and receiving their notes,” says Bern Broadwell, founder of Broadwell’s Elegant Etiquette in Naples. “E-mails are not acceptable for important or formal thank yous. But I must say—it’s better to have an e-mail than to go unmentioned.”

Semi-Elegant, Resort Casual What?

Without a doubt, Southwest Florida is a more casual place to live and play. When you consider the vacation atmosphere, mix in the fact that many residents are retirees, and sprinkle in our sultry days and humid evenings, it’s bound to be a relaxed lifestyle.

Our etiquette experts say this has a significant impact on how we dress for the many functions on our calendar. “I have an uncle who pretty much refuses to wear pants,” says Willis, laughing. “He wears shorts all the time. He’s relaxed and retired and happy.”

Still, even in easygoing Southwest Florida, there are some general rules to follow:
• If you are confused by the requested attire on an invite—“resort casual,” “black tie invited,” “cocktail chic”—don’t hesitate to call the host or organizer and ask. Nothing is worse than going to a function worried that you are over- or under-dressed.
• When in doubt, err on the side of over-dressed.
• Don’t simply ignore the requested attire because you don’t want to get dressed up. This is a significant breach of etiquette and shows a lack of respect for your host and their event.
“One of the most important words is respect,” Broadwell stresses. “If I throw a beautiful cocktail and dinner party and I am in coat and tie, I don’t want people showing up in leisure attire when I have spent so much money and time on food and entertainment and décor.”

Oh, You Shouldn’t Have!

Most considerate guests wouldn’t dream of showing up at a dinner party or a weekend at someone’s beach house without bringing a gift for the host or hostess. But in this day and age, the $50 bouquet of flowers and the $100 bottle of champagne are often victims of tighter economic times.

“Gifts haven’t gone out of style, but people are being more practical today,” Owens says. While people can certainly choose to purchase less expensive gifts, many etiquette experts are applauding a trend toward giving something you personally made. From attractive tins of homemade caramel corn to knitted pot holders, hand-dipped candles to a vase of freshly cut flowers from your garden, big price tags are out while thoughtfulness is in.

Consider bringing something immediately useful—a homemade treat or fresh-brewed ice tea—that can be enjoyed during your stay.
Bringing your hosts’ favorite things—a type of simple red wine, flowers in their favorite color—shows you put thought into the gift.
By the way, a good note on flowers: Bring them to a party already arranged in a vase. A busy hostess hardly has time to stop, cut the stems, find a container and display them while other guests are arriving and her event is underway.
Don’t worry about being seen as chintzy with a homemade or more modest gift. It’s the thought that counts, and a truly gracious host or hostess will recognize and appreciate this.

“You always want to show your host that you put some extra thought and consideration into the gift so it’s personalized. The dollar amount doesn’t matter,” Willis says. “Even if it’s caramel corn, if it’s in a nice decorated tin or a nice bag with a big ribbon ... you can show that you took extra care and time to make it look nice.”

That’s the Ticket

Look closely at the word “etiquette,” and you might spot a hidden secret. Say it slowly aloud, and you might hear something strikingly familiar. Doesn’t “etiquette” sound more than a little like “a ticket”? In fact, “etiquette” is a French word that means a “ticket” or a “label.” In the European courts of the 18th century, rules and ceremonies were so complex that small cards or tickets were issued to visitors to help them know what to do, where to stand and how to greet dignitaries. And now you know.

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