As much as I lecture here on etiquette, I think it’s important to remember that behind every rule of good manners there should be some connection to the real world, and when the times change enough that those connections no longer apply, then the etiquette point in question needs to be reconsidered. The purpose of good manners is ultimately to make other people comfortable. If you’re using “manners” to make someone feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, then you’re doing it wrong.
There’s a post on Jezebel today about an email (which may or may not be real) that a British woman received from her fiance’s step-mother, and, assuming it’s real, it is a fascinating display of how proper etiquette is so easily abused. There are a lot of comments on the article saying, “Well, her tone is out of line, but it’s good advice she’s giving and the daughter-in-law-to-be is obviously very rude and needs to learn some things.” This is assuming that the recipient really is as obnoxious and ill-intentioned as the letter makes her out to be, and I would argue that the letter writer exhibits an attitude that begs a critical view.
Now, maybe this is just a culture that I don’t sufficiently understand. After all, I’m a metropolitan mid-Atlantic American; we’re not sufficiently concerned with manners for the South, and not sufficiently concerned with gentility for the North, and we’ve long since lost our British ancestors’ sense of propriety. Meanwhile I’ve been spoiled by the Albanian sense of hospitality, and I will tell you what, there are parts of that culture that make me tear my hair out, but they make a genuine effort to make their guests feel welcome and comfortable. I guess that’s a gene that’s been repeatedly reinforced in the Albanian population but conspicuously absent from some parts of the British upper crust.
So, let’s go over this sucker point by point. Weapons-grade sarcasm ahead!
It is high time someone explained to you about good manners. Yours are obvious by their absence and I feel sorry for you.
Wow, what a great way to show your future family member that you mean well towards her, and what a great way to earn her trust so that she’ll be happy to follow your advice! Such a pleasant, non-adversarial attitude to exhibit at the very start of your letter!
Unfortunately for Freddie, he has fallen in love with you and Freddie being Freddie, I gather it is not easy to reason with him or yet encourage him to consider how he might be able to help you. It may just be possible to get through to you though. I do hope so.
“My stepson is stubborn and foolish, and I can’t bully him out of marrying you. I also don’t trust him to explain to you how you should behave when you’re a guest at our house, so instead I’m going around him and take the direct approach in treating you like shit.”
If you want to be accepted by the wider Bourne family I suggest you take some guidance from experts with utmost haste. There are plenty of finishing schools around.
Tell the young lady to attend finishing school. Yeah, I am totally ready to take this woman on her own terms.
Please, for your own good, for Freddie’s sake and for your future involvement with the Bourne family, do something as soon as possible.
“I can only clutch these pearls so many times before my hand cramps up! Please, take pity on a frail old woman and spare my pearls!”
Here are a few examples of your lack of manners:
When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat – unless you are positively allergic to something. You do not remark that you do not have enough food. You do not start before everyone else. You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host.
Much of the problem with her descriptions of Heidi’s behavior is vagueness. By “declare what you will and will not eat,” she could have been describing totally valid dietary restrictions ahead of time before Mrs. Bourne spends 4 hours preparing a delicious meal full of stuff that Heidi Withers can’t touch. (Although, Mrs. Bourne seems like the type that employs servants to do the cooking, so perhaps that was misplaced empathy.) What are her criteria for “positively allergic”? I’m not technically allergic to any food, but I absolutely cannot even attempt to swallow uncooked tomatoes without gagging; would she rather see her houseguest struggle to swallow the food in front of the rest of the family?
And what does it really mean that Heidi “remarked that she did not have enough food”? Is it possible that she was hypoglycemic, or had missed lunch, and was just really, really hungry? Would it have been more polite to have a panic attack at the dinner table?
When a guest in another’s house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms.
If your guest is still in bed when you want her to be up, you could just…I don’t know…go up to her room and ask her to get up? If you let it ruin the rest of your day when your guest fails to rise with the rest of the house, that says more about you than about her.
You should never ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public. I gather you passed this off as a joke but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter.
I wonder what this person characterizes as an “insult” to her family? Again: what exactly was it that happened here? Perhaps Heidi was feeling stressed out from the way the family was treating her, and was unable to swallow her frustration to the Mrs. Bourne’s satisfaction?
You should have hand-written a card to me. You have never written to thank me when you have stayed.
See, this is one of those “times change, and etiquette will adapt” situations. Hand-written thank-you notes are on the way out. There’s just no way around it. We have discovered email and we won’t go back. I mean, Mrs. Hoity-Toity here chose to communicate with her stepson’s fiancee via email to tell her how unwelcome she is in the family, for instance. Practice what you preach.
Besides, I just can’t imagine why Ms. Withers hasn’t sent a thank-you note to her fiance’s family! Just how would that note read?
“Dear Stepmother Bourne, I was so looking forward to meeting Freddie’s family, and you spent my whole visit behaving like a raging passive-aggressive control freak. I tried to explain to you that I’m hypoglycemic and have celiac disease, and you treated me like a criminal for hoping to eat in a reasonable amount of time, and then you forced me to eat wheat products at your table. Then I spent half the night on the toilet because celiac means that even the slightest trace of gluten in a meal gives me vicious diarrhea, and still you spent all the next day staring at me in barely-contained horror because I failed to rise and shine at 6 AM. I am so thankful that Freddie isn’t related to you by blood, otherwise I would have serious reservations about having children with him. That was the most uncomfortable I have ever felt while supposedly on holiday. Fuck you very much for your hospitality.”
You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why.
What exactly does she mean by “draw attention to yourself”? With the attitude she’s already established, it probably just means Heidi tried to participate in conversations. Or she tried to tell the family about herself because she’s going to be part of the family when she marries Freddie. Or, you know, maybe she’s referring to the time when Heidi had a near-miss with a panic attack at the dinner table because her blood sugar was in her toes, and then had to run to the bathroom after being forced to eat stuff she can’t digest.
No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity style behaviour.
I do kind of agree with this. It’s difficult to assume her good intentions, however, when she follows with:
I understand your parents are unable to contribute very much towards the cost of your wedding. (There is nothing wrong with that except that convention is such that one might presume they would have saved over the years for their daughters’ marriages.)
If this is the case, it would be most ladylike and gracious to lower your sights and have a modest wedding as befits both your incomes.
See, I’m of two minds on this. I do think that wedding culture is ridiculous, and there’s no natural reason why anyone with a choice in the matter needs to make their wedding a gigantically expensive, extravagant affair that takes months to plan. I don’t see what’s wrong with just getting a bunch of your friends and family together at the beach or in a meadow for an exchange of vows that you wrote yourself, while the dress code is basically cute sundresses for the women and shorts and polos for the men. I do think that weddings should be simpler.
That’s not what Mrs. Bourne is saying, though, is it? There should be more tactful ways of telling Heidi Withers that she ought to plan a wedding that she and her fiance can afford on their own power. Instead, what she’s saying is that because Heidi’s parents failed to save up tens of thousands of pounds for their daughters’ weddings, that Heidi doesn’t deserve to have a nice wedding like someone from a good family.
One could be accused of thinking that Heidi Withers must be patting herself on the back for having caught a most eligible young man. I pity Freddie.
“You’re a gold-digger, and while I don’t trust Freddie to correct your manners, he’s still too good for you.” Real classy, Mrs. Bourne. I’m totally ready to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Heidi Withers really is just as obnoxious as your view of her. I can’t possibly imagine that you did anything to make her uncomfortable while she stayed at your house, or that you failed to be an accommodating hostess, or that any of her offending behavior was actually understandable for the circumstances.
Assuming this email is real, oh hell let’s just go ahead and assume it’s real: Heidi, I sure hope Freddie is worth it. I hope he has the empathy of a saint, a genius IQ, a healthy income and the stamina and skill to give you 5 orgasms per night. I hope he has some gorgeous genes to pass on to your kids. If not, then I’m of the mind that Mrs. Bourne did you a favor by laying her cards on the table. Maybe you should call off the wedding and find someone who won’t let his family subject you to poor-shaming and gastrointestinal violence. Bullet, dodged.