Move over, Emily Post. • Reluctant etiquette columnist Helena Echlin has taken dining dilemma discussions into the 21st century with her popular Table Manners column on Chow.com, the San Francisco-based foodie website. • In the process, the British expat and frequent party host has found herself in the midst of raging debates on everything from restaurant loos to faux pas in the bulk foods aisle, topics Post never dealt with but we diners and shoppers do — every day. • Echlin's irreverence and forthright prose are a far cry from either Post or Miss Manners, but it was with impeccable manners, of course, that she agreed to answer a few questions.
Reluctant columnist, huh? How did you end up with an etiquette gig?
I used to have a blog about my life in San Francisco. I like to entertain, and write about the cultural differences in manners — I'm from London — and my theories on how to improve your dinner party through social engineering. My editor at Chow saw that blog and offered me the job. I turned it down at first. I thought it was such an old-fashioned idea. This is the 21st century. Emily Post has already covered all these topics. And there's no way people are going to write me letters. I was so wrong.
People responded immediately?
Tons and tons of comments. My second column was about plastic containers — if you give someone leftovers in a plastic container, do they have to give it back? I got hate mail. "Dear Helena, you are an idiot."
Tupperware is that controversial?
Etiquette is a very emotional topic for people because you learned it at your parents' knee as a child — so when you disagree, you're basically disagreeing with their parents.
So, what was your contentious container stance?
Tupperware karma. I basically said, I think giving somebody a plastic container back is a painfully banal transaction. In India, it's considered quite rude to give back an empty vessel. Instead of giving empty containers back, fill them and give them to somebody else, so it flows from house to house.
What else has outraged people?
There've been so many. When is it okay for women to use a men's restroom in a restaurant?
Ah, a classic dilemma. Have you run across anything really new or startling?
You have a cocktail party and you ask guests to bring their own cups. I know! I thought, it's for environmental reasons, but this person has gone off the deep end. I don't want to put on a nice cocktail dress and walk around with a stained coffee mug in my sequined purse. But everyone brought a cup — one person had a camping mug, someone else had a beer stein he'd won in a drinking competition. There was no losing your cup, because everyone knew whose was whose. The host was, like, "I had one small bag of trash." So I did the same thing and people loved it.
What did readers think?
"This is not classy!"
Okay, we have to ask: How do you socially engineer a dinner party?
First of all, a seating plan is important. Even though it's incredibly old-fashioned, I really like to have place cards. It makes people feel really special — you took the time to consider who would get on with whom.
The traditional rule is, you seat a boring person next to an interesting one, and a shy person next to an outgoing one. But I put all the interesting people together and all the boring people together. I don't think it's fair to punish the interesting people.
Does anyone figure out they're at the boring table?
And the guest list?
It's important to invite some new people, not just old friends, so people make a little more effort. Invite some single people, not just couples — I think they try a little less hard because they're going home together at the end of the evening. Single people can be a little more sparkly, and they stay later. And it encourages flirtation.