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Foundations of good manners never go out of style

The second week of January, and we're all fasting from holiday overindulgences, stepping up our exercise routines and buckling back down to business.

And after a merry season of parties in which we heard repeated reports of protocol violations, we hereby open Etiquette Boot Camp 2012.

"Manners by their very nature adapt to the time," reports the latest, and 18th, edition of Emily Post's Etiquette, so up to date that it offers a chapter on social media that includes guidelines about Facebook, Twitter and blogs. In more than 700 pages, it advises readers how to behave in nearly every possible setting, from text messaging to enlisting household help.

"And as fluid as manners are, they all rest on the same fundamental principles: respect, consideration and honesty," its authors write. Regardless of how we label etiquette, aren't those the basic principles we learned in nursery school?

Apparently not. I have taken no scientific poll, but I can tell you three areas that exasperate the most patient people I know: reservations, formal dress codes and expressions of gratitude.

I have lost count of the number of charity events I attend every year, not to mention weddings and birthday parties and other celebratory occasions. And nearly every time, a frustrated host or committee leader offers the same litany: Although reservations are requested, many guests wait until the very last minute to commit. Or accept the invitation and fail to appear.

Are they waiting for something better to come along? If so, that's neither nice nor considerate.

Accept the invitation, or offer your regrets, and declare your intentions as early as possible. Regardless of the number of guests, hosts need to know how to make people comfortable and how much food and drink to offer.

For women, formal dress generally means a long dress and fine jewelry.

Back in December, Judith Martin's "Miss Manners" column, which publishes in these pages, undertook to explain the appropriate attire for men: "If there is such a thing," she wrote, "formal evening clothes are specified on invitations as either "black tie" (black dinner jacket with black satin or grosgrain lapels, pants with stripe down the sides matching the lapels, pleated white shirt, black bow tie) or "white tie" (black tailcoat with satin lapels, pants with a stripe on the outside legs, white pique waistcoat, starched white linen shirt, white pique bow tie).

"Hosts sympathetic with an inability to comply need not advertise this, as it should be assumed that dressing one degree down — black tie for white, a black business suit for black tie — would not attract violent attention from a bouncer."

Red cummerbund? Suspenders? Slip-on shoes? Miss Manners discusses all of those contingencies online at tinyurl.com/tbt-manners.

Now, to the issue of thankfulness. All of you have written notes of gratitude for all of the kindnesses bestowed on you during the holidays. I know you have. And if circumstances have prevented you from doing so, there is still time.

A certain 13-year-old I know, active in school and church and several sports, recently wrote 112 notes to friends and family who attended her birthday party and brought or sent gifts. Most of that correspondence went out the week after her big celebration.

In her family, there's a rule: If someone gives you something, you thank them.

As soon as the girl and her brother were able to write their names, their parents wrote the notes, and the children added their signatures. As soon as the youngsters were able to write, they learned it was their responsibility to offer their own expressions of thanksgiving, and promptly.

Adults are expected to do the same, and no whining about something they'd rather have, or about the note-writing, for that matter.

Add these "magic words," the Emily Post book suggests: "please," "thank you," "you're welcome" and "I'm sorry." Those are graceful beginnings and endings and merit frequent use.

At ease, everybody.

And happy new year.

Mary Jane Park can be reached at mjpark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8267.

Foundations of good manners never go out of style 01/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 7, 2012 3:30am]
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