Language without words
By Robin Abrahams
Here's a nifty letter from a reader in response to this week's tipping question:
I've never heard of the penny gambit myself, but I like it. As a general rule I'm firmly on the side of user-friendly, simple etiquette based more on general principles than on elaborate rules and rituals. It's the only way to go in a diverse, ever-changing society. But something was lost when the elaborate R&R's fell by the wayside. Not graciousness or civility, necessarily. The old ways too often reinforced nasty distinctions of class, race, and gender, and were based more on respect for social roles than for the actual people who filled said roles. But a way of communicating, subtly yet clearly, without words. There used to be an entire code for how ladies could communicate with their fans. (Their handheld air-motion devices, I mean, not their admirers. Although they often communicated to their admirers with their handheld air-motion devices.)
Or the language of flowers. If Mr. Improbable were to bring me yellow tulips, for example, I would not worry that he felt that his love for me is hopeless. I'd just know that somewhere in the neighborhood, there was a deep discount on yellow tulips and Mr. Improbable had seen them and thought, "Cool! I can get points!" We have lost the language of flowers.
Or the language of hats, as in this anecdote from Peg Bracken's incomparable, and sadly out of print, 1960s guide to etiquette, I Try to Behave Myself:
In a downtown department store, once, two young women entered the elevator on the tenth floor. An elderly man entered, too, and promptly removed his hat. The elevator stopped on Nine. Then on Eight. Then on Seven. At this point, one of the young women turned to the other and growled, "Hell, this damn thing's stopping on every floor." Quietly, then, without a change of expression, the elderly man put his hat back on.
You don't have to agree with what the man was communicating--that women ought not to use even mild profanity in public for fear of losing their status as "ladies" and thus their right to male respect. I certainly don't. But his way of communicating it was the essence of old-school cool. And there's the paradox of what we've lost, and gained, right there.