One should never ignore the value of good manners. Equal parts simple human courtesy and protocol, manners blunt the sharp edges of social machinery and quiet our squeaks of need. Now, if you don’t understand simple human courtesy, I cannot help you. We do well, however, to discuss both the value and limitations of protocol.
Protocol, also known as etiquette, began as a set of rules to keep courts and other seats of power as civil as possible. Who could wear which hat, who had to remove said hat from their head, who got to keep their heads at all. As the tide of wealth and power rose, democratically, across the world, additional circumstances came to require rules of etiquette.
Including, of course, dating. Dating, the democratization of traditional Cattle for Brides and Gold Plates for Husbands. Dating, in some ways more dangerous than courts, despite looser rules for purple. You see, in courts, at least you knew where you were. The throne, the crown, all the soldiers in gorgets and greaves, they sent clear signals.
In 1973, I was 17, and a senior at boarding school in Northern California. One day, late in the year, a boy a put a card in my mailbox. On it was an invitation to eat dinner at a restaurant in the largest nearby town. I found this odd. Our school was characterized by what is now known as a hookup. We were, as Northern California often is, ahead of our time for better or worse. I’d never been on a date and didn’t recognize the signs.
But I shrugged my shoulders and accepted, still unsure quite what was up.
We weren’t allowed cars on campus, but this boy, scion of a well-known Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and very popular in our high school, cached his BMW 2002ti on neighboring streets. He picked me up, and drove us to the restaurant. It had some sort of French name, “Le This,” or “Le That.”
We were out on a hot afternoon, summer near at hand, and darkness wouldn’t fall for hours. We ordered, very properly, escargot. The wait staff behaved with respect, if not adherence to the law, and served us wine as requested. I am certain he behaved like a perfect gentleman. I declined to eat rabbit. It scared me. Surely I knew which fork to use? My family was quite good at those, forks.
We walked out into the suburban parking lot, asphalt soft in the heat. He drove me, perhaps in an act of bravado, right onto the school campus. I remember he made indications of going round to open my door, and I said something like, “Oh gosh no. I’m fine.” I got out.
We stood, blinking, in the sun that had not set. I thought, “I suppose he might want me to kiss him.” But we were standing in full view. Everyone knew us. Everyone would know more. “Well,” I said, “Thanks.” I turned and walked back to my dorm. It got worse. The next day I heard his BMW had burned to the ground that night, on the street where he parked, victim of a stable fire.
I do not think we spoke alone again until our 10th reunion, when he told me that despite his status as big man on campus, he’d always been terribly lonely. He should have told me it was a date. Context is the missing piece, in etiquette, and we no longer carry coats of arms as signals. While protocol matters, trust it blindly and you might never kiss the girl.
Everything here is as true as I can make it.
Image: The Athenian School Yearbook, 1974. Thomas Swope, Photographer
(This was written as a guest post for another blog, and never used. Hence the more literary tone. I post it here in its entirety, without introduction, because it seems that in this case general context can wait until the specific has concluded.)