A couple of weeks ago, my mum came across a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in a charity shop, and picked it up for me, knowing I’d like it.
Since then, I’ve learned all kinds of useful things: like how Terry should be offering me his arm when we go into dinner, for instance. And that I should have, at the very least, a lady’s maid, a housemaid and a maid-of-all-work – because it’s just not possible to run a respectable household if you don’t have the right staff, is it? I’m going to get on that as soon as I finish writing this post, seriously.
Anyway, as interested as I am in the household management part (Well, do YOU know which duties your footman should be performing? Because I do.), it’s the insight into Victorian manners and etiquette that fascinates me most, because manners are something I find myself thinking about a lot: and, well, RANTING about a lot, to be perfectly honest.
I’m not really interested in manners/etiquette in the sense of which spoon to use with which course, or any of that stuff: no, I’m more interested in the way people interact with each other, and specifically in the things they say that they should probably think twice about. So today I present, a quick (by which I mean “lengthy”) guide to modern manners, in the form of the things you should never say to someone. Think of me as a modern Mrs Beeton, if you will.*
Here are some things I think you should never say to someone…
01. “So, how much money do you make, then?”
I’m possibly being hopelessly old fashioned here, but I was raised to believe you should never ask someone how much they earn, how much money they have in the bank, or… just ANYTHING to do with money, really. Old fashioned or not, I still cringe whenever someone does this – which happens fairly often when you’re self-employed, actually. I normally just say something vague, like, “Oh, you know, enough to pay the bills!” but some people can be super-persistent, which makes me want to answer with, “How much would it take to shut you up? Because whatever it is, I’ll pay it…”
02. “Are you pregnant?”
I feel like this one is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said, but almost every time I look at the Instagram accounts of certain female bloggers, I won’t have to read too many comments before I find one from someone asking if they’re pregnant. Seriously, people, DON’T DO THIS! If the person ISN’T pregnant, you’ve basically just told her she looks fat (I know there’s a big difference between ‘fat’ and ‘pregnant’, obviously, but that’s how it comes across, and I don’t think I know a single woman who wants to be told she looks pregnant when she isn’t…), and if she IS, well, demanding that she share that information with you puts her in the super-awkward position of having to either a) outright lie about it or b) reveal her personal business in a public forum, possibly before she’s ready to. No one wants to make a huge life announcement in response to a random comment on Instagram, so even if you suspect someone is pregnant, do them the courtesy of letting them decide how and when they’ll tell people about it.
03. “Why not? / When will you be?”
If the answer to the above question is “no”, this is usually the equally rude follow-up. Whatever the reason is, I can guarantee it’s personal, and there’s a good chance it’s sensitive, too… which you’re NOT being, by demanding that the person explain themselves. Zip it.
04. “Wow, I love your new haircut: it looks SO much better than the last one!”
Ah, the compliment that also contains a subtle insult! As flattering as it is to be told that your new hair is awesome, you just can’t help but be retrospectively insulted for the OLD hair… and quietly crushed by the new knowledge that your hair has looked horrific for the past few years. Similarly, comments like “You’ve lost so much weight: you look amazing!” are the kind of thing people say to be nice, but a friend who’d lost a lot of weight once told me the constant comments about it were actually quite hurtful, because they made her feel that she must have looked terrible before the weight loss, and had only recently started to look OK to people. I’d never thought of it like that, but these days I think it’s best not to comment on someone’s weight at all, unless they bring it up themselves: it’s just not a “safe” topic. So, for instance, comments like…
05. “You’re too thin/ fat / muscular / scrawny / <insert any other judgement about someone else’s body>”
… are NEVER OK.
06. “Why don’t you like X type of food? But WHY not? But WHY not? But WHY not? Just try it! Just try it! Just try it!”
There’s nothing more tedious than being expected to justify why you don’t like something, or being forced to “just try it!” for the hundredth time. I don’t like certain foods for the same reason you don’t like some kinds of food: because they doesn’t taste nice to me. There’s no big mystery, and asking me repeatedly isn’t going to make me go, “OH! You know what? I just remembered I DO like it after all!” Trying to force-feed it to me, meanwhile, will probably just make me gag: if I know I don’t like it, that means I already HAVE tried it, brainiac.
07. “Why aren’t you drinking?”
There could be SO many reasons why someone doesn’t want to drink alcohol, and none of them are anyone else’s business, really. They could be pregnant, and not ready to reveal it yet. They could be on medication for something they don’t want to talk about. Or, you know, revolutionary idea here, but MAYBE THEY JUST DON’T FEEL LIKE IT? So why is it so important to try to MAKE them drink?
08. “I didn’t like to say it at the time, but…”
If you didn’t think it was appropriate to say it at the time, it’s probably not appropriate to say it now, either.
09. “I’m not being rude, but…”
You know what? SAYING you’re not being rude isn’t the same as NOT BEING RUDE. In fact, if you find yourself having to preface a statement with “I’m not being rude…” there’s a good chance that you are, in fact, being rude. So don’t be.
Anything you’d like to add?
*(Not really, though, because I think she died when she was, like, 27 or something, and that makes me feel simultaneously sorry for her, and also a bit like a lazy good-for-nothing slob, given that in that time, she managed to run a household AND write a gigantic doorstep of a book, and I, meanwhile… well, I have a blog.)
(Which is probably at least twice as long as Mrs Beeton’s book, now I come to think of it. Ha! Take that, Mrs Beeton!)