Family Etiquette

Oct, 23, 2011

Do you remember the particular etiquette rules in your home when you were growing up? Yes, you. We all had them. And some of them were just strange. For example, my mother would flip out if my sister and I walked into the kitchen with our long hair not pulled back. Hair was her thing. If she saw a strand on the counter or near food when she was cooking, she went nuts.

People are always sharing their family etiquette stories with me, so I decided to share some of them with you. The moral of this blog: You’re not alone.

Eve: At a time when all women wore gloves, my mother always wore one glove and carried one glove with her handbag. I asked her why she did that, and she pointed out that it was wasteful to get both gloves dirty on one outing. She would switch gloves on the next trip and then throw them in the laundry.

Steven: We had a golden retriever who shed a lot, so my mother made me vacuum every day with our Electrolux.

Sarah: Cutting toenails or fingernails had to be done over the toilet or a trash can. We also weren’t allowed to share the same soap bar in the shower or bath. Sheets had to be taken out of the dryer immediately so there would be no wrinkles, or we had to iron them. Also, no metal pots or pans were allowed in the refrigerator; food had to be refrigerated in containers made for that purpose or wrapped in plastic wrap because mother thought the food would taste like metal otherwise.

John: My father would take my brother and me to restaurants to teach us how things work, including figuring the tip and how to order.

Carolyne: My mom had a problem with gum chewing. She didn’t like to hear the sound of people smacking their lips and noisily chewing gum. Instead of letting us kids have an entire stick of gum from the pack—Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit or whatever it was we had on hand—she would rip it in half so that we would have only half a piece of gum. I guess her theory was that it would be less noisy that way, for anyone who happened to be within earshot. And wouldn’t you know it, to this day, I can’t chew a whole piece of gum due to that early training, even though I’m forty-seven and can make my own rules.

Teresa: I had a fairly sheltered and strict upbringing. My dad was quite conservative and thought that his girls should be “properly” dressed. So for us as teenagers, the rule was that no skirt could be more than two inches above the knee. My dad would actually get out the ruler and measure the distance between my kneecap and the hem of my skirt before I was allowed to walk out the door! Being the “smart” teenager I was, I would, of course, walk out the door and swiftly roll up the waistband of my skirt to make it shorter.

Trish: My mother always requested that I stand up whenever an adult entered the room. I was to stand and offer that person my chair. Whether it was a family member or a friend, she felt that due respect should be shown. I would get “the look” to help refresh my memory if I forgot.

Dennis: My mother and her mother both suffered mini panic attacks if, on returning from a shopping excursion, I would rest my new shoes (still in their box) on the dining or kitchen table. They would shriek something akin to “Young man, get those shoes off my table now!” as if I had just had them on while walking through the mud.

Dave: We could not wear white T-shirts at the table, although any other color was acceptable.

Elizabeth: My aunt would make me blow my nose outside before we went into a warm place if it was cold outside. She always said my nose would run when I got inside, and she wanted to avoid a snot-nosed kid.

Claire: My mother was an absolute fanatic about sending thank-you notes. Birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, someone brings you food, somebody smiles at you nicely—they all get a heartfelt thank-you note. When we were kids, we couldn’t play with any toys that were gifts until those thank-you notes were written and in the mail. It certainly taught my sister and me to be (immediately) grateful, and to this day, I so appreciate it when someone takes the time to write a handwritten thank-you note.

Susan: My father had a thing about elbows on or near the table, so if my brother or I did that, he would poke us with his fork as a painful reminder! This would probably be considered child abuse today.

Murrey: My mother was very strict about manners and less strict about other things, like smoking pot. The two things she harped on were writing thank-you notes immediately after receiving a gift (I feel like I could write before I could walk), and chewing gum. She absolutely loathed the way people looked chewing gum in public and would only occasionally let us have some when we were at home.

Debra: I was taught to never call before 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and to never call after 9 p.m. on any night unless it was an emergency. Also, I was expected to say “Hello,” then “Oh, hi, Mr. or Mrs. X,” or “May I ask who’s calling?” and “One moment, please.” If it was someone I knew, I always had to engage them in minor conversation so as not to be rude.

Lucia: My dad wouldn’t let me wear my hair curlers in the main part of the house, only in the bathroom and my bedroom.

Desa: My mother hated that my husband and I smoked. She often came over to our house to fix dinner, and when we got home from our jobs, we’d find camellias floating in all our ashtrays. Her other quirk was bad language, and the first time I said s_ _ _ ( I was probably in college), she came unglued. Now, I wonder what she’d have done if I’d ever used the F word—she would probably have had a heart attack.

Gerry: Where I come from, my whole childhood was dictated by Debrett’s Etiquette! At meals, it was considered bad manners to slouch at the table or to eat with one’s elbows pointing outward. Once per week, my siblings and I had to sit through a meal with a book on our heads in order to keep our posture erect, and we had to eat with knife and fork while clutching a newspaper under each arm.

Tony: Telephone rules: Even though my family rarely ate at home (my mother is very proud not to know where the kitchen is) and we usually dined out late, my mother insisted I not use the phone to call other children I knew from school between the hours of five and eight in the evening. Since these were traditionally the hours people had dinner, it was ingrained in me that it was terrible manners to interrupt other families who might be sitting down together. Just because we dined at the bohemian hour of nine o’clock on most nights, there was no reason not to respect other people’s customs. Fashion rules: In our fiercely Ralph Lauren-loving suburb on the San Francisco Peninsula, my mother, with her penchant for more fashion-forward attire, was always a bit of a rule breaker. When all the other mothers at my private school went to PTA meetings in tennis skirts and cardigans, my mother usually made an entrance in asymmetrical Japanese shirtdresses and floor-length dusters. When it came to the rules of seasonal fashion, however, she taught me to follow them to the letter. White shoes were absolutely banned after Labor Day, along with summer linen, pastels, and straw hats. Velvet was not to be worn before five in the evening and never after April. There were also rules on when to wear patent leather and prints, and a man’s hat had to be removed from his head the moment he stepped indoors. Holiday greetings: Years before the alleged “war on Christmas,” my mother taught my brother and me a simple rule for the holiday season: never assume to know what holiday a person celebrates. Unless you know with absolute certainty a person trims a Christmas tree or lights a menorah, “happy holidays” was what we were taught to say to people as a seasonal greeting. Even as a child, I thought that was lovely—saying “happy holidays” included everyone. Of course, if people greeted you first, it was acceptable to follow their lead and repeat their greeting back, and most importantly, it was never acceptable to correct anyone who wished you a happy holiday-you-didn’t-celebrate. Here’s another thing my mother taught me: you don’t have to celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa to have a happy one—just enjoy the good wishes!

Sean: I grew up in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) in the fifties and sixties during quite an etiquette mélange. JFK lived around the corner, as did Jackie, before they married. Huntley and Brinkley came into my Dad’s bookshop when I was a kid growing up in this upscale, dysfunctional, inbred-Camelot neighborhood. My dad lived by The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian. My mom lived by Emily Post. Mom: An invitation should be placed in an envelope so that the folded spine of the card is exposed (not the two sharp edges), making it easier for the recipient to pluck out and read. When walking with a lady, a gentleman always takes the side of the sidewalk closest to the curb (one never knows when a car might surge through a puddle and make a splash). Dad: The half-Windsor knot should be used for neckties for most occasions, as a full Windsor is too ostentatious for most affairs; a two-in-hand is for boys in private school, not for men. We should always make an effort to remember a person’s name; for all of us, our name is the most important sound in the world when spoken by another. Even if you have to live in the basement or the attic, strive to live at the best address.

Moanalani: My mother had a very relaxed style of parenting. I appreciate the room she gave me to grow; however, I sometimes feel awkward regarding social etiquette. As a result, I pay much more attention to it than was expected of me as a child. My biggest pet peeve is inappropriate event attire. My friends often make fun of my specific comments on what they should wear when attending functions with me.

Claudia: When I was a Brownie (before “flying up” to become a Girl Scout), my mother was a Brownie leader. She made a point of ignoring me during our meetings because she didn’t want anyone to think I was being favored because she was in charge. When I complained in private, she said this would be a good lesson for me: that we should all be judged on merit, not whom we know. I think she went a little overboard with this lesson, but it definitely stuck. She instilled a strong work ethic in me.

Carolyn: My father insisted that I not eat all of one food on my plate before moving on to another; instead, I had to take a bite of mashed potatoes, say, then peas, then chicken. If I said “Where is it at?” he would answer: “Just before the at.” I was not supposed to say yeah or huh? or un-huh, or for that matter, gosh, golly, or gee, since those were considered just poorly disguised ways of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (, certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on and

Follow Lisa Mirza Grotts on Twitter.[/author_info] [/author]

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