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October  23

The Controversial Miss Manners

Miss_manners The Barista has a special soft spot for Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, the sharp-tongued etiquette maven and writer. After all, we're pretty sure that our habit of referring to ourselves in the third person came from her, even if it was a bit of unconscious thievery. So we were amused and delighted to learn that Sweet Briar College, the institution of higher learning affiliated with the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (where the Barista has been for the past two weeks), had snagged the fabled etiquettist for its commencement next spring.

And we were just as quickly dismayed to see an article criticizing the choice. You see, Sweet Briar is an all-girls school, and if you go to its website, you'll see that it's colored in Barbie Pink. And so, as senior Kelly D. Crist reasons, "There is something in me that still balks at the idea that Sweet Briar, a college still struggling against a finishing school reputation, would ask the foremost authority of etiquette to speak for graduation."

Miss Crist, we don't know what you're studying at Sweet Briar, but even if you're studying something as serious as, say, creative writing, we can't imagine that any of your professors could possibly top Miss Martin, both for pith and for her acuity in reading human relations. Consider her response in this recent column, in which the querent writes that she was invited to a wedding, can't attend, had planned to send a gift anyway, and then learned that the bride intended to send form-letter thank you notes.

GENTLE READER -- How thoughtful of your colleague to notify you in advance that she is an ingrate. You will be relieved to hear that the one possible reason for giving such a person a present -- that you believe it to be good manners -- is an error.

An invitation is not a bill of notification that a present is due. The rule is that if you care enough about the person to attend, you should care enough to give a present. And if you care about the person but cannot attend, you should probably want to give a present anyway. If you don't care -- and who could care about the bride you describe? -- and don't go, you're off free.

That, we submit, is the writing of a genius. And, finishing school or not, Miss Crist, you're damn lucky to get her. Don't be an ingrate.

--From Virginia, fondly, the Barista

October 23, 2005 in Where For Art Thou? | Permalink


I second that Barista! I love her and often give her books as gifts at bridal showers. She is always correct and she is always amusing. An excellent choice for commencement speaker! Especially considering the deplorable lack of social skills these days.

Posted by: Cheaplazymom | Oct 23, 2005 4:21:37 PM

yes if only we could could all be so witty or inspired at the very moment we need to be--she has my vote

Posted by: cstarling | Oct 23, 2005 8:26:41 PM

She's a class act. I credit her for giving me the perfect answer to intrusive requests for personal information: "Why on earth would you want to know that?"

Posted by: Clire | Oct 24, 2005 9:18:46 AM

She's a class act. I credit her for giving me the perfect answer to intrusive requests for personal information: "Why on earth would you want to know that?"

Posted by: Claire | Oct 24, 2005 9:19:32 AM

I'm intrigued by the arrogance of students who don't want this or that speaker for their commencement. frankly, i find graduations to be such dreary and interminable events (i only attended my own under duress from my mom and dad) that they should be happy anyone wants to show up to speak. that said, i'd like to add my voice in support of miss manners as a great choice. they are very lucky to have someone as witty and interesting as judith martin speaking. everyone can benefit from learning more about the essence of good manners--the kindness, compassion and grace which underscore their use--and how good manners can prevent fights, lost clients, family pain, broken friendships, and maybe even war. who knows? if they lose miss martin as a speaker they will have disgraced themselves.

Posted by: fran | Oct 24, 2005 9:43:42 AM

We admit that Miss Manners' advice to the wedding was spot on, and we wouldn't think of objecting to her speaking at the commencement of an all-pink girl's finishing school, er, college. But we suspect that she her judgement is too prissy for these times. We can think of one example right off the bat: surely the use of the editorial we on an informal, chatty blog is not appropriate. It sounds downright silly to our ears, all hundred of them.

Posted by: walleroo | Oct 24, 2005 9:52:47 AM

Love Judith Martin! Her books are laugh-out-loud funny, so I have them within easy reach at all times. And we love the "we." Speaking of manners, where is Betsy?

Posted by: Sneaky Plan | Oct 24, 2005 10:40:51 AM

Not such great advice if you happen to be friends with the groom and not the bride...

Posted by: Liz | Oct 24, 2005 10:42:20 AM

Sorry, I mean "Betty."

Posted by: Sneaky Plan | Oct 24, 2005 11:16:39 AM

Sorry, I mean "Betty."

Posted by: Sneaky Plan | Oct 24, 2005 11:17:16 AM

We recently contacted Betty, who got distracted by summer vacation and forgot to file. We think/hope she'll be back soon.

Posted by: The Barista | Oct 24, 2005 1:06:03 PM

I am an alumnae of Sweet Briar, and I am excited that the school could get such an interesting speaker for graduation. I totally agree with you that Miss Manners is a genius, and I feel she is a powerful business woman who has achieved great success in a proper fashion and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

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