Wasp Manners


My mother was every inch a wasp — that is her Social Register father, Burton Smith, being married to his first wife Betsy Teter in the Chicago society wedding of the year 1927. (My sister and I were surprised to discover that picture on a marriage records web site decades after his very young death from kidney disease).

A born-and-bred wasp, SueG had the old-school manners and habits to match. The manners to which she adhered are growing ever more quaint by the day. People don’t even recognize them as hallmarks of gentility anymore. This by no means exclusive list seems pretty obscure today (though I follow them myself):

  • One does not drink when being toasted, but rather sits and smiles modestly.
  • Performers do not clap for themselves.
  • No one begins eating until the hostess lifts her fork.
  • Children should come as close as possible to the ideal of being seen but not heard unless they are in the company of immediate family. Then, they must not run wild.
  • No one shall host a party for a family member where gifts will be given (i.e., the mother or sister of the bride does not host a bridal shower). It is not acceptable to ask for money or gifts for self or friends. Gift registries are therefore not done.
  • Thank you notes are always written (on paper) and done promptly, by children as adults, but without the words “thank you” printed on the card. The rationale is the letter writer will express heartfelt thanks, as opposed to relying on a cheap, generic printed sentiment.
  • There are no response cards with wedding invitations (much less Evites!). One writes a short, delighted reply in the third person on one’s own stationery confirming attendance or expressing regret over absence. (“Mr. and Mrs. Paul accept with pleasure the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway for their wedding of their daughter Katherine.”) (The convention here is that the servant wrote the response note.)
  • A wedding gift is never required, even if one attends the wedding.
  • Children write thank you notes from the earliest age (these, too, do not have printed “thank you”s on the stationery).
  • One does not, under any circumstances, respond “yes” to an invitation and then reverse it, having received a better offer.
  • One acknowledges that everyone hates funerals; nonetheless, one attends, for the living.
  • When declining an invitation, one simply expresses regret at not being able to attend. No other information should be offered or inquires made.
  • Religion and money are not topics for polite society.
  • One does not disclose one’s moral transgressions, even to intimate friends. They are to be borne stoically (maybe that was just SueG’s precept).
  • One does not dwell on one’s feelings – at least, not outloud.

One thought on “Wasp Manners

  1. When did parents stop teaching manners to their offspring? Probably around the same time that the Catholic sister’s stopped whacking errant students knuckles, ah those were days.
    For your adherence Sue G would nod approvingly albeit would be barely perceptible.
    I hope you will take this note as a sincere thank you for giving the denizens of the internet a glimpse into the world thru Sue G’s knowing eyes.


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