Thursday, November 5, 2009

Etiquette Nominative

ot long ago, the daughter of my favorite first cousin was married. It was a foregone conclusion that I would not be able to attend the wedding, since I live halfway around the world. Therefore my cousin did not send me an invitation to the event and I understood that this was not meant as a slight but was only proper etiquette.

I was raised knowing that sending an invitation to someone whom you know will not attend your event is bad form, because an invitation obligates one to buy a gift. According to this school of thought, inviting someone who cannot attend your event would be an act both greedy and uncaring: as if your presence at the event does not much matter, but the gift sure does.

I don't know how I came to learn this rule, but the source was, without a doubt, my mother. It's amazing just how many rules of etiquette she managed to impart to me in the short time I spent under her tutelage. You see, I married and left America for good when I was only eighteen years of age and settled in Israel. Despite the brief schooling I received while in my mother's home, the etiquette backbone of my formative years is as strong and intact as if it were made of steel.

In my head these rules of etiquette remain unshaken voices that guide me like the good and bad consciences depicted in old cartoons—whispering in both my ears, tempting one and admonishing the other. Rules like, "Never wear white after Labor Day, except for a 'winter white,'" and, "Don't wear white to a wedding, it detracts from the impact of the bride's white gown."

There were many of these rules and until today, I never know when one is going to pop up upon the screen of my mental signpost, the words emblazoned before my eyes: "Don't wear black to a wedding!"

But part of my growing up was done after my marriage, in my adopted land, where my sensibilities were challenged by those who had been raised under different systems. My friends were/are always receiving invitations to events taking place in the States. Once, noticing such an invitation stuck with a magnet on a friend's fridge, I dared to bring up the subject.

I told her what I had been taught and asked what she thought about that. Her reaction was one of surprise. "Now that our families are separated by such a great distance," she said, "this is the only way our relatives can keep the family connection alive. We want to know if a cousin is getting married, to see the invitation, learn where the event will be held, and send a congratulatory note."

My friend was puzzled that I was under the impression that an invitation obligates one to purchase a gift, and thought this a strange idea. I didn't quite know what to make of this. Did this mean my friend was unschooled in proper etiquette—a boor—or was there a genuine difference of opinion as to what is the right course of action in this case?

Since my neighbor did not take offense at my questions, I ventured to ask other friends about this. There was an overwhelming majority opinion among them that there is nothing wrong with sending invitations to friends or relatives no longer in the country and that this is the normal way people keep in touch. No one else had ever heard this business about being obligated to purchase a gift. Most did, in fact, refrain from purchasing gifts for such events and felt it sufficed to send a congratulatory note.

When my first son was about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, I thought about all of this and concluded that I would not send invitations to my relatives in America with one exception. My son was named for my late father, who had just one sibling. I thought my paternal uncle would be touched to hear of his great nephew's Bar Mitzvah, since Gedalia is the only one who carries his big brother's name.

My intentions may have been good, but when I mentioned what I had done, my mother was disappointed in me. With subsequent social events, I never repeated this course of action, because I saw how my lack of compliance with the formal etiquette Mom had taught me could end up making me appear to have a lack of breeding, and make my mother look like a poor teacher.

It does seem to me though, that etiquette is an evolving art, and I wonder whether these comforting absolutes are really as prevalent as they once were. I do realize that etiquette is all about being considerate. Would it not be considerate to let people know that a loved one, far away, is about to experience a milestone event? Perhaps there is an in between to these rules that were taught to me as something immutable?

On the one hand, it's a good feeling to know I can rely on my mother's teachings, but still I wondered if there was any wiggle room on this ruling. I decided to Google the subject and see what came up. I was happy to find a source I knew my mother would deem reputable: the Emily Post Institute.

Part of me was convinced that the people at Emily Post would uphold my mother's teachings, but another part of me was hoping for flexibility. What I found gave me deep satisfaction, since it treated both sides of the equation. My mother was not wrong, but neither were my friends:

"Q. What do I do about invitations to out-of-town guests who can’t possibly attend?

A. Many people prefer not to send invitations to those friends and acquaintances who they think cannot possibly attend the celebrations. In most cases, these friends should receive a wedding announcement instead, which carries no gift obligation. However, some good friends who live far away might actually be hurt if you don’t invite them, even if your intent was to spare them from feeling obliged to send a gift. In general, always invite truly good friends—even if they live far away."

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