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Mind Your P's and Q's

A little Buddha handclasp or a mouthed 'I'm sorry' goes a long way

By Novella Carpenter

Do you have any idea what is involved in being the maid of honor at a wedding? Me neither, but I'm going to be so honored at my sister's wedding in a few weeks, so I hustled down to the library to see what Emily Post has to say about it. Basically, I have to give my sister the equivalent of a bachelor party, hold her bouquet while she puts the ring on her husband's finger and make sure the bride doesn't have a heart attack.

I've always hated etiquette--who cares which spoon you should use?--but in the case of the wedding, it's comforting to know there's a playbook for proper behavior. It made me curious about the rules for drivers, and there on page 499 of Emily's Post's Etiquette, in a chapter titled "Motoring," she tackles the thorny rules for drivers and their passengers.

Post, the queen of manners, ironically, seems quite rude. She spends the entire chapter profiling various Rogues of the Driving World, chastising the driver who passes recklessly, the annoying snail driver (Timid Caspar Milquetoast), the nonsignaling driver and the drunk driver. My favorite, the Discourteous Horn Blower, is dissected as follows: "If more people realized that the horn, as the voice of the car, is in reality the voice of the driver, there would be less raucous thoughtlessness in its use." Ah, yes. And never honk a horn to pick someone up. "A well-mannered visitor will, of course, alight and ring the door bell." Post is old-fashioned, but some of that politeness would be a welcome change to the dog-eat-dog world of commuting. She has sensible rules like this: If you are on a long trip, change drivers every 100 miles or every two hours. In an emergency, pull off the road, raise the hood and tie a white handkerchief to your door handle. That's so cute!

While Post peevishly gripes, Charlotte Ford's Etiquette: A Guide to Modern Manners seems a little more pragmatic. She suggests that drivers with passengers should drive as if they are sipping champagne and don't want to spill a drop. On the issue of Backseat Drivers (BSDs), Ford writes: "Curiously, BSDs are usually sitting in the front seat. Sitting in the back divorces them from the action of the road and doesn't let them see well enough to play their game. If a known BSD is your only passenger, you can't very well suggest that she sit in back." But, if she tries anything, the line "You are interfering with my concentration" will stop her in her tracks.

I've always wondered about the pecking order of the front seat, or "shotgun," and Ford addresses this. Basically, if you are all the same age, whoever gets to the front door first gets shotgun, but if it's two couples, the mate of the driver should sit in the front, unless there's some kind of agreement to have all guys in back, girls in front or vice versa. Elderly passengers should always get the front seat. In the situation of a couple and one friend, it's considered more polite to have the couple's guest sit in the seat of honor (i.e., shotgun).

Both books did feel a little dated and stodgy. A more modern etiquette writer, Charles Purdy, is the advice columnist known as Social Grace. He has just written a pocket guide called Urban Etiquette. Purdy covers aspects of city life that Post wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole: Should I tip my tattoo artist? Does the white-shoe rule apply to drag queens?

In his driving section, Social Grace notes that "drivers are people, too. An important part of driving defensively is to allow others to make mistakes without getting too upset about it. While some in-car muttering is understandable and often quite satisfying, working yourself into a tizzy over others' driving skills doesn't help anyone. The minute you stoop to rude hand gestures or shouted epithets, your dignity is severely compromised." He also recommends that in this era of "road rage," fueled by the anonymity of a car, a driver might do well to "own up to and apologize for your mistakes." Believe me, a little Buddha handclasp or a mouthed "I'm sorry" goes a long way. Try it. It's actually fun to be courteous.

Novella wants to start her own car-etiquette advice column; email your questions to her at [email protected]

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From the August 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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