Thursday, May 3, 2007

Op-Ed: Paron Moi?

How does one “live” etiquette? In other words, how do I become charming?

The mechanics of etiquette can be taught to a certain extent, and you may know that I taught them for a living before college. It only takes a few minutes to figure out what goes where on a proper dinner table, how to tie a bow tie and whose cigarette you light first in a group. Most of this information is available in classic and contemporary etiquette books and, if you look very carefully, on the internet. You should read about these mechanics, but more importantly, put them into practice. Attend or host a formal dinner or cocktail party, get yourself invited to a barristers ball or society wedding, or dust off your giant jaunty hat and take a trip to the Kentucky Derby. I once advised a reader who was distraught over the low-end liquor served at parties to get a higher class of friends. If you find yourself with infrequent opportunities to groom your social graces, it would serve you well to do the same.

The universality of charm is somewhat limited because of divergent tastes. The two unrelated Hepburns, for example, are both undeniably charming, but if you like one very much, you may find the other repellant. Consider your audience and the sort of people you would like to attract.

Like most things in life, archetypes and tropes are the keys to the kingdom. Enumerate people with an appearance of being charming and consider their commonalities. They’re usually smart but more importantly, they are clever. They keep their cards close to their chest, revealing the least significant ones as a teaser when accused of being too opaque. Drinking and smoking are to be expected, but never to status-compromising excess. Being good-looking never hurts.

You can become a rogue like Marlon Brando or an ingénue like the heroines of Neil Simon, a hero like Rock Hudson or a perennial damsel in distress like Lois Lane, a mysterious misanthrope like James Dean or an unrelenting socialite like Tracy (Red) Lord to Cray Grant's lovable charlatan in The Philadelphia Story. Be aware that whichever type you choose, it must have practical applications with regard to your own life. If you must be surrounded at all times by your giggling gaggle of friends, the misanthropic route is not for you. Likewise, if you have even a shred of agency and can’t quite get the hang of a constant expression of doe-eyed wonder, than the ingénue is not for you.

I think what you’re really looking to do is cultivate a little affectation. Very few people are genuinely charming—I can count fewer than four among everyone I’ve ever known. For most, however, cultivating a few nuanced idiosyncrasies is enough to get by. Invent a signature cocktail for yourself (Parisians are taken), address everyone you meet with an affectionate moniker, never read anything written after 1950 and listen to unrecognizable jazz. And when you are choosing what type to mimic, please don’t overlook perhaps the most charming type of all: etiquette columnist.

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