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Oberlin Etiquette

July 14, 2012

I have been reading etiquette books.

Okay, one etiquette book. It's I Try to Behave Myself by Peg Bracken, the woman who wrote The I Hate to Cook Book and assorted other guides to daily living in the late fifties and early sixties. The books are intentionally amusing; Bracken likes to point out the pointless and tells people which conventions are unnecessary frippery and which are practical, efficient behavior. Some of the entertainment value today, of course, comes from the difference in era. For instance, either my parents and their friends are unbelievably dull, or people were a lot swankier back then. As my parents and their friends are quite interesting, I believe it must be the latter. But parties after seven o'clock are not black-tie affairs at my house, as Bracken says one should assume they are. Nor do we have cocktails before meals, even when we do have people over for dinner. (People also drank more back then. One wouldn't expect to find a humorous etiquette book tough going, but I've had to look up several terms relating to mixed drinks and the types of glass one serves them in just to keep up.)

But a lot of Peg Bracken's advice is relevant and practical, and so I have decided to write a miniature etiquette guide of my own, passing some of it along--suitably updated, of course, and with a few additions of my own. This advice is slanted toward people in roughly my position: college students and those about to go off to college. Of course you're perfectly free to ignore my suggestions if you think your way of doing things is better, or if my experience is unlike yours. Manners, especially in a fluid society like ours, are what works at the time. Remember, the cardinal rule of politeness is to make the other person comfortable.

In some situations, this calls for dressing up and shaking hands. In others, it consists of yelling and backslapping. With children, it depends entirely on listening to the child in question and taking him or her seriously. Among Klingons, you say whatever's on your mind and be prepared to back up your words in battle if necessary. And so on.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Generally, you call people what they want to be called. If you don't know what they're most comfortable going by, ask someone who does. This is true even if someone has a name that you think is awesome but that they think is weird and embarrassing. If your friend Epicurus Peter Smith insists on going by his middle name, suck it up and call him Pete.

Professors. When addressing professors, either in person or by e-mail, always call them Professor So-and-So unless asked to do otherwise. Most professors, at least at Oberlin, are actually pretty relaxed about this, but it's best to let them take the lead. If a professor signs an e-mail with their first name, I usually take it as tacit permission or encouragement to call them that. Still, better safe than sorry. The same rule goes for employers, even if they are pretty much your age.

People younger than you. You're pretty safe referring to anyone under 18 by their first name. Chances are good that, unless the setting is very formal indeed, this will make them happier and more comfortable than doing otherwise.

People older than you. The default should be to not use first names here, unless you are related or they introduce themselves with their first names. The older they are, the truer this is likely to be.

Women. If you know she's married and you know her last name, call her Mrs. Lastname. If you don't know her name for sure, but you do know the last name of her husband and/or child(ren), call her Mrs. Theirlastname. It maybe that she goes by a different name from that; if so, she'll tell you. She probably won't expect you to know.

If you know for sure that she's not married, call her Miss Lastname. (If you're feeling like delving into Regency England, you call the eldest unmarried sister Miss Lastname and the other sisters Miss Firstname, but I'm not sure that anyone does this anymore.)

If you don't know if she's married or not, call her Ms. Lastname. She will correct you if she doesn't like that appellation, and it's less awkward than taking a guess about her marital status and getting it wrong.

Parents. Meeting your friends' parents is exciting. It's my opinion that too many people (in high school, anyway; in college it seems to be better) tend to ignore parents when they're around. Not only is this rude, it means you're missing out. The people who raised someone as funny, interesting, and intelligent as your friend are probably pretty darn funny, interesting, and intelligent themselves. So talk with your friends' parents. But what do you call them?

This is one of those cases where it's best to ask ahead. Your friend ought to know how her parents like to be addressed. (If not, she should find out, so that she can make introductions properly; this removes all the uncertainty at the start.) Most of my friends' parents have asked me to call them by their first names. My dad once asked me to introduce him as Doctor Yanisch, but then used his first name when introducing himself. In such cases, I would suggest deferring to what the parent in question actually says.

Which brings us to


To introduce yourself: use the name you want this person to associate with you. For example, (Epicurus) Peter Smith, mentioned above, would say, "Hello. I'm Pete Smith." The other person should introduce themselves here. If they don't, Pete may ask, "And you are?"

To introduce other people to each other: Peg Bracken sums it up as "simplicity, with the honored name said first." In other words, you should introduce a lower-ranked person (pardon my undemocratic phrasing, but you know what I mean) to a higher-ranked person, but you should also say the higher-ranked person's name first, so everyone knows who everyone is. The use-the-names-they-want rule applies here as well. If you call the higher-ranked person something the lower-ranked person won't, give them a hint what to do. EXAMPLE: "Mom, this is my friend Pete. Pete, this is my mother, Romilda." Or: "Your Royal Highness, may I present the mercenary leader Sir Whacken Headzin? Sir Whacken, this is the Crown Princess of Chaotik, Bubbles Mayhem VI."

(Note: I do not actually know the proper rules for referring to princesses. Knights are referred to as Sir Firstname, though.)

If you see someone you know only slightly in a context where you don't normally see each other, when you go up to say hi, it may save a great deal of awkwardness if you introduce yourself. ("Kate! It's Gary--I think we met at the midnight showing of The Avengers. I didn't know you were going to ComiCon!") Then they will be able to say, "Of course it's you!" and gaily carry on with the conversation, rather than spending the next fifteen minutes trying desperately to place you. If you think this sounds absurd, keep in mind that some people may be rather worse than you at identifying people out of context. I am one such, and this kind of thing happens to me more frequently than I would like to admit.


Here I have a tip drawn not from Peg Bracken but from the Gilbreths, the family best known from Cheaper by the Dozen, a memoir of sorts co-written by two of the dozen in question. Their parents were efficiency experts, which led them to develop countless systems useful in a household of twelve children. One of their systems was about table conversation: only topics of General Interest were permitted. Of course, what was and was not of General Interest was open for debate in that family: one passage describes Mr. Gilbreth vainly trying to convince his older daughters that boys at school were not of general interest, then have one of his youngest sons whisper 'I don't think what Daddy's talking about is of general interest,' when he started to talk about what he'd done that day.

The take-home point for you, however, is to consider how many of the people you're around will be interested in what you're about to say before you actually start to say it. If most of them aren't, perhaps you should save it for another time and a more appreciative audience.


Peg Bracken has a few guidelines for telephone use that I think are handy even in this era of text-messaging.

First, when you call someone or answer the phone, introduce yourself. This is becoming less and less necessary, what with caller ID and everyone having their own cell phone, but there's always a chance that one of you is borrowing someone else's phone. On many occasions, I have answered my own phone with a cheery "Hi, Mom! Nice to hear from you!" only to hear my brother saying, "Um, actually, it's Blake . . ." Then the conversation must be reset with, "Hiya, Blake! I'm glad to talk with you too, you know," and everything goes fine from there, but for those few seconds it is a trifle awkward.

Then there was the time I assumed the number my friend had called me from was her phone and called her mother several times after that . . . .

Second, before you launch into your planned discussion, ask if now is a good time to talk. While it is perfectly okay to just not answer the phone, many people feel compelled to or were afraid you were calling about something dire, and you may have caught them waiting in line at the grocery store or ten minutes before a class. In such cases, while they would love to hear your funny story of travel misadventures, they really can't, and they'll feel terrible having to cut you off in midstream. It's best to give them an out right at the start.

A word about repeated calling. Cell phones get misplaced. Sometimes it takes a while to find them while they are ringing. This being the case, it is fine to call once, let it ring until it goes to voicemail, and then hang up and try again. I would caution against calling more than twice in rapid succession, however. Your friend may actually be otherwise engaged--in class, embarrassed and wishing her backpack would stop buzzing, or even at work. (I had someone call me three or four times in a row while I was babysitting once.) In this case, leave a message so the person you were trying to talk to doesn't worry at the sight of multiple missed calls and carry on with your life.

Texting. I am in the minority here in that I don't text all that much, certainly far less than the rest of my generation. The ideologies of texting as a communication medium are still evolving. We discussed this briefly in a linguistic anthropology class I took. The way I see it, there are several reasons to use a text:

  • something that doesn't require immediate response, hence a text rather than a call

  • something that does require immediate response, but is simple (yes/no, a time, an ETA), hence a text rather than a call

  • something that needs to be sneaky, hence a text rather than a call

  • an announcement that goes out to several people at once, hence a text rather than a call

  • an alternative medium for a conversation that could take place vocally, but with more flexibility for timing built in

  • A silly non-sequitur that could build into one of these conversations

I use texting mainly for the short, practical, coordinating/scheduling reasons or sharing non-vital information with my friends ("Already at Feve. Where are you??" or "Almost done with case! Will have your lawyer video game back by lunch"). I know people who use it for full-blown conversations, but this hurts my thumbs (I have an old, Star Trek-style flip-top phone with only number buttons) and I feel tethered to my phone until the conversation ends, not wanting to leave the other person hanging.

But really, no one will mind what you use texting for in general, so long as you text others the way they want to be texted.

What people will mind is if you're rude about it. People hate to be ignored in favor of other people who aren't there--heck, they're bothered enough when the other person is in the same room! So don't text while talking to other people or while other people are talking to you. If you must text someone or read a text around other people, do so only when it is vitally important or relevant to the other people as well. Step into a corner and check your texts unobtrusively and/or say, "Sorry, could you excuse me a minute? I think that's Sam explaining why he's late."


This is the title of one of the chapters in Peg Bracken's book. It is a very entertaining read, both because of what is no longer relevant (removing hats in elevators) and because of how much still is. For instance: "Good etiquette, for a man, is whatever makes a woman feel more like a woman, without making her feel weak-minded. Good etiquette, for a woman, is whatever makes a man feel more like a man, without making him feel more harassed and put upon than he normally does anyway." I don't know how much men normally feel put upon or how justified such sensations might be, but I do know enough to generally agree with the first part.

It is also worth remembering that any woman can tell the difference between courtesy, chivalry, and condescension and respond appropriately, so don't worry that you will offend her by being a normal level of nice. (And she'll probably pick up on it, and be flattered, if you're nicer to her than everyone else. This is an easy, effective, and subtle form of flirtation that can and should be employed by both sexes.)

There is a flip side to this for women to remember: you are not manipulating or taking advantage of a man who holds a door open for you. If you find yourself freezing up because, as a feminist, you feel guilty accepting special treatment just because of a genetic lottery--and you don't want to discourage polite behavior, but perhaps gestures like this should be reserved for courtship?--which is its own can of worms and ideological conflicts which you are not going to open up right now--and by now you've stood awkwardly by the door for just a second too long, and really, you can't resolve this situation without betraying either your principles of equality or of civility, and you are tempted to just stay out in the rain because there is no right course of action here and you deserve to suffer--

If you are familiar with this situation, or any less extreme form of it, please sit back in your chair right now, take three deep breaths, and calm the blankety-blank down. Anymore, everyone holds doors for everyone--and if you don't, you should--and even if someone is going out of his way for you because you're a woman, he's doing it because he wants to, not because he is obligated to. On his own head be it. I wish someone had told me this in high school; it would have saved me a certain amount of repeated split-second panic. Of course, I was in high school, and would probably have come up with some other totally innocuous thing to freak out about instead, such as the ethical implications of eating rice.

Another passage from Peg Bracken: "GENTLEMEN: Gentlemen are men who are gentle in their relationships with other people, especially people weaker, poorer, or in some other fashion less favored than they. A gentleman, it has been truly said, hurts no one's feelings unintentionally." And later: "LADIES: The traits of a gentleman apply here, for gallantry knows no sex. However, the word 'lady' is somewhat out of favor. Many a woman would rather be thought womanly than a lady, which has acquired overtones of smelling salts and screaming at snakes . . . . A lady is a woman in whose presence a man is a gentleman." These definitions rather please me. I find myself noticing that virtually all my male riends have certain elements of the old-fashioned gentleman in their personalities. I don't think this is due to my influence, though--it is something intrinsic to them, something I enjoy and appreciate about them.

The drift of all this is that it is perfectly possible to treat members of the opposite sex slightly differently, if you so desire, without either condescending to them or coming on to them. Of course if you'd rather have a single unisex set of manners, or if you feel more confident that you will treat people fairly that way, that is perfectly fine too. -Although you might keep in mind that not everyone you interact with will follow these same rules, and sometimes you will have to be preemptively polite to avoid putting someone else in a spot. You might be able to sing "Henry VIII" around your roommate until she hits you on the head with a pillow, at which point you'll cheerfully desist, but your male friends may feel uncomfortable following this model because they have learned that You Don't Hit Girls, even if they truly deserve it (and by the third time you explain that you got married to the widow next door, she'd been married seven times before, and every one was an 'Enery--'Enery!--you really do deserve it). Actually, the best solution to this particular situation is not to sing "Henry VIII," because it will get stuck in your head as well as everybody else's, but you get my drift. You do not torment your friends in this case, because they are helpless to get revenge. In such ways does society dupe us into being better people.

Paying for things. Another line from Bracken: "these financial matters should be clearly understood all around, whether the matter is business or social." As long as everyone is in agreement, everyone will be happy--but please come to the agreement before the actual point of payment, or you run the risk of tying up a table while you debate the matter. My personal take on paying in restaurants follows, but you can take it or leave it.

As a general rule, a person with his or her own income should expect to pay his or her own way, unless it has been explicitly decided otherwise. Parents (your own and your friends') will generally insist on treating you. Don't argue--this is also impolite--but it doesn't hurt to offer to pay once. You have now acquitted yourself well, made a good impression, and received a free meal. NOTE: your own parents may be willing to say, "Well, okay," and let you actually pick up the tab, but if they're footing your college bill, this is only fair.

If you've got a large group of people and everyone got something different, everyone should pay their own check. Bracken suggests dividing the overall bill evenly as it saves the staff time and energy, but I think she was writing before computers made it as easy to divide orders and create separate checks as to deliver a single bill to the table. Most of the Oberlin restaurants do this by default when faced with large parties of students. If your group ordered a few big things and several appetizers to share, then you split it evenly; it's less hassle all around.

If you've got friends who insist on paying for everything, pre-empt them at least once. Then you don't have to feel guilty if they get the drop on you another time, and you can feel virtuous if they don't.

Dates. This subcategory is the only reason "paying for things" comes under the "gender issues" category at all. Organizing etiquette tips can be pretty tricky, now that I try it. Anyway, my advice would be that whoever asks or arranges the date pays for it, unless the two agree to split the check in some fashion. There are two great benefits to this. One, it lets either party get the level of swank (or silliness, or whatever it was they wanted or thought the other party would want), without being concerned about the other's ability to pay for a five-course meal (or a bouncy house). No one likes to feel they have forced someone they care about to make a large sacrifice for their own whims. The other great benefit is that it allows either party to be chivalrous. In none of the classic hero stories or fairy tales does it mention that the princess would be willing to throw her cloak over a puddle now and then too. Everyone deserves a chance to make the people they love feel special.

(Dressing up nicely for dates falls under the same logic, incidentally. You each give the other something to measure up to, a chance to look your best, an opportunity to impress each other.)

And with that, this section draws to a close. I will make one final observation: etiquette, at least in 1959, was extremely heteronormative. Oberlin is not, which leads nicely into our final section:


Roommates. Be nice to your roommate. Don't argue over little things if you can help it--you have to live together, after all. It helps if you have a divided double; I am pretty neat, for a college student, and my roommate for the last two years is most comfortable in a nest of yarn and papers. This might have eventually become something To Be Dealt With in an open double, but it never caused a single problem in our divided room.

Let your roommate know where you're going when you leave, especially at night. Not only does it stop her from worrying if you have been abducted by aliens, it allows her to tell friends who come to the room looking for you where you've gone.

Try not to spring anything too unexpected on your roommate. I know someone whose freshman year roommate's boyfriend basically moved in with them for several months, out of the blue. Admittedly, this is an extreme case of not okay behavior (eventually resolved, I believe, by ResEd and the school administration) but it serves to illustrate the point. It's best not to do anything drastic to a living space without checking with the other people who live there: having parties, reorganizing furniture, letting out-of-town visitors spend the night--basically, if you'd check with your parents or siblings at home, check with your roommate at college.

This includes about sex. As Peg Bracken says, "a lot of etiquette happens in the bedroom, or at least it ought to"--and this takes on a new meaning when the bedroom is shared with an innocent bystander. At the beginning of the year, you and your roommate would do well to establish a system about when you can just go into your room and when you should knock. If you come back to your room one day and you can hear something happening, you probably shouldn't go in--but it's your call. You live there, after all, and your roommate's significant other does not. In any case, you and your roommate will need to have a chat about this as soon as it's convenient. However, if your roommate was practicing good etiquette, this situation would not have arisen in the first place.

Other shared spaces: lounges, kitchens, and so on. The main rule here is to clean up after yourself. I am staying in Keep this summer and the kitchen is kind of a mess. People are usually okay about washing their dishes, but not at putting them away, wiping the counters, or cleaning up the floor. These are all things the polite hallmate takes care of. During the school year, there are RAs to enforce cleanliness rules. Sci-Fi/Fantasy Hall's lounge and kitchen usually stay pretty nice due to loosely organized bi-weekly "commando" cleaning blitzes. It's a good system. But if you lack any kind of coordinated cleaning plan like that, just think of the basic rule of courtesy: make others comfortable. Leave shared spaces at least as nice as they were when you came in--and if you can make them at least a little bit better, the next person to come in will thank you.

Bathrooms. Many of the bathrooms at Oberlin are gender-neutral, meaning anyone can use them. There's a hall-by-hall voting process on this at the beginning of the year, which I can explain in more detail if anyone is interested--leave me a note in the comments below. The gender-neutral bathrooms are not a big deal. However, if anyone does accidentally see anything anyone doesn't want them to, the best practice seems to be a mutual acknowledgment of awkwardness, followed by briskly moving on with life and remembering to bring your soap into the shower next time.

Pronouns. Some people at Oberlin--and in the real world, too--identify with genders other than what they appear to be, and consequently would like to use different gender pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, or the gender-neutral they/their/theirs used in the singular or newly invented pronouns such as zie/zir/zirs). The rule for pronouns is like the rule for names: call people what they want to be called. If (Epicurus) Peter Smith decides halfway through a blog that she wants to be referred to with female pronouns from now on, that's what you do.

Usually pronouns are a part of large group introductions at Oberlin, such as first meetings of ExCos--everyone goes around and says their name, year, major, pronouns, and what kind of animal they'd like to be stranded in a deserted ice-cream factory with, or whatever other crazy icebreaker the ExCo instructor has come up with this time. Otherwise, if you're not sure what somebody's pronouns are, ask them or eavesdrop until you figure it out--again, the same as with names.

First-years. It's a political-correctness thing, but most people won't get offended if you say freshman. New Oberlin students are known as first-years about sixty percent of the time and freshman the rest, often without much pattern to the switches. Official material calls them first-years, but conversation floats around freely.

Going barefoot. I have friends who think that people being barefoot in class or in the dining halls is extremely offensive, and friends who gladly go barefoot to class or meals. My own stance is that, if it's not a formal occasion and it's not you stepping in whatever disgusts you, it's probably not worth worrying about--but to each their own.

Skipping classes. Don't skip classes in general, especially if it's a small class--people, especially professors, will notice your absence and might take it personally. On the other hand, if you are sick and have reason to believe you are contagious, everyone will thank you for not coming; transmitting illness is inconsiderate behavior that should be avoided. Just e-mail your professors explaining that you really need a day or two of rest and asking what you missed, and send off another e-mail to anyone in the class you know and trust to take reliable notes--you can catch up fairly easily in this case. For those driven souls who feel guilty missing a class for anything less than being physically unable to stand, keep in mind that missing a few classes to sleep and drink gallons of herbal tea will actually nip your burgeoning illness in the bud. Missing one day of class entirely is better than being semiconscious in all your classes for three weeks. You will be a more effective student (and a happier person) in the long run.

Making friends. It's perfectly acceptable to come up to a group of people you know only slightly, but want to know better, and ask, "May I join you?" They'll almost never say no, and you can hang out with them until you do know them better, and they you. If you're around enough, they'll probably come to think of you as a natural part of their circle. This worked fine for me, and it appears my concerns that I'd be known as "That odd freshman girl who keeps hanging around" were unfounded. I've even had friends forget that I'm not in the same year as them.

Graduation. I include this item mostly so I can mention that Peg Bracken suggests monogrammed paper as a classic graduation gift, which pleases me exceedingly. Many of my good friends up and graduated on me two months ago without my knowing this--a shame, as I know two in particular who would have appreciated such a gift either for the paper quality or the snob appeal. But such is life.

When a friend graduates, if you can't get them a gift, at least let them know that you are happy for them and want to stay in touch. Most likely, their school e-mail address is set to expire in a few months. They should make their new contact information known to you, but if they don't, you are free to ask.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There is a great deal this guide does not cover, of course, so if you have any questions, alternatives, or suggestions of your own to make, please use the comments feature below! Otherwise, if you remember one thing, remember this: good manners are whatever behavior makes the people around you feel more at ease.

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