A few years ago, while hosting a formal dinner party at her Manhattan apartment, etiquette expert Charlotte Ford watched—and winced—as a guest picked up a finger bowl, intended for cleaning his hands, and drank from it. Not surprisingly, "I don't use finger bowls anymore," says the 60-year-old Ford Motor Company heiress. "They're bygone now."
Good manners, however, are hardly passé, even as cell phones, e-mail and changing social mores spawn endless new behavior dilemmas. In 21st-Century Etiquette, Ford and coauthor Jacqueline deMontravel—along with several celebrity contributors, including designer Kate Spade and political commentator Cokie Roberts—aim to clear up the confusion.
The oldest child of automobile heir Henry Ford II and his philanthropist wife, Anne, Ford learned the dos and don'ts at boarding school and at her family's suburban Detroit estate. These days the three-time divorcée focuses her energies on hospital philanthropy and her four young grandchildren by only child Elena, 35, an executive with Ford Motor Company. (Elena's father was Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, Ford's first husband.) Surrounded by European and Asian art in her regal living room, Ford spoke with PEOPLE's Debbie Seaman about manners in the new millennium.
Is this a dark age for decorum?
I find that everybody has gotten very laid-back about their manners.
Isn't being laid-back a good thing?
Not when it leads to rudeness. That's the bottom line in my book: Etiquette means consideration for others. It's very easy to do, and it doesn't cost any money.
What are some of your pet peeves?
Cell phones drive me crazy because people are inconsiderate about how they use them. I was at a restaurant the other day, and the phone of a girl down the row kept going off loudly. It was annoying!
Did you complain?
I didn't feel that I was in a position to do anything. But generally, if someone at a neighboring table gets call after call, you should go to the maitre d' and ask that he intervene.
What is the proper cell-phone etiquette?
Don't put your phone on the table at a restaurant, and don't take calls unless it's an emergency. At the movies, set it to vibrate, not ring. On public transportation, use your phone unobtrusively—no one wants to listen to your personal affairs.
How about e-mail?
Always start with a salutation. I wouldn't say anything in e-mails that you didn't want other people to read. And you should check your spelling and grammar.
How have changing gender roles affected etiquette?
One thing that is so nice is that women can have male friends. They don't have to be boyfriends. I never had that growing up. And now that women can ask men out, it makes life a little easier. But I think it's nice when two people come to a door together and a man steps aside and opens the door for a woman.
Who should pay the check?
If the woman asks the man out the first time around, it's appropriate for her to pay. A lot of couples go Dutch. But if the man offers to pay, fine! Sure!
What are your guidelines for work attire?
I'm not in favor of jeans, tight sweaters and midriffs showing in the office. Or spaghetti straps. Save those for the beach. When in doubt about how to dress, look at some of the company's senior people. Kate Spade contributed a chapter in my book on dressing appropriately. She believes in dressing up for special occasions, and I do too. It's hard for me to accept that people don't dress up for the ballet, the theater and the opera. It shows a lack of respect.
Political pundit Cokie Roberts contributes a chapter in your book on marital etiquette. How has it changed over the years?
I think people are more aware of the need for mutual respect. Cokie writes about her marriage [to journalist Steven Roberts], and part of her advice is not to say the first thing that comes into your mind during a quarrel. You can say things in a way that isn't disrespectful. Don't just take off on each other.
What do you consider the most important etiquette rule of all?
I think Cokie says it best: Good " manners aren't something you put in a drawer and pull out for strangers.
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