Good etiquette for a bad economy

As you know, the best minds in Washington, D.C., are working to fix the economy. That strongly suggests to me that the recession is going to be around for a while yet.

So how are we to behave in our reduced state of prosperity? What etiquette should we observe? To answer these questions, I am writing an important and timely book, "Good Manners That Poor You Can Afford."

Today I am privileged to be able to give you a sample. Imaginary friends who are a bit down on their luck have provided me with a list of questions that I believe will turn me into the Emily Post of this down-at-mouth generation:

Q: My 401(k) has plummeted 30 percent but recently a group of friends were saying that they had lost 40 percent. Isn’t it the height of rudeness for people to be boasting that they have suffered more?

A: You are right to be agitated. This is crass behavior — and so unnecessary. The market is volatile, and a boastful chap who says he has one leg in the poor house at 10 a.m. may be in clover by noon and wiped out again by the closing bell.

It is also the case that your own portfolio may beat that of your friends in appalling performance over the long haul. In this economy, it is ill manners to count your chickens in public before they depreciate.

Ignore their boasting. The classy thing to do is to have a stiff upper lip and try to fake sincerity in response to their plight.

Q: The other day I got a can of Spam from a young lady of my acquaintance for my birthday. I have never received such an expensive and intimate gift. Am I obliged to marry her?

A: That would be the gentlemanly thing to do. Misery loves company, and such a thoughtful person might make a good match. Of course, spouses can be very expensive, and if she gave you the Spam out of pity because your ribs were sticking out, you may not be able to afford to keep her in the style to which she is not accustomed.

At the very least, you should thank her profusely and offer to take her on a date — perhaps in a public park. You could bring the can of Spam in a gaily decorated if otherwise empty picnic basket and relive the days of wine and roses.

Q: I am hoping to be stimulated by President Barack Obama’s plan. So far I am not stimulated, and I really am not in the mood to be stimulated because I have a headache. Is it proper to talk about this in mixed company?

A: Certainly. We have moved on in our society and today mixed company can discuss many subjects previously off-limits. So if you find yourself in mixed company of rich and poor people, feel free to talk about your personal predicament.

Fortunately, President Obama is getting us all in the mood to romance the economy by setting a roaring fire. Unfortunately, he is burning money for fuel.

Q: Last week I saw a Boy Scout help an old lady across the road and then charge her 25 cents for this service. Isn’t this deplorable?

A: As someone who has worked as an editorial writer, I can say with confidence that anything is deplorable. In this case, however, you do not know whether the elderly lady wasn’t trying to stimulate the economy one quarter at a time.

If this is what it takes, we should all carry old ladies across the street piggyback style until the engines of commerce are buzzing again.

Q: I was always taught never to discuss religion and politics, but I am dying to blame someone for the government’s spending binge. Whom can I blame without offending anyone?

A: It does not offend good manners to blame John Maynard Keynes, the eminent British economist whose theory of government intervention in the economy is being followed by Obama — as it was by his predecessor, He Whom We Cannot Bear to Name, in the first stimulus package.

Keynes is long since safely dead. It is left to those of us who are unsafely alive to bear the consequences.

Q: I would like to praise conservatives for rediscovering their sense of fiscal responsibility. It had been missing over the last eight years but they are now talking about generational theft. Is it OK to point this out?

A: Yes, it never hurts to give praise where praise is due. It’s as wonderful as Trixie’s House of Fun and Frolic suddenly switching off the red light after many frisky years and coming out in favor of chastity.

(Note to readers: I think I have a best seller on my hands if anyone can afford it.)

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at) For more stories visit