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The last great hope of society

By
July 26, 2007

Today’s column is about class and American society. Please do not run for the hills immediately because I write as a man of the people. Maybe you will thank me later. (Foolish me, I always live in hope.)

The question of the day is: What makes a classy person in the best sense of the word? Wearing an ascot and looking a perfect chump at a cocktail party won’t do it, even if you complete your ensemble with red or green pants decorated with little whales.

Yet, I myself have been tempted on occasion to don an ascot for a night out and was only saved by a spousal death-ray stare.

You see, as a resident of Sewickley, Pa., where being classy is required by municipal ordinance (I believe it’s in the same statute as compulsory paddle-tennis playing and the ownership of yellow Labs), I do feel the need to go to absurd lengths to show that I have arrived.

Admittedly, this is silly. It’s not very hard to arrive — you can take the 16A bus to get there, but that apparently won’t do.

Still, as an outsider observing classy people and the great pretenders who seek to walk in their loafers, I have come to understand a thing or two about proper social behavior.

This is what I know: Class is not about riches, fine tailoring, good schooling, correct use of forks at dinner parties and the rest of it, although some posh persons would have you believe otherwise.

No, at the end of the day, when the cocktail hour comes around and the mind becomes mellow enough to make proper judgments, what separates the nouveau riche, the parvenu, the social climber or the crawler or the bounder from the truly classy person is the writing of personal thank-you notes.

True class is about thoughtfulness, not income. It is about saying “please” and “thank you,” and writing down “thank you” later just in case your hosts were deaf.

Mothers, according to the song, should not let their babies grow up to be cowboys. What I am saying is that it doesn’t matter that they grow up to be cowboys as long as they have been taught to write thank-you notes. (“Dear Bull: Thank you for a wonderful ride. I do hope my spurs did not give offense.”)

Everywhere in modern life the gentle customs and civilized practices are under siege, and the writers of thank-you notes stand athwart this depressing tide. The barbarians may be at the gates, but the home guard of civilization must first write thank-you notes for past kindnesses before they deal with the unpleasantness.

This is very good and its virtue only came clear to me the other day. From time to time, I speak to community groups desperate for entertainment. In the question-and-answer period at a residence for senior citizens, a lady asked me whether I thought the sending of e-mails would spell doom for the U.S. Postal Service.

No, I said, as long as the good people of Sewickley are sending their thank-you notes, and by extension decent folks in other places in America are applying themselves to embossed stationery where civilization still holds sway, then the Postal Service is safe from ruin.

To be sure, it is tough on the carriers. I see them manfully trudging along, their bags bulging with thank-you notes, as the yellow Labs and golden retrievers bark a doleful chorus. They are consoled in knowing that they are the last messengers of good manners.

Truly, the proud boast can be said of these noble workers: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor the residue of a heavy social calendar can stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

You think I mock. No, I do not mock. I sincerely admire the habit of thank-you-note writing. It takes great talent to write the perfect thank-you note. Haiku and sonnet writing are as nothing compared to this. For all my art and craft, I cannot write a good thank-you note to save myself. I can never think of what to say after, you know, “thank you.” That is why I remain an ingrate without any class.

Despite what I told that nice lady, I fear that it may yet happen that mothers do not pass on the thank-you-note tradition to their children. Worse yet, the children might learn the protocol imperfectly and start e-mailing or — horror of horrors — begin text-messaging their thank-you notes.

Then, the rough beast, its hour come round at last, will slouch toward the post office to be undelivered. No, thank you.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)

3 Responses to The last great hope of society

  1. Steve Horn

    July 26, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Reg – Spot on. The lack of civility and manners is leading the decline of our civilization.
    Please note that I write this dressed in chino’s a blue button down oxford cloth shirt, boat shoes and no socks, having grown up on the outter fringes of the “Main Line” of Philadelphia.
    My children say please and thank you, and we always bring a gift when taking up an invitaiton to visit someones home. These manners may seem trivial, and I may mock them from time to time, but I try to never forget them, as they are the true basis of our society.
    Being rude is, apparently, quite easy. Hog the left lane while driving a pedestrian pace, stand in the “10 items or less” lane with a full shopping cart, fail to acknowledge gifts, scholarships or honors, it’s seems to have become the American way, and perhaps, just perhaps, that’s why a George W. Bush can be elected to President, because we’re abandoning people of breeding and manners for those who (claim that they) will do something.
    I applaud you for your column, but in lieu of an embossed thank you note, just this one time, I’ll allow an email to suffice.

    Steve

  2. allan hirsh

    July 26, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    mr. hirsh
    I used to think I had class until I read this column. I still have civility but definitely no class. Lenny Bruce made a distinction between “jewish” and “goyish.” In his terminology, you didn’t have to be jewish to be “jewish.” To him, certain prominent jews were not “jewish,” Sophie Tucker, Georgie Jessel, and Eddie Cantor among them. Certain non-jews were “jewish,” Thelonius Monk one example, but not at the time of his bit, Louis Armstrong, who in the ’50’s was considered a sellout ( although not today). If you can think of anybody who made some money honestly, unlike my doctor, then they’ve got class too.

  3. geyser

    July 26, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    It was many years before I heard of “Thank-You” notes.On my many Birthday’s and Christmas’s the presents from Grandmother or a Great Aunt was always a piece of clothing, which could always do without writing a Thank you note. My Mother would eventually call each of them sometime during the year, in the middle of the conversation, mother would say Thank you, for me.
    Aren’t we leaving something out? A Thank-you note does not cover every situation although, I think some would like it to.
    To remain civil at all times, there are situations where a Thank-you note would be inappropriate to send in fact it could be seen as an insult or crass.
    I have a Yellow Lab so, I was being civil without even knowing it.
    Knowing when not to send a Thank-you note is as important as knowing when to.

    After watching the SuperBowl at a friends house, your team is soundly trounced, his team wins, send a Thank-you note or not?

    Being invited to Dinner where the hostess completely ruins every course and all at the table show their displeasure by looks alone, send a Thank-you note or not?

    For the Dinner, to send a Thank-you note, would be in bad taste but, it would also show the hostess what you thought of her Dinner.

    The Superbowl, The wording of the note would be important, if you sent a note at all. You could be Thanking your friend for the Finger food that was served even if the Chips were stale, the Dip watery and tasteless and the cheap Beer that was Flat. He can also be reminded of the way he showed Sportsmenship, opening the Backyard doors and screaming the score to the entire Community. Last of the note, tell him that in Seven seconds the Letter Bomb will detonate in his hands.

    Taking One Day at a Time