Category Archives: Social Graces

Courtly Behavior for the 21st Century

Social graces, manners, and politeness are a strange thing to me. I grew up in a government town, full of embassies and other places that expect a certain level of formality, attending holiday parties at the World Bank, and making regular theatre trips to the Kennedy Center among others. And yes, part of this is class privilege, courtesy of my grandparents. But when I wasn’t putting on my best manners to go out in a green velvet dress and mingle with … I don’t even know who all was at those parties. I suspect I’d be retroactively terrified if I found out. When I wasn’t doing that, I was climbing trees and scraping my knees and running around in skirts hanging from things with my underwear showing because my skirt would fly up around my head, and I gave absolutely no fucks who saw. (Mostly woodland wildlife. This was not in a very populated area, I did know better than that.) I ran barefoot in the woods, rubbed mud into people’s hair, and learned how to swear creatively and at length from my friends in the theatre. And I was far more comfortable there than I was sitting down to a place setting that had 4 forks, 3 knives, and more spoons than I knew what to do with.

(Answer: Start from the outside and work your way in. Always works.)

So, eventually I grew up and became even more uncouth, stopped wearing skirts and started wearing jeans, and slowly ran out of fucks to give for what people thought of me and my behavior. Not that I give terribly many, now, as you can no doubt tell by the amount of swearing I do in this blog. But then I grew up a little more, I started working on myself in the Courtesan School format, and the catalyst for this latest realization, I started working on the blog Unspooling Fiction with the brainsister and Editrix.

This doesn’t actually have anything to do with the material within that blog, which is why I haven’t linked it. But it was the catalyst for moving in more public spaces, with more eyes on me than I was used to. I’ve mentioned here before about putting on a public face (and how much I hate it sometimes); this was a large part of learning how to do that. Learning to strike a balance between the super-formality I thought of as “business professional” from childhood and the more, shall we say, earthy personality I prefer and fall into day to day.

Pull up a chair, kiddos. Mamma Kitty’s going to teach you how to be a Courtesan (or Courtier, if you prefer the less sexually loaded term) in the 21st century.


1. Language, Part 1

Language is important. You learned your pleases and thank yous when you were little, and guess what? They’re still relevant. I don’t just mean a hurried “Thanks”, though, and more and more I hear people dropping the intial “please”es. I’m guilty of that myself, sometimes. But it’s all important, the “Excuse me,” the “Please,” the “If I may” and the “Thank you.” Learn to use them in conversation. Get into the habit of putting “Thank you for your time [and consideration]” after every cover and query letter, in fact, after every letter where you’re asking the recipient for something. You don’t need to be unctuous, nor do you need to make yourself into a push-over; all the words after ‘excuse me’ can be as solid or forceful as you like. As long as they are the correct words (we’ll get into that in a bit) and as long as they are polite.

2. Awareness

This is also going to sound like a gimme, a lot of this advice will, but you’d be surprised how rarely it’s followed. Be aware of your surroundings. More than that, be aware of the people you’re interacting with. If they’re dealing with ten things at once, all of them irritating, now might not be the best time to interrupt and ask for a favor. If you want to know something about a celebrity and you’re trying to ask them, look to see if it’s listed on their website, a FAQ they’ve authored and linked to, any other verified site first before you ask them a question they’ve answered ten times before. As you’re asking, run the question through your head a time or two and think about what you’re asking, the words you’re using, and how you’re presenting it. On the flip side, if someone is asking you for a favor, consider how they’re asking it and how they might feel (nervous? scared? or are they presuming you’ll be pleased to have the honor of doing them a favor?), and respond accordingly. Listen to what other people are saying, if you’re in person look at their body language, and be aware of the environment you’re putting yourself into, rather than expecting it to conform to your needs and desires.

3. Presentation

Goes hand in hand with awareness. In the meat world, this means what you wear, what you say, how you carry yourself, how clearly you speak. There are approximately a frillion and one websites telling you how to dress for various types of jobs (those that don’t have a dress code), and only slightly fewer telling you 10 things your body language says about you, so I won’t go into that here. What I will remind you of, though, is that presentation matters. Not just wearing the right clothes or making the right movements, but presenting them as natural and not as though you’ll spend the entire day in your new office job itching to get out of your pants-suit and put on some jeans and throw yourself on the couch with a tub of ice cream. Your clothes, your body language, and your speech must be natural and confident. Practice if you have to. Don’t think that I’m not practicing wearing skirts before I have to potentially wear one in public at a fancy restaurant or something, so that I don’t look like a greasy robot in a prom dress. Look up elocution exercises and practice those if you have to. When I officiated the brainsister’s wedding, you bet your sweet ass we sat up in the prep room and repeated “To sit in solemn silence” five times before we all had to speak things in public. Overall and most important, you are presenting yourself as a competent goddamn person in your field. Remember it, and believe it, and it’ll make it that much easier for your audience to do so as well.

4. Language, pt 2. 

So, we talked about polite language up above, now we’re going to talk about accurate language. Because Words Matter. Yes, that is a hill upon which I will die. It’s easier to pick your words when you’re operating in a text-based medium than when you’re in person, but getting into the habit of doing so is a good thing. Step one is to improve your vocabulary by reading. There are other ways, but few so enjoyable. Step two is to use your vocabulary so it doesn’t shrivel up and die somewhere in the back of your brain. The most enjoyable part of that is figuring out new and creative (and for a bonus, less offensive!) ways to tell someone they’re an idiot but, sadly, that’s also less useful than it sounds. Unless your job involves quality control or peer review, and then it’s games and fun. (I kid. Mostly.) Other, more useful ways to extend your vocabulary involve reviewing books or movies or albums, things you’ve experienced. Regarding the workplace, update your resume even if you don’t think you need to, and find new ways to describe your daily tasks so as to present them in a flattering light, in terms of the skills you learn and use, the responsibilities you have. This matters because you will find many occasions in your life where you need to be either persuasive or descriptive, and accuracy counts for quite a bit. Neglect not the context, either. There’s a certain level of informality that goes with writing a blog entry, but you can be damn sure I will use no four letter words when requesting an interview for Unspooling Fiction with a show-runner or actor. And, unless said show-runner or actor’s behavior invites it (read: unless they do so first), no swearing in public, either.

5. Preparation

Goes hand in hand with awareness and also presentation. Be prepared. It’s not just for Boy Scouts and evil lions singing showtunes anymore! Be prepared physically, research the right tools and outfit to have, and have them to hand. For Portland, sure, I’m packing my jeans and blouses for fun days hiking around zoos and things, but I’m also packing slacks and a blazer to give the impression that I’m a respectable professional. (I know, I’m shocked, too.) We’re bringing three sets of business cards between the two of us: one each for A and myself as individuals, and a handful of Unspooling Fiction business cards. They’re useful, given that these days anyone might have a Twitter, an email address, and a cell phone number they want to give out. But, then again, they’re only useful within a certain context. Figure out what you’re going to physically need. Make a list if you have to. This goes hand in hand with being prepared mentally; life will always throw you curveballs but you can still brace for impact. As we go to Portland we’re looking at possibilities, maybe preparing some phrases in our heads for what we might say if we meet any of the actors or crew. (Hint: It starts with “Excuse me” and ends with “Thank you [for your time/for talking with us/etc]”) We’re also preparing ourselves by keeping our expectations as broad as possible. It’s likely that we won’t meet anyone, for example! But if we do, we’ll know where our towels are, and we won’t panic.

6. Confidence

Own your awesome. Be comfortable with who you are. And other such platitudes. I’m not even a little bit kidding about this one, though, as trite as it can sound. Part of the reason we’ve gotten as far as we have from where we started with the Unspooling Fiction blog is because we know who we are, liberal-minded academics with a penchant for discussing at length and in detail, who occasionally digress onto related topics and who have a broad knowledge base. And we are absolutely unashamed of it. There’s a lot of pushback out there against people, especially people who are not in certain categories (white upper-middle-class male), to be quiet and diffident and apologize before saying anything. The hell with that. “Excuse me” is the phrase for interrupting someone because interruption is a social misdemeanor. It is not the phrase for having an opinion, having contradictory knowledge, or having information to impart. If you’re not certain of your sources, either cite them (“According to…” “I read in…” “[source] said that…”) or say “I believe.” If you’re sure of your sources but not sure of yourself, leave out the weakening words and simply state the facts as you know them. And all that said, be confident enough that you are willing to be corrected. Goes along with preparation up above, too. Don’t take any old correction (“Because I said so.” “Because I’m [older/whiter/more male]”) but if that correction has been sourced and has basis, be confident enough of your worth that you can be wrong, as well. Sometimes that’s the hardest part.

7. Grace

There’s a lot of things that are rapidly becoming lost arts these days. Calligraphy and letter writing. Patience and pacing. Other things, like courtship or general social interaction, are changing so fast that we can’t always keep up with it. In which case, it almost stands out if you do employ some of the older graces from bygone days. Study formal letter writing! Employ it, if it seems appropriate. Practice your bow and your head-nod, the one for a full-on handshaking meet and greet and the other for people whose hands you don’t have to shake or who you pass by in the hall. Practice eating delicately if you fear you don’t! I may or may not be doing this ahead of Portland, I’ll never tell. Practice your elocution, the habit of typing things out even in casual chat like Twitter or instant message, practice a firm yet graceful handshake. Practice walking across a room if you have to. With a book on your head, for better posture. It’s the small things, I find, more than the large, that get people’s attention. It’s as if conforming to an era when social interaction had more rules and structures to follow makes other people take you more seriously. And that said…

8. Individuality

Never let any of these contravene who you are. Detecting falsehood is at least as much instinctive as it is training in all those micro-expressions, and if bowing or using highly formal speech isn’t something natural to you, either practice until it is or find a different way to accomplish the same goal. The function of bowing is to show respect; how else can you show respect in a way that’s clear to most people whom you might meet? The function of formal speech is to show both education/capability and that you take the subject under discussion seriously; how can you convey that in a form more natural to your manner of thinking? My manner of thinking, as you see, comes naturally to complex and ornate language. Yours might not! Make it work for you. Be prepared, even if you have to use notecards in your public speech. Be confident, even if you have to remind yourself or ask your friends to remind you that you are, in fact, qualified and capable. Be yourself, because being someone else not only is a pain in the ass, it’s also a handicap that will chip away at your ability to do everything else on this list. And if you think your self can never include awareness, grace, or preparedness… well, you’d be surprised how far you can stretch, if you take it step by slow and steady step. Consider that this post is five and a half years in the making! Be patient and aware of yourself, as well.

Okay, I lied, there’s a ninth part to this that’s also my overall bit of advice to you: have fun with it. I’m completely serious. When the girls and I called our little self-improvement plan Courtesan School it was as much because it sounds cool as anything. When the bestie and I started getting ready to go to Portland, we got business cards as much because it’s fun to dress up and pretend we’re sobersrs adults as because it’s easier to hand out business cards than constantly find scraps of paper to write our Twitter handles and emails on. I like slapping color on anything that will stand still: yarn, fabric, leather, paper, so putting on makeup is just an extension of that. Do I have to quote Mary Poppins at you? Possibly not, but here goes: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” You find the fun, and it may not be instantly easier to do, but it’s at least a little bit easier, goes by a little bit quicker. And it makes that task, and you, a little more likely to work.

Now go, my children, and be proper courtesans. A courtesan is, after all, someone who made a place where none existed, and did it with such confidence and grace that no one questioned their right. May you do the same.