November 11, 2003

A Note on Social Etiquette Here and Elsewhere

Today I happened to come across a brief party-and-dinner etiquette primer by Martin Booe, published in the Los Angeles Times in several parts on a date or dates that cannot readily be determined.

The collection is useful, even if it includes few surprises or new nuggets of knowledge. (At least for me.) However, one part of the series, that entitled “How to Start a Conversation,” caught my eye. In this piece Booe writes:

I used to find making small talk much easier than I do now. I blame this on knowing too many Europeans, who have convinced me that the standard American icebreaker -- “So, what do you do?” -- is invasive, rude[,] and unimaginative, the equivalent of asking, “So, what can you do for me?”

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles -- in fact, I’ve only visited once -- but I hardly find it surprising that asking, “So, what do you do?”, is considered a perfectly acceptable manner by which to start a conversation with a stranger in that city and its sprawling environs.

And having lived previously in Washington, D.C., and New York, I can assert, with no hesitation whatsoever, that in both of these cities that particular question is not only considered suitable, it is, if anything, de rigueur. Moreover, one had better have prepared an impressive answer unless one wishes to spend the evening in morbid, ignored silence. (Not that I ever had a problem with that.)

But now I live in Philadelphia, and while my social life leaves much to be desired and is a far cry from that which I enjoyed earlier in life, I’ve picked up a few regional variations on standard American etiquette (as practiced, not instructed) that apply here.

As it happens, one of the local idiosyncrasies is that one must never, under any conceivable circumstance or in any possible social situation, ask a Philadelphian what he or she does for a living. (Just try asking Atrios how he earns his keep.)

And it matters not one bit how tactfully this question is phrased. I would almost go so far as to say that should one meet a prominent Philadelphian at a social gathering one might be best advised to feign complete and utter unfamiliarity with the gentleman or lady to whom one has just been introduced.

I’m not sure why this is exactly. (Nor do I understand why most long-time Philadelphians call the sidewalk “the pavement,” which a new friend did just last night.) But inquiring as to a stranger, social companion, or new acquaintance’s line of work simply isn’t done here. It is quite widely considered impolite, rude, and condescending. And this is true not only of one’s first meeting, but of the second, third, fourth, and so on. Although the information may be volunteered during the initial conversation, if it is not one must wait, patiently, to be provided this knowledge solely at the other party’s leisure and convenience.

I suppose this quirk adds to the general air of mystery and modesty that helps explain why so few Americans outside Philadelphia understand the true character and many virtues of this great city.

Speaking for myself, I kind of like this random oddity, but I’ve really got to work on some new opening lines.

(Maybe the answer is to be found somewhere in Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia, the landmark study by University of Pennsylvania sociology professor E. Digby Baltzell, a book that just happens to be on the Rittenhouse wish list at


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