A New Environment for Polite Behavior : Etiquette: Letitia Baldrige says the aim in everyday situations is to teach manners without ending up in fisticuffs.


There is something new to worry about: being ecologically correct. But how do you get your message across in polite company without being confrontational?

Letitia Baldrige, manners adviser to five first ladies and author of “The New Manners for the ‘90s” (Rawson, $24.95), recognizes the dilemma.

“When somebody throws something out the car window, honk at them, but don’t give them the finger,” Baldrige says. “We’ve got to temper our negative feelings about people who desecrate the environment.”

As far as people dropping trash on the street, “I do believe in picking it up and saying, ‘Oh, I think you dropped this,’ ” she says. “A lot of people do that now, politely and nicely, and I think it’s very effective.”


Baldrige hopes the 1980s atmosphere of “acquire, possess and have the right to do whatever I want” is gone.

“We have a lot of societal problems that we have to fix in the 1990s,” she says.

“But I think the young people are aware of this for the first time. The young were so apathetic in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. There was no campus activism. But now they’re excited about many issues, and the environment is one of them.”

Some young friends of Baldrige got a chance to use written communication during a camping trip.

The people in the camper next to them had departed early in the morning, leaving behind their trash and garbage. Her friends cleaned the campsite.

The next day, they spotted the camper, but not the occupants. They wrote a long letter and left it on the windshield, explaining that they had stopped at the campsite and saw how messy it had been left.

They wrote: “We know it wasn’t your intention to ruin the environment or make it impossible for all the other campers to enjoy it. But we cleaned up your mess, and we want you to know we helped you out. And we know you’ll do the same thing for somebody else some day.”

Baldrige says: “Now that’s effective, and probably made those people stop and think.”

Aural pollution is another kind of pollution that bothers Baldrige.

“I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been on a city street or in an elevator, and young women will use four-letter words and all kinds of foul language,” she says.

“I stop them, put my hand on their arm and say, ‘I have something to tell you. I’m old enough to be your grandmother. You’re young and beautiful, and you’ve got the whole world ahead of you, but you have no idea what that polluting language does to change my perception and everybody else’s perception of you.’ ”

Baldrige believes in the courage of her convictions.

“You have to speak up; you really do,” she says. “But the point of all this is not to get into a confrontation but to convince instead. I believe in teaching manners without causing fisticuffs.”

If your style is caustic, Baldrige says, the message is lost.

“The best thing we can do to save the planet is set a good example for our kids at home,” she says.

“Revive that old tradition of napkin rings and cloth napkins and cut down on paper use. Give presents to new mothers of a diaper service. Recycle.”

But if you are visiting your parents, and they are not recycling, think before you speak.

“Each community has different rules about this. If there isn’t a setup for recycling, don’t take this out on your parents,” Baldrige says. “Instead, find out where to take the bottles and offer to do that for them. Show them; don’t tell them.”

She believes that the family dinner table is a place to slip in some environmental messages.

“Don’t abuse drugs or alcohol in front of your kids--or at all, for that matter,” she says. “They will do as you do, not as you say.”

But a social dinner is not the place to be preaching.

“It’s a great rudeness to give a lecture or to reject somebody else’s food,” she says. “There’s such a lack of good dinner conversation that it’s not the time to turn it into a soapbox.”

If you have decided to be a vegetarian, let the host know ahead of time. Often, there will be plenty of items that you can eat.

Smoking can be another sore point. “I make it easy for my smoking friends by setting up a place on the patio for them,” she says. “But they know not to smoke in the house.”

Her attitude certainly has shifted from dinner parties of years ago.

“I used to go around polishing the sterling-silver cigarette holders and putting out matchboxes and silver ashtrays; I spent hours getting the smoking accessories ready,” she says. “Now I think the only people left who smoke are nicotine addicts.”

Baldrige is not a smoker, “but I learned to smoke at Vassar so I could look like Lauren Bacall, cool and sophisticated. What’s sad is some girls, at age 11, are still picking up the habit for the same reasons I did.”

One final pollution area Baldrige would like to tackle is movie theaters.

“They may smoke in Irish movie theaters, which is certainly a fire hazard, but we Americans leave all kinds of trash behind, plus we’re always spilling sticky soda and throwing chewing gum on the floor,” she says.

“I think I could make a lot of money selling recyclable plastic booties you could buy to save your shoes.”