« Case of the Disappearing Frogs | Main | More Waves for eBay »

Manners and Morals

When complimented upon a counterfeit watch, should one confess its nefarious origins or simply say "thank you"?

Franck Muller ChronographPhilip Galanes' "Social Q's" column in the Sunday New York Times approaches this question as all good etiquette lessons do, by confronting the perplexed party with a point of view he hadn't considered.  In this case, that of the company that manufactured the original and holds related intellectual property rights.  And, for good measure, society at large.

The answer deftly assumes that the questioner, who actually revealed his full name, feels guilty about wearing a $30 imitation of a "$15,000 beauty," suggesting that this guilt might best be assuaged by writing a letter of apology to Franck Muller.  To underscore the point, the column calls attention to local schools and hospitals deprived of the tax dollars that are the result of legal rather than illegal commerce.

Of course, Mr. James Lister Smith of Mill Valley probably never felt guilty about buying the fake watch at all, just uncertain about whether to lie about it by omission.  But perhaps he feels a bit abashed now.  Or at least tired of everyone at the office this morning asking to see his fake watch and noting its deficiencies.

The original question, naturally, goes unanswered.  Instead, in the hands of the etiquette expert an inquiry about manners becomes one about morals, as he informs the reader that the copy should never have been purchased at all -- without ever saying so directly. 

And so the brilliant and iconoclastic Dorothy Parker, who once described the mastery of etiquette as ultimately reaching  "a point of exquisite dullness," is for once proven wrong.  An apparently simple question of manners is just as often a well-dressed battle of wits.