Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: A young woman on a date who is too timid to ask where the toilet is meets with disastrous results.
Origins: The legend of the social-climbing young lady and her fall from both grace and a bathroom sink dates to at least 1991. It's usually set in Britain, where one could possibly still find older homes in which the bathroom (or washroom) contained only a washstand and where one would therefore need to ask for the "water closet" if one expected to be directed to the toilet, or (as in the first example above) in a "rich person's home" where one might find a "vanity room" with only a sink. (Neither explanation really applies to the second example above, in which the girl is clearly from the same area and social class as the boy she's dating.)
This related version was told by novelist and biographer Andrew Sinclair:
[Morley, 1982]As a legend, the "sink tinkle" shares a number of elements with the more common crushed dog tale in which an over-anxious guest manages to kill the family pooch by sitting on it. It's therefore no surprise to see the two combined into one story as they appear in the second example above. Crushed dog tales often include a
A friend of mine from Australia was asked to an elegant party in Eaton Square. Caviar was to be served after the champagne. Having drunk too much of that, my friend found his way to the bathroom. He groped around for a light switch, but did not discover it. He then groped around for a lavatory, but did not discover one. Finally, he found the edge of the bath and settled for that. He relieved himself slowly and fully, then turned on the taps to swill away the evidence.
Going back to the party, he asked his hostess where the caviar might be. 'Packed on ice,' she said, 'in the bath. I am just going to get it.' He went instead, walking quickly back to Australia.
[Brunvand, 1989]A 1996 British version of the crushed dog tale also includes a
A young man, new in town, is invited to a party at an expensive home. He falls asleep after drinking heavily and awakens in a dark room. While fumbling for the light switch, he accidentally sticks his finger into an open ink well and leaves stains and fingerprints all over the room.
Embarrassed by the damage he has done, the young man slips away unnoticed. The next day he decides to return and apologize.
He was admitted by a servant, who led him to a dim library to await his host or hostess. He entered the library, and sank into the nearest comfortable chair, only to hear and feel a mind-boggling CRUNCH! The young man leapt to his feet to discover that he had crushed a delicate Chihuahua to death. He fled again, and never returned.
Be it spilled ink, a broken sink, or a crushed dog, at the heart of each of these tales lies an overriding commonality — the unforgivable social error committed by someone clearly out of his element. Stories such as these are our way of venting such fears, getting them out in the open where we can laugh at them, but at the same time confirming to ourselves how very much we dread some day becoming the one to break the sink or squash the dog.
Only because the following story fits well enough with the theme of social embarrassment to permit me an excuse to slip it in here, I present the following letter to Miss Manners:
Dear Miss Manners:Doesn't a broken sink or a squashed dog now almost sound picayune in comparison?
This may sound silly, but I'm serious. When someone suffers a particularly embarrassing accident in front of you and many others, what is the socially appropriate response? My husband and I got into an argument about this. We recently visited Boston, and while we were there, we attended a large party where everyone was elegantly dressed. At the party, a lady in a low-cut gown tripped, stumbled, lurched across a table, falling face first into a bowl of guacamole dip, and in the process "popped out" of her top. After an initial stunned silence, practically everyone in the room burst out laughing, even though it was obvious that the lady was terribly embarrassed. Then the hostess rushed over to help her and ushered her upstairs.
After we left the party, I criticized my husband for laughing and told him I thought it was very bad manners. But he said that it was not impolite for people to laugh at something like that as long as they meant no harm and didn't "overdo" it. I said it was inconsiderate of the person's feelings to laugh at all. He said it's the social custom. Could you settle the argument?
What do you mean "something like that"? Miss Manners doubts that there is anything in the world like an elegantly dressed Bostonian lurching across the room and diving face first into a bowl of guacamole dip while simultaneously disengaging her bodice from her bosom. Therefore, Miss Manners has a wee bit of trouble preparing a general rule for dealing with this eventuality. Nor, if she were your husband, would she attempt to justify a reaction on grounds other than direct cause and effect.
One might try to ignore a less spectacular accident. If, say, it were avocado dip, rather than guacamole, and the lady had merely trailed her sleeve in it, one could pretend not to have noticed. To pretend not to notice a performance such as you have described — even if it were humanly possible — would be to suggest that the lady did it all the time and her friends have gotten used to it. It is far better to comfort her later by telling stories of your own about hilariously embarrassing accidents you have survived.
Barbara "social quirker" Mikkelson
Sightings: The "crushed dog" part of the legend shows up in Tom Robbin's 1980 novel Still Life with Woodpecker. Those looking for the "broken sink" part of the story will find that in an episode of television's The Single Guy (a short-lived sitcom aired in the U.S. from
Last updated: 25 May 2011
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