Barry Saunders

How do you call someone fat? You don’t – Saunders

Advice columnists Ann Landers and her twin sister, Abigail Van Buren, have both been dead for a while, but that doesn’t stop people from asking them questions – or them from dispensing advice.

Have you ever wondered how that could be, how some newspapers are still running “Dear Abby” columns?

So have I. That’s why you may find it strange that when I was feeling incorrect recently and needed advice on being socially correct, I, too, called Dear Abby, but one I can actually talk to.

Abigail George is an etiquette expert who runs the George School of Protocol in Durham. She makes her living teaching a whole lot more than which fork to use and not to chew with your mouth open. She teaches how to dress appropriately for the occasion, how to handle yourself in different social situations and what’s appropriate and inappropriate as conversation fodder.

Too bad Renee Ellmers didn’t call George before she committed the political faux pas of commenting negatively on the weight of a woman working for Ellmers’ political opponent, George Holding.

Dear Abby, I asked, “is it ever cool to call someone fat?”

“It’s definitely never OK to tell someone they’ve gained weight,” George said. “Depending upon the nature of your relationship, you can tell someone” if they’ve lost weight. “If I were a male, I probably wouldn’t say ‘Oh, you look good. You’ve lost weight’ to a woman. That might be taken the wrong way, but if it’s a man to a man, I think it’s probably OK to mention.”

In other words, NEVER! There is no circumstance in which I can imagine myself saying to one of my buddies, “Gee, Randy. Your butt looks fetching in those jeans. You been on that Dick Gregory Bahamian Diet or something?”

Innocent comments can be misconstrued, certainly, but there was nothing innocent about Ellmers’ comments to a former political supporter. As Ellmers – on her way to vote – strolled past Maggie Sandrock, the former Harnett County GOP chairwoman who switched her support to Holding, Ellmers uttered this bon mot — not to be confused with a bon bon — “You’re eating a little bit too much pork barbecue. Whoo!”

(If you’re anything like me, you didn’t know it was possible to eat too much barbecue.)

When a TV reporter asked Ellmers about the insensitive observation, which was caught on camera, she was unapologetic, didn’t even say, “Oh, I was just joshing.” She instead said, “Yeah, she put on a little weight.”

Sandrock described the incident as “typical Renee” and called her “a mean girl on steroids.”

If Ellmers were just totally committed to commenting on the woman’s alleged weight gain, she could have been more tactful and obfuscatory. Instead of saying what she said, Ellmers could have conveyed the same message with, “My, you’re looking a bit more steatopygian than usual.”

Equally tasteless, sure, but it has the added benefit of allowing you to be two counties over before anyone can look up “steatopygous” – go ahead, I’ll wait – and know what you’re talking about.

I asked George if the apparent relaxation – relaxation, my eye: the breakdown – of civility we’re witnessing today is related to what’s happening in politics or if what’s happening in politics is related to what’s become acceptable in society.

“These are interesting times,” she said, “and we’re seeing something very different from what we’ve seen before with our presidential race. As far as there being a link between the breakdown in our culture in regards to etiquette and protocol (and politics) or the lack thereof, I think the frontrunner is a representation of the choice of the people.

“If the people are choosing who is running and leading,” she said, “that is a reflection of our attitudes, at least about how we’re feeling about what’s happening with our country. A lot of people are searching for authenticity. They want something real, because we know politicians are very clever and skilled at saying things in such a way as not to offend. ... The question is, ‘Should we sacrifice being respectful and civil for that desire to have someone honest and authentic?’”

Several years ago, I interviewed a former Durham restaurateur whose joint served chitlins. He said, in essence, that he didn’t like to clean them too thoroughly because that removed some of the “authenticity” from the flavor. Philip White, at the time the chef at the Sheraton Hotel on Page Road, scoffed. White said he’d “settle for a little less authenticity.”

That’s what I say when it comes to our current political climate: I’ll settle for a little less authenticity, too.