Metro-East Living

Is it appropriate to ask a woman her age?

Q. I am told I don’t look my age. Don’t act it, as I keep active. Is it proper for someone you barely know to ask your age?

A. No, it is not proper for “someone you barely know” or anyone, for that matter, to ask you your age. I remember as a little girl, perhaps 6, asking my grandmother how old she was. Her reply, “I’m as old as my little finger” was mystifying to me as I recall. I giggled and looked at my mother who quickly explained to me it was not proper to ask a lady her age. It became sort of a mischievous quest or game for me after that to ask my grandmother the same question anyway when we were by ourselves and she was teaching me how to crochet or embroider or just holding me on her lap. She always gave me the same answer.

In examining this subject in the etiquette and “deportment” books in my vintage collection, which date as far back as the early 1800s, the comments are also the same: It is improper to ask a lady her age. Amy Vanderbilt (1952), specifically says, “When people pass the age of thirty-five, don’t ask them their ages or their college year (which is the same as asking their ages).” Why she chose 35 as the cutoff age, I do not know, because there are women younger than 35 who are offended when asked their age.

Further explanations from these early etiquette authors indicate society feels the value and appeal of a woman decreases with age while a man’s value and worth increases with age. Whether that same opinion remains pertinent in this day and age is no doubt very debatable. What I have noticed with interest is this: many women today are proud of their older age and may reply to a complement by saying: “Yes, I think I’m doing very well for an 80 (or 85 or 90-year-old lady).” Regardless of whether a lady offers her age or note, the rule remains: it is improper and rude to ask a lady her age.

Q. Thank you so much for writing your wonderful column in the BND ... since manners are certainly falling apart with the younger generation — some of them, at least.

My problem is that I helped my granddaughter through four years of college and sent money, little notes of congrats, encouragement, and packed a number of boxes of special treats to take to her out-of-state school. She was an excellent student and said thanks from time to time. However, at her graduation party, my husband and I gave her $300 and a gift totaling about $75. We were unable to attend the graduation because of my husband’s health issues. This money was supposed to help her in housing in the fall, she said. I believe we contributed about $3,000 over four years or more... The grad party was in May, however, after that I have not heard one word or received a note, or any thanks.....She did not open the grad gifts at the party itself that day.

Now, our granddaughter will go to an out of state college on a fellowship for her Ph.D. and we are very hurt by her lack of acknowledgment. I also sent her a gift in July for her birthday...Is this a new generational change....No notes, no thanks. I invited her to lunch twice, but she was too busy...etc.

A. Unfortunately, as you stated: “manners are certainly falling apart with the younger generation — some of them, at least.” Some etiquette experts feel this apparent “slide in displaying proper manners” is attributable to the supposed faster pace of our lives, both parents working full time while raising their children and certain aspects of modern technology. Regardless of what the cause is, it is a serious problem and responsible, in part, for the deterioration of civility in our country.

Having said that, just because an individual is highly educated with several degrees, does not mean they can shirk their education in proper manners. Your granddaughter should have been writing you thank-you notes, thank-you notes, thank-you notes, and calling you to thank you for all you and your husband have done for her over these many years. Furthermore, her parents should have been reminding her to do this.

If your granddaughter does not appreciate what you have been doing for her enough to sit down and write you a thank-you note, or pick up the phone and call you, or take time to have lunch with you, you certainly should not feel obligated to shower her with any more money or gifts in the future. As I tell my etiquette class students, regardless of their age: “Academic education does not guarantee success; it is having proper manners which is the key element in achieving success.”

Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Dianne Isbell at Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to