Gentleman Scholar

The Gentleman’s Guide to Summering

For starters, don’t say you’re “summering.”

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Recently, someone bragged to me they were “summering in the Hamptons.” Inquiring further, I discovered they only go for a week, which doesn’t sound like “summering” to me and clearly didn’t deserve a brag. Is there a rule of thumb about time spent somewhere before you can call it “summering”?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Thank you for relaying the anecdote. Please join me in explicating this touchingly pathetic error.

The braggart flamboyantly attached a present participle (summering) befitting the girlhood of Jacqueline Bouvier to a prepositional phrase (in the Hamptons) reeking of vulgar opulence. Because a week’s vacation is, on its face, not grand enough to rate as “summering,” this status-seeker has, with his overreaching choice of words, contributed to the vulgar atmosphere of that place even before his arrival. This is the setup for a micro-comedy of manners. The guy’s not just putting on airs. He’s putting them on incorrectly.

Despite the polluted aura of Long Island’s South Fork, some people of good taste spend a lot of time in the hamlets and villages there; they tend to avoid ostentatious mention of a monolithic “Hamptons,” you’ll notice, as the status-seeker evidently has not. It’s a minor bit of buffoonery, yes, but this is one of the realms where a command of linguistic nuance—of knowing to say that one is on Cape Cod (rather that in or at it), or that in England one always goes down to the country (rather than up or out to it)—distinguishes the adept poseur. This klutz obliquely brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase for a secondary character in Tender Is the Night: “an arriviste who had not arrived.”

How much time must you spend somewhere before you can correctly call it summering? One plausible answer to this question is at least six weeks. (And I suppose that bona fide snowbirds—retirees seasonally shuttling between the Gulfs of Maine and Mexico, say—have a right to the word.) Another plausible answer is two generations. (But I’d like to think that people born to the manor are those most keenly aware that this usage is terribly antique and may paint the speaker as some stereotypical Muffy or central-casting Chip.) Overall, it would be wisest to use summer as a verb only in limited contexts, such as when describing the migratory patterns of humpback whales.

And it would be worthwhile to consider this braggart in the context of the larger American tradition of trying to impress people by telling them where we spend our leisure time. Take for example those oval stickers—known within the trade as “Euro stickers” on account of their overseas inspiration—designed to awe you with the fact that a driver has been to MV (Martha’s Vineyard), say, or ACK (Nantucket) or OBX (the Outer Banks). LOL (tacky). These decals, currently celebrating their 20th birthday, seem permanently adhered to middle-class culture, and I know that any attempt to shame the public into renouncing them will be futile, but here goes: I defy you to disprove the social scientist who explained to the New York Times that “those oval bumper stickers stand out as the ultimate in gratuitous boasting.” Here’s his challenge: “You can’t even invent an excuse [for buying one] that wouldn’t be embarrassing to repeat in public.”

Leaving Euro-sticker apologists to struggle at that task, the rest of us should now move on to a refresher course in hospitality, which derives from the Latin word hospes, which means both host and guest. That co-identity of terms neatly reflects the golden rule of vacation-house behavior: Imagine yourself in the other guy’s shoes (and, therefore, when in doubt, assume it’s a rule of the house to remove your shoes inside and that your host will be too polite to correct a misstep).

The last time the Census Bureau checked, there were 4.6 million “seasonal, recreational, or occasional use homes” in the United States. I interpret this fact to mean that there will be tens of millions of opportunities this summer for Americans to be good guests. The good guest arrives at the appointed hour, which he has calculated while bearing in mind that no one in the history of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways has “beaten” Friday traffic without waking at 4 a.m. The good guest departs relatively early on his last day after stripping his bed of its sheets. It is very difficult for a good guest to bail out ahead of schedule, no matter how dreary his environment; as Emily Post dictated in 1922, you’ve got to attempt a ruse while keeping a smiling upper lip:

If you go to stay in a small house in the country, and they give you a bed full of lumps, in a room of mosquitoes and flies, in a chamber over that of a crying baby, under the eaves with a temperature of over a hundred, you can the next morning walk to the village, and send yourself a telegram and leave! But though you feel starved, exhausted, wilted, and are mosquito bitten until you resemble a well-developed case of chickenpox or measles, by not so much as a facial muscle must you let the family know that your comfort lacked anything that your happiest imagination could picture.

The good guest does not touch the TV remote, or make any suggestions about which of its buttons to push, unless invited to do so. The good guest does not become absorbed in his laptop or tablet or phone and in fact tries to stow all electronic devices in his room whenever possible.

The good weekend guest treats his host to at least one meal. The good guest helps with the dishes. The good guest places his drink upon a coaster. The good guest does not have to be told that a book is not a coaster because, if you put a drink on a book, I will reflexively bark that sentence at you, and that’ll be bad: A good host behaves as if his guest can do no wrong.