One-Sided Conversations, Vol. 18, Issue 38

Dear Etiquetteer:

How do I go about encouraging new acquaintances to take as much interest in my stories as I take in theirs?

I am a very good listener, I am frequently told. I work at it. I smile, I nod, I ask appropriate questions. It’s not hard for me to do because I am genuinely interested, most of the time.

The problem is I rarely find myself in reciprocal conversations. While I hear many details about a new acquaintance’s life, he or she rarely has many questions or shows much interest when I start to tell my own story. This is a phenomenon that happens over and over again when speaking with new acquaintances, or when recent acquaintances become friends on second or third visits.

I do not believe that I am I dolt. I know how to keep a story lighthearted. I can get a laugh when I want to. I watch for interest in the eyes and body language of my listener. I am not a shut-in or an ignoramus. I have quite an interesting life with occasional adventures. Why do people fail to ask me about myself?

In many cases, when I start to tell a story, individuals suddenly respond in some remotely related manner and make the story all about themselves.

How do I keep the conversation focused on my stories for part of the time? I do not want to dominate the conversation, but I do want to have a part in it.

Dear Conversing:

Etiquetteer must agree that you are a not a dolt. No dolt would have written a letter as thoughtful as this. But whoever came up with “Virtue is its own reward” gave us a raw deal. We need to find a sensitive way to get you the reciprocal attention needed for Good Social Intercourse.

No matter what people tell you, everyone wants an audience. An attentive audience. Not the sort of audience you’re facing. Perhaps this is why you draw new acquaintances around you, because you exhibit all the good listener skills you list: smiling, nodding, asking the right questions. Being a Silent Example of Perfect Propriety, however, doesn’t always get the right results. Etiquetteer thinks this is because storytellers get so excited about sharing something that they cease to pay attention to what’s going on except as it creates an opening for them to dive in.*

These storytellers, your new acquaintances, need to be called out gently. If they’re interrupting, you need to say something like “Before we get into that, please let me me finish what I was saying. I think it relates nicely” or even “Please don’t interrupt. This won’t take long.” If you’ve had to put up with a Great Deal of Interruption, Etiquetteer will allow you to say, gently but firmly “You know, I’ve been very attentive to what you’ve had to say. I’d like to finish my story now.” The formally inclined could include “Pray do me the courtesy of hearing me out."

When encountering the inattentive, the classic admonitions still work: “You don’t seem very interested in what I have to say” or, more candidly, “I’m afraid I’m boring you.” In each case, your acquaintance should then turn to you with equal attention, and Etiquetteer believes that most will. Those who don’t, Etiquetteer is sorry to say, are simply unworthy of you. Direct your attention to others who show some conversational give and take.

Etiquetteer wishes you new acquaintances who are both attentive and fascinating in equal measure.


*Etiquetteer has had to roll his eyes and put out a restraining hand with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who has been known to get Quite Jumpy about sharing Important Reminiscences when others have the floor.

"Irish" Greetings, or Unwelcome Social Kissing, Vol. 18, Issue 36

Dear Etiquetteer:

I have recently become friendly with a gentleman who is a bit older than me and is bartender at a restaurant near where I work. I tend to go every Friday and I see him every time, but he is one of the best bartenders I have ever had. Very professional, polite, and knows wine and beer well. He also gives me free chowder and desserts sometimes. I would say we are friends or on that level. We sometimes chat in between the slow times and busy times. Since I have been going to the same spot, and have the same drink, the bartender and I have become friendly but on a professional yet casual level. We talk about how each of our families are, weekend plans, etc. As a nice gesture I mentioned how we should grab coffee sometime just to chat and hang out like any normal person would do.

So that time of grabbing coffee came and things kind of took a turn. When I entered the coffee shop he greeted me with a handshake like he always does, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Now he does not know that I have a boyfriend, but I did mention that I did several times while we were talking. Just to make sure there was no confusion. I did not tell him prior to this coffee hang out only because I felt that was more on the personal level and I do not share that information with strangers. I find I need to get to know them a little better before sharing more personal information. Regardless, I was so taken back by this kiss on the cheek that I had to clear the air and ask if this was a typical Irish greeting since he is from Ireland and goes back and forth a lot or if this was something else. He said it was just a greeting but then I said again “Well I am dating someone” and it was fine from there.

When it was time to leave he did it again! So I ask you, is this normal or an Irish custom to kiss someone on the cheek every time you greet them or say goodbye? How would one handle this? I don't want to lose him as a friend or have the dynamic change just because I have a boyfriend but how do you handle something like this?

Thank you!

Dear Greeted:

There are so many interesting dynamics in play in your situation: customer/employee, female/male, younger/older. Your Irish Bartender’s professional rapport led you to initiate a personal friendship, which is perfectly fine. A friendship outside the workplace (in this case, his workplace, the bar), does allow people to relax and reveal more of themselves than they might in the workplace. Your Irish Bartender’s personality, if not cultural tradition, expresses friendship in a physical way that it doesn’t when he’s behind the bar. Obviously you weren’t expecting that. Etiquetteer doesn’t find anyone at fault here; let’s figure out a way to keep you comfortable while nurturing a new friendship.

Many old customs are being reevaluated in the #MeToo era, including social kissing. While social kissing has been going on forever and should in no way compromise romantic relationships*, the old rule is that a gentleman never forces his attentions on a lady. If a lady doesn’t want to be kissed, that should be the end of it. (Many women object to social-type kissing in professional settings, especially when initiated by men**. And they’re speaking up. If we’re gonna treat everyone in the workplace equally, then nobody gets kissed, or everybody does. And since male-male social kissing is not the norm in American culture, then we know exactly how that’s gonna play out in the workplace***.)

The time-honored emergency solution to deflect an unwanted kiss is to avert one’s face so that the kisser ends up kissing the side of one’s head. Once, as a result of this method, Etiquetteer ended up kissing someone’s ear. That definitely sends a message to knock off the kissing! Etiquetteer has also known ladies who “head one off at the pass” by taking a step back and offering a Strong Forthright Handshake. (Ladies - and gentlemen - you are invited to share your own tips for avoiding unwanted embraces by emailing Etiquetteer.)

You mentioned this to the Irish Bartender twice now at your first coffee meetup, and Etiquetteer would encourage you to give him one more meetup to see if he’s paying attention to your aversion. If he isn’t, offer him your ear (no, Etiquetteer is not kidding) or the Strong Forthright Handshake (you need to be standing for that) and see if he gets the message. If he does, great, but remain vigilant at subsequent one-on-ones. If not, you can make the choice of telling him kindly “I know you’re just being friendly and I am enjoying getting to know you as a friend, but I’m just not comfortable with social kissing,” reverting to your professional relationship at the bar, or seeing him on a friendly basis in a group setting with other friends of yours (and perhaps your boyfriend).

Etiquetteer wishes you and your Irish Bartender Friend a successful and strong friendship based on respect for personal boundaries.

One last note: people, if you are going to kiss socially, please do so silently. Making that mwah mwah sound is Just Not Perfectly Proper. Mercy goodness, if they’re doing it on Real Housewives of South Boston it couldn't possibly be Perfectly Proper!


*Whereas a kiss on the lips is too intimate for casual social kissing. President Jimmy Carter famously broke protocol and kissed Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the lips. She remarked later that “Nobody has done that since my husband died.” Her remark was given in such a way to show that she was not eager for a repeat.

**And sometimes men are, too. Ask a Manager offers advice to a male manager disturbed about colleagues greeting his male staffer with a handshake and his female staffer with a two-cheek kiss.

***That said, Etiquetteer initiated a lot of two-cheek kissing (of ladies) in the workplace Back in the Day, especially when working in the performing arts, where (it could be argued) it’s more usual. Indeed, it was while working at a ballet company that the balletomanes taught Etiquetteer the difference between the French method of cheek kissing (two kisses, left then right) and the Italian method (three kisses, left right left). But, as Edith Wharton used to say, “Autre temps, autre moeurs.”

Black Tie for Clergy, Vol. 18, Issue 34

Dear Etiquetteer:

I am a Pentecostal clergyman that works ecumenically and I’ve been invited to an award banquet gala of a large Catholic charity. There will be several Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Monks, Deacons and Nuns in attendance. Many from the Vatican. All in their formal attire and bedazzled with their religious accoutrements.

Within my tradition, we don’t wear clothing different from our laity. In the pulpit the older preachers/pastors wear a nice business suit with tie, while younger clergy may with an open dress shirt or polo shirt and jeans To a wedding we wear a black suit with tie. To a black tie event, would we wear a current trend/style tuxedo? How should I dress for this “Black Tie Event”? I always wear a small gold lapel pin with the name of the ecumenical nonprofit faith-based organization with which I’m affiliated.

Should I wear a tuxedo with black tie? Can I wear a banded color with pretty buttons and no tie? I really want to wear my gold lapel pin in, since I’m there regarding my work . . .

What say you?

Dear Clergyman:

Since your religious tradition seems not to include a uniform, Etiquetteer sees no difficulty in your wearing a conservative black tuxedo with modest accessories to the banquet. Gentleman’s Gazette published an interesting piece on clerical formal wear for Catholic and Anglican clergy, with illustrations, that might give you an idea of how your fellow banqueters may appear.

Conservative clothing, especially for formal occasions, tends to raise fewer eyebrows for the clergy. So Etiquetteer must advise you to consider a traditional black bow tie and waistcoat with a traditional pleated shirt and the plainest possible cufflinks and shirt studs. Banded collars that substitute some sort of jewel for a bow tie - well, Etiquetteer’s not a fan. And it sounds as though you’ll be traveling in some Heavily Bejeweled Company that night. You wouldn’t want anyone to have the uncharitable thought “Well, if that’s the best he could do . . . “

Discreet lapel pins may be worn with black tie, so by all means wear your usual pin in the buttonhole on your left lapel. It’s worth noting here, too, that Perfect Propriety demands only one lapel pin. Loading up one’s lapels like “flairs” on a waiter’s vest diminishes one’s formality.

You didn’t ask, but Etiquetteer does hope that you will encourage your younger colleagues in the clergy to make more of an effort with their “Sunday go to meeting” clothes. While it is most necessary in Christian traditions to avoid the sins of Pride and Vanity*, Etiquetteer was brought up by his father to show respect to the Deity and to the tradition of public worship by attending in a suit and tie. And it will help to establish their appearance of your younger colleagues as leaders in the church community.

Etiquetteer wishes you a beautiful and Perfectly Proper evening at the banquet!

*This is good practice in general, whether you do or don’t follow a religious creed.

Attending Your Class Reunion, Vol. 18, Issue 33

Dear Etiquetteer:

I will be attending my 50th high school reunion on September 28 with my husband. I am anticipating about one hour of fun, and torture for anything longer than that. What is the proper way to excuse yourself from a party when you want to leave early without hurting anyone’s feelings?

Dear Reuniting:

First off, Etiquetteer has to confess to a weakness for reunions, so much so that That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much enjoys the distinction of being the only member of his high school class to have attended all its reunions. The purpose of any reunion worth its salt is to see old friends and make new ones, and so often the passage of time obscures earlier differences (much in the same way moss covers a disagreeable birth date on a tombstone.)* Shucks, Civil War veterans of both sides came together for reunions after 75 years! So Etiquetteer is very glad to hear that you are going to yours.

Your anxiety about going, though, is not uncommon. You can help assure yourself of a good time by calling some Friends of Bygone Days (in advance - start now!) to find out if they, too, are planning to come. Knowing in advance that people you know will also be there will help make you feel more comfortable. And if none of them can come, accept that a) you will have to talk to people you may not know well, and b) have some pleasant, non-confrontational topics at hand to start conversations. As at any dinner party, stay away from politics and religion (though if you went to a religious school, that might end up being the centerpiece of the night, including any fireworks).

The kind of event your school planned will influence an exit strategy. If it’s just a big general party, like a cocktail party, you should be able to duck out with a simple “We have to go on to something else tonight, but it was great to see you!” (The “something else” could be the safety of your recliner, but they don’t need to know that.) But if there’s a meal involved, especially if it’s a seated, somewhat formal dinner, it’s rude to leave before dessert. So if you’re already feeling antsy when dinner is announced, make your farewells then. But should you stay, as soon as you’ve bolted down your chocolate mousse, you can run for the door. Etiquetteer has witnessed a lot of college 50th reunions, and about one third of formal dinner attendees start leaving as soon as dessert is served. Etiquetteer is not a fan of feigning illness, but if worse comes to worst, you can put a pleading look in your eyes, turn to your husband, and say “Honey, I’m really not feeling very well. Please take me home.” The urgency of your illness will prevent any lengthy farewells.

Your husband is going to be an important part of your evening; be sure he is on board with your exit strategy in advance. You should also help him enjoy the evening by making introductions to old friends and classmates (and their spouses) who end up talking to you. One of the more awkward aspects of attending someone’s class reunion (when you aren’t also in the class) is having to stand watching your beloved having an animated conversation with someone who’s a total stranger to you - and you don’t even know their name! Everyone who goes to a class reunion - whether they graduated in the class (or didn’t!), married into it, were brought forth by it, or serve as caregivers to it - gets to have a seat at the table, so to speak.

Etiquetteer hopes and expects that you’ll end up having a much better time at your reunion than you anticipate. Please write back and let Etiquetteer know how it went.

*Read Dorothy Parker’s poem “The Actress” from Tombstones in the Starlight for more information.


Online Behavior, Vol. 18, Issue 31

Dear Etiquetteer:

When, and how, and if, should I reply to rude behavior on social media? I'm thinking less of angry arguments, and more about proclamations of taste, made by closer friends and family, that insult those that do not share it. My preferred mode is silence, but not addressing it also makes me incredibly stressed and sometimes sad.

Dear Stressed and Sad:

When considering how to interact with someone whose public statements have offended you - or at least made you raise your eyebrows - the first thing to ask yourself is what outcome you want. If all you want is to express your own view, that’s one thing. If you want to change that person’s behavior, or at least make that person reconsider how they make others feel, that’s another. Regardless, you need to acknowledge to yourself that, no matter what you say, it’s possible that this person’s behavior will not change.

People often entrench themselves further in beliefs or behaviors if they feel publicly shamed. Etiquetteer can’t find that surprising; when attacked, one’s instinct is to defend one’s position. This makes a private approach less threatening, whether by email, private message via social media*, by letter, or even in person one on one**. Express yourself calmly (verbal pyrotechnics feel so satisfying, but don’t always help solve the problem) along the lines of “What you said about [Insert Issue Here] isn’t something I agree with. I may not change your mind, but I want to tell you why I think the way I think.” Then dispassionately state your case. Sometimes links to online references help; other times they give the appearance of hectoring. Use discernment.

It’s also important to point out that not everyone cares about what other people think, and not everyone cares about being polite. This always makes Etiquetteer think of Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen:” “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”

With that in mind, we have to accept that the reputation of Twitter is that of an online platform where Volanic Hurly-Burly is preferred over Civil Discourse. Think twice before engaging there. Yes, Etiquetteer is on Twitter - all the etiquette writers are - but engaging there only with Perfect Propriety!


*This is not quite the same thing as “sliding into the DMs!”

**This means not in a party setting, even just off in the corner.

"Full Canonicals," Summer Edition

Etiquetteer first read the expression”full canonicals” reading the diaries of Ellen Maury Slayden, that beloved Congressman’s wife between the wars*, sharply observant daughter of the blueblooded Maurys of Virginia. While its true meaning refers only to the clergy (“the complete costume of an officiating clergyman or ecclesiastic”), she used it a few times to refer to Congressional wives who appeared dressed in their very best day clothes to discuss Matters of Importance.

Etiquetteer has whimsically taken up the expression for his own wardrobe, and here is the summertime version of “full canonicals” for a Perfectly Proper gentleman:

Bostonian  cognoscenti  will of course recognize the doorway.

Bostonian cognoscenti will of course recognize the doorway.

  • Panama hat

  • Seersucker suit

  • White dress shirt (white is always the most formal)

  • White bucks (note the novelty shoelaces of light blue; white is really more Perfectly Proper)

Traditionalists will be quick to point out the absence of a pocket square, so allow Etiquetteer to Beat Them to the Punch.

*The Spanish-American War and World War I, that is.

Signs of the Times, Vol. 18, Issue 28

Etiquetteer occasionally likes to run a photo essay of instructional signs seen out in the world.


No exceptions. Not even for a moment!


No sitting please!


A subtle invitation.


Hard times call for hard measures!


An example of the most abhorrent condescension.


Seen in London. Etiquetteer loves the words “antisocial driving” defining all driving that’s out of bounds.


Seen on the back of a restroom door. Clever placement!

Followup Questions, Vol. 18, Issue 23

Etiquetteer was delighted to receive a couple followup questions from readers after last weekend’s column on Random Issues.

Dear Etiquetteer:

A few questions following up on your most recent post. As a host, I always query guests on food likes and dislikes. Is that improper? Likewise, after spending much time in Boston and now living in a more "relaxed" city, I often find myself overdressed for events. Should I dress as I know the occasion calls for or match the attire of the attendees?

Dear Hostly:

Inquiring about the culinary likes and dislikes of your guests in advance of their arrival at your party is considered thoughtful now, but not required. Fifty years ago it would have been unthinkable. As long as you aren’t giving the impression that you’re a short-order cook able to turn out whatever they want instantly, you should be OK.

Now, as to proper dress, the more snobbish side of Etiquetteer would say that you are correctly dressed and that everyone else is underdressed for the occasion at hand. That, however, is not a Perfectly Proper attitude to have. You have a couple choices: adopt the local dress code and stand out by blending in, or continue to dress as you always have and stand out by standing out. Since you’re living in a new city, it’s important to make a cordial impression on your new neighbors and associates. Your traditional dress code becomes a problem if the locals think you’re putting on airs. If you can wear your clothes without letting them wear you - if you can be kind and welcoming without preening yourself - then you’ll blend in just fine. But if you’re tempted to use your clothes to think of yourself as above the natives . . . well, Etiquetteer needs to advise you to dress down to avoid a dressing-down.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I adore my stepson, I truly do. He's a great guy, forty-one years old, and very helpful to us. I didn't rear him, however. He is single and joins us for most of our social activities and almost all of our family meals. He has two annoying, and, at least to me, obtrusive habits at table. Firstly, he cuts his meat up into little bites before he begins to eat, not one at a time as he eats. He does this with things like baked potatoes as well.

Secondly, he butters bread and picks it up to take big bites out of it, again not breaking pieces off. I find it fairly disgusting, actually. I've tried to teach by example, but have never said a word. I'm not sure how to approach the topic, or even if I should. I know I'm particular, and was brought up by English people who were real sticklers for form and was taught directly how to handle every and any table situation. Do you have any ideas? Thanks in advance for your time and attention.

Dear Stepfather:

The table manners you want to instill are indeed the correct ones. It’s Perfectly Proper to break off a bit of roll and butter it by itself rather than buttering the entire roll and biting off it. It’s more grownup to cut and eat one piece of meat at a time and not all at once. Traditionally children and invalids have their food prepared for them in this way.

Leading quietly by example remains the most Perfectly Proper way to influence those around you. Etiquetteer must advise you to continue this course and not to raise your concern with your stepson. You might think that Etiquetteer advises this because you’re the stepparent, and therefore more likely to be equated with the famous Wicked Stepmother of the fairy tales. And that is a part of it. But your stepson is well past the age of adulthood, well past the age of having to receive parental instruction. At forty-one, his table manners may have to fall under the heading of Tolerated Eccentricity.

Could there be an exception to this? If your stepson mentions that he’s having difficulty dating, or at work, you might discreetly discuss with him how he thinks he presents himself in these situations. Some years ago Etiquetteer was lunching with a promising young professional who licked the table knife. Believing that this person could go far in a career, and being alone, Etiquetteer was able to say a Discreet Word in an Avuncular Tone without unnecessary embarrassment.

Etiquetteer wishes you success as you continue to serve as an exemplar of Perfect Propriety.