How Young Etiquetteer Was Embarrassed, Vol. 14, Issue 36

You may have heard Etiquetteer tell this story before, but it came to mind vividly again, and Etiquetteer must tell (or retell) it now for the record. Etiquetteer has always had an interest in seeing things done with Perfect Propriety and with people Behaving Well. And as a college student, Young Etiquetteer had an equal and abiding interest in Free Food. So one day many years ago Young Etiquetteer received with pleasure an invitation from an elderly lady to a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton. What could be more Perfectly Proper than a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton? Young Etiquetteer accepted the invitation with alacrity and brushed off his best suit in preparation.

Now this elderly lady - let's refer to her as Madame - who Young Etiquetteer had never really met, was a friend of Young Etiquetteer's Stern Grandmother, but there was no reason to suspect she might be any different from the legions of elderly ladies Young Etiquetteer had been entertaining since birth: full of indulgent smiles, Christian rectitude, canasta, and a dash of genealogy. Young Etiquetteer's eyes were to be opened, as Madame's principal focus was Herself and Her Reactions, as we shall see.

In those days*, the Ritz-Carlton dining room was described by many as the most beautiful room in Boston, and to a young man who hoped to be Perfectly Proper it was considered a crucible of Perfectly Propriety. From its snowy napery to its brocade draperies to its famous cobalt glass chandeliers and goblets, the room represented what Americans used to aspire to (and should continue aspire to today) as the Good Life. But almost from the beginning, Madame set a very different tone.

She was first nonplussed (but quietly) about an odd feature of 1980s restaurant etiquette: maitre d's who kissed on the mouth. Next, loudly exclaiming over the beauty of the china, Madame picked up the service plate like the latest bestseller to read the trademark. Young Etiquetteer, who had not only been taught that the first thing you did at table was put your napkin in your lap but also that you never did anything so gauche as to examine the provenance of the china, was nearly demolished by this. But more was still to come.

This occasion proved to be Young Etiquetteer's first encounter with service à la russe, which requires one to serve oneself each course from large platters offered by the waiter. Negotiating salmon with asparagus and hollandaise sauce is difficult enough for the uninitiated, but made even more so with Ceaseless Commentary on the novelty of the service from Madame, who thought it was different and charming, and didn't fail to mention this at top volume anytime a waiter - any waiter - appeared within two feet of us. She was having a wonderful time, and wanted everyone to know it!

This luncheon was not an ordinary luncheon, but a fashion luncheon featuring beautiful models in exquisite clothes (day and evening) languidly strolling among the tables. The place Young Etiquetteer was filling was originally intended for a Female Relation of Madame's who was unable to attend. Young Etiquetteer was one of perhaps three men present, somewhat ambivalently relishing the Walter Mitty role, but enjoying the setting, the (free) luncheon, and indeed the couture promenade. Madame was enjoying it, too, and assailed each model with Expressions of Delight, and also some Embarrassing Questions. She asked one model for her phone number to share with her son! Etiquetteer did not know quite where to look.

But the most embarrassing moment came after dessert. With the conclusion of the luncheon, the models were circulating with little lipsticks as favors for the ladies. Madame dearly wanted one to share with her Female Relation, but she wanted one for herself more. And when a beautiful model presented her with a lipstick, Young Etiquetteer froze in fright to hear Madame respond with Six Horrifying Words:

"Aren't you gonna give him one?"

Young Etiquetteer withered under the icy stare of the model, who asked "Do you need one?" in such a way as to question Young Etiquetteer's masculinity, upbringing, and right to exist - none of which seemed to matter to Madame, so intently was she focused on a free lipstick. "Certainly not!" replied Young Etiquetteer, whose limit had been reached, and the model passed on. Words were passed, but the mood restored, and of course Young Etiquetteer omitted any reference in the Lovely Note mailed the next day.

The morals of this tale, if there are any, would be that a) consideration of the feelings of others is an important part of daily life, b) to be distracted by trinkets indicates a lack of breeding**, and c) that there is no such thing as a free luncheon.

*The mid-1980s.

**The lyric from Chess comes to mind: "Trinkets in airports sufficient to lead them astray."

smalletiquetteer

Online Discretion Offline, Vol. 14, Issue 32

Dear Etiquetteer: I was recently on vacation with my husband. We were at a local bar in [Insert Name of Resort Town Popular With Those Who Have Achieved Equal Marriage Here] when a guy walked by, turned around, looked at me and said "[Insert Name of Social Media Platform* Here]!" I was quite uncomfortable. While my husband knows I'm using this social media, he assumes the worst about being on it. For social media etiquette when recognizing someone from here, I would assume it would be alright to say hello to someone if they were by themselves, but if not, you may not want to bring something up about their online life. Your thoughts?

Dear Online:

Oddly enough, Etiquetteer had a somewhat similar experience earlier this year while rushing through an art exhibition to be Perfectly Punctual for a friend's presentation. In Etiquetteer's path appeared a handsome, vaguely familiar man. Only later did Etiquetteer recognize him as an online contact. The response Etiquetteer received to a private message apologizing for any perception of a snub reinforced how wise it was not to have approached him, because he wasn't alone and claimed Social Awkwardness when Caught Off Guard.

Etiquetteer is fond of quoting "Discretion is the better part of valor," and it really is a pity that your Social Media Contact  didn't consider that. At the very least he could've said "Excuse me, but haven't I seen your photo on [Insert Name of Social Media Platform Here]?" But a discreet bow or nod is best, or even no contact at all. Etiquetteer is reminded that, in the days before World War I when mistresses were much more established in the daily life of France, no man stepping out with his demimondaine would be acknowledged by his friends, and certainly not by the friends of his wife.

Still, in a barroom, where one's Internal Monologue may have escaped with the help of Spiritous Liquors, that is a risk. Etiquetteer rather wonders if, when your online "friend" hailed with the name of your Shared Social Media, you responded "No, I pronounce my name Smith."

Etiquetteer hopes that you experience no recurrence of this exposure of your Inner Life. But you may wish to make such a recurrence less embarrassing by reassuring your husband about the best aspects of being part of this Social Media Platform.

*Etiquetteer must hasten to add that this Social Media Platform in question was not - how shall Etiquetteer say this? - created for facilitating the most casual of encounters.

Un-invitation, Vol. 14, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: For a long time I've given a big party every year to celebrate something fun, but this year I've decided to do something different for myself that won't be a party. What's my obligation to tell people they won't be hearing from me as usual? It feels weird to tell people, but I also want to be thoughtful for folks to make other plans if they want to. What's the rule?

Dear Unhosting:

Your query brought to mind two things almost at once. The first was the voice of a Dear Friend, who delights repeating the old saw "When you assume, you make an ass of you and me" when Situations of This Sort arise. The other was Washington author and journalist Sally Quinn and her 1997 book The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining. Etiquetteer recalls La Quinn writing about her annual New Year's Eve party, but that also some years she and her husband Ben Bradlee would just go off to the country place instead and not host it. This led to some confusion from guests who, out of force of habit, just showed up at their dark town house and found nothing happening.

It's the responsibility of your guests not to assume there's a party if they haven't received an invitation. There is no social requirement to issue an un-invitation*, a term of Etiquetteer's invention that means "an announcement of an event that will not take place." That said, if you want to "control your own narrative" and ensure that people don't start creating Gossip, it makes sense to email your usual guest list to say that your plans have changed and that what they have come to expect will not, in fact, be on the calendar. Etiquetteer imagines that such an announcement would be helpful for those who travel.

*Etiquetteer was all set to call this an "unvitation," but that term has already been invented and defined by the cast of Seinfeld.

Grieving Online, Vol. 13, Issue 58

Dear Etiquetteer: Recently a friend of mine passed away unexpectedly at a young age (under 50). You can imagine people’s shock and distress and sorrow. What are the rules for posting about one’s grief over the passing of a loved one in the era of social media? It seems that letting the family announce the death first on social media would be important. Also, it seems that many people had to outdo each other with stories of how horrible it was to them that this person passed away. Also there were speculations and rumors about the cause of death and all sorts of gossip out in the public. What advice could Etiquetteer provide?

Dear Bereaved:

First, let Etiquetteer offer condolences on the death of your friend. It's expected that the death of a friend, regardless of age or circumstances, will bring up many memories along with feelings of sadness - indeed, many emotions. And it's understandable that the bereaved will be drawn closer to others who knew the deceased to grieve together. But how we express ourselves in person doesn't always translate the same way online, especially when grieving.

The ways we communicate in the 21st century haven't necessarily adapted well to Perfect Propriety. For instance, social media now creates a public (or at least highly visible) record of information that used to be shared by whispering behind one's fan or privately in a letter to only one person. (Do you remember letters? While Etiquetteer does enjoy the convenience of email, the intimacy of letters is missed. Etiquetteer misses them even more than he misses fans for those gossiping old biddies . . . um, Great Ladies.)

It is understandable that people want to share their grief, but many don't always understand that respecting the feelings of others, especially the family, is even more important. It's necessarily thoughtful to wait until the family has made a death announcement before sharing the news (and one's reactions to it) oneself online. Imagine learning about the death of your son or daughter from Facebook! Etiquetteer would like to see everyone spared this sort of shock. One complication is that the family can't always be assumed to be using the same social media. Before expressing one's grief publicly in a social media post, it's best to confirm the news with the family or someone closer to the family than oneself.

Freedom of Speech is the most valuable American freedom, and as such, it needs to be used responsibly. Etiquetteer deplores the Grief Sweepstakes you describe - "I'm the most grief-stricken!" "No, I'M the most grief-stricken!" - which is the mark of a Vulgar Exhibitionist. While not wishing to pooh-pooh anyone's grief at the death of a friend or family member, Etiquetteer must gently remind everyone that it's the deceased that is the proper focus of attention, not one's own emotions at the death of the deceased.

Etiquetteer would vastly prefer to see dialogue about the deceased focus on personal acts of kindness and happy memories rather than (most vulgar of all) speculation on the cause of death. Nothing that might damage the reputation of the deceased should be shared so publicly, online or in person. Etiquetteer still hasn't forgotten attending a small funeral several years ago during which one of the mourners shared many Jolly Recollections of illegal activities committed by the deceased.

In short, "Least said, soonest mended" is the best advice. And don't let the immediacy of the Internet keep you from writing a Lovely Note of Condolence by hand and mailing it to the family.

Would you rather Etiquetteer discuss something more pleasant during the holiday season? It's up to you! Send Etiquetteer a query at <queries> at etiquetteer.com.

The Woes of a Travel Agent, Vol. 13, Issue 37

Dear Etiquetteer: I work in the travel industry, and my colleagues and I provide excellent service for our clients. Two recent incidents made me want to write you to ask "Since when did it become OK to tell people that their jobs are meaningless?"

Not long ago one of my colleagues was seated at an industry event when someone at the table said he could not understand why people use a travel agency when they can go online and "get it cheaper." Well, let me tell you, she told him why in no uncertain terms why people go to travel agencies. She was charming about it, but there was no question when she was finished. She was just great.

It happened again last night, but to me. A well-dressed woman approached me at a party and asked what I did. When I told her she asked if I knew a colleague, and when I told her did she replied: "It amazes me any of you people are still in business." I thanked her for concern, told her that, frankly, I had a good year, but lamented having to answer some form of that question so frequently. "Well, it's no wonder. I really am amazed you still exist." She just kept going. Even if were true, it would be even worse. How completely offensive to force a complete stranger to justify their livelihood, in a casual conversation. Perhaps she considers good manners as obsolete as travel agents.

This is something people in my industry have to address in almost every social situation, and I must say, it's exhausting. I've even had cab drivers, in casual conversation will say things like this. Is it really "perfectly proper" to suggest to someone you've only just met that their livelihood is obsolete, and demand they justify their professional existence? It always seems, at the very least, rude, and at worst, somewhat threatening and insulting.

Dear Justified:

At the very least it's Taking a Liberty to offer an Unsolicited Opinion like that. One wonders if blacksmiths and thatchers had to run the same sort of Challenging Party Chat in their days. Unfortunately few people have any internal monologue any longer, much less sensitivity to the feelings of others. Questions of This Sort might be marginally less offensive if they were couched in concern for your own well-being, such as "What are you doing to retain market share in the face of the rapid growth of the online travel industry?" But only marginally.

Etiquetteer suspects what you really want to know is how to get out of conversations like this, and the answer is really a sort of verbal Bunburying. You remember Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, yes? Algernon's fictional friend in the country, Bunbury, who he had to go visit whenever he had to get out of an invitation, is what you require, while also making a point about the stability of your industry. Respond thus: "Happily not everyone feels the same way you do! We're having a very successful year. Now please excuse me, I must go greet one of my friendliest clients." And then walk away without waiting for a response; that will communicate that you've taken offense.

Should you wish to engage such a person in conversation - and anything is possible - draw out the other person's travel practices, and then turn the conversation to specific destinations mentioned by that person.

Etiquetteer knows personally the values both of booking online and working with an agent, and wishes you and your colleagues well as you champion your industry by providing excellent service to satisfied clients.

Deflecting Intrusive Questions, Vol. 13, Issue 31

Dear Etiquetteer:

How does one handle politely one who blurts out to you in front of others in the middle of a dinner party: "So I hear your father died?" I thought it was inappropriate; did my best to change the subject - it was an awkward, and painful, moment.

Dear Bereaved:

Please accept Etiquetteer's condolences at your bereavement. During a time of so many emotions, Etiquetteer imagines that you found it comforting to join groups of friends for intimate gatherings - until questions like this came up.

Etiquetteer remains astonished at the Blind Idiocy of Some People, who never seem to understand that some matters are more delicate than others. It's one thing to be asked "How is your father?" but quite another to be asked "So I hear your father died?" The use of the word "died" automatically indicates that Mr. Nosey expects that something with a Strong Emotional Impact happened to you and your family, and is too curious about the specifics to consider what impact that Sad Event had on you. Certainly it's an inappropriate question to ask at the dinner table as part of general conversation! At least at a cocktail party you could have changed the subject by moving away. That's difficult to do at the dinner table without Making a Scene, which Etiquetteer knows you didn't want to do.

In situations such as this (awkward questions at the dinner table, when everyone around the table is bound together by Appetite if nothing else for the foreseeable future), what's most important is to maintain the atmosphere of general and pleasant conversation; this will reassure the other guests that they are not about to witness a Dramatic Scene. The polite way for you to handle this is to acknowledge how awkward and painful the question is, but with Great Calmness, and then introduce another topic. "Yes, Father died [Insert Distance of Time Here], and it feels really awkward to be asked about something so painful at the dinner table. I'll give you the particulars later, but now I'd much rather talk about [Insert Diversion Here]." The Diversion might even be the specialty of Mr. Nosey, which will get him thinking about something else.

Should questions persist - because Some People are too ill bred to Take a Hint - your Last Resort is to excuse yourself and head to the bathroom. Whether you need a good cry or not, hopefully your absence from the table will lead someone else to tell Mr. Nosey to be quiet.

Special Advice to Those Who Want to Know: If you really must ask someone about a death in their circle, do so privately and not in such a way that they feel a spotlight is shone on their private grief. It's natural to want to know, but selfish to call it out.

Long story short, Sensitivity trumps Curiosity.

A Pre-Valentine's Warning from Etiquetteer, Vol. 13, Issue 19

With St. Valentine's Day on its way tomorrow, Etiquetteer feels it necessary - strictly in the name of Perfect Propriety - to advise you against Popping the Question Publicly. Fictionally we have the example of Vicki Lester and Norman Maine, seen here in the George Cukor film of A Star Is Born:

Now you'll notice that the situation was saved beautifully by Our Heroine who, seeing the embarrassment of her beloved, called out "Oh no, that's much too public a proposal to say no to! I accept!" And those who know the story know exactly what that got her . . .

Cruel Reality shows a different outcome:

But if you are really intent on doing this, Etiquetteer has some questions to ask first:

  • How comfortable is your beloved in the spotlight? Are you choosing to propose in public because she likes having attention called to herself, or because you want to call attention to yourself?
  • Are the manner and location of your proposal what you think she might expect of a marriage proposal? (Reviewing that compilation, and recognizing that Etiquetteer might be succumbing to stereotypes, Etiquetteer finds it hard to believe that most women want to entertain proposals of marriage at sporting events or the mall.)
  • Are you 110% sure that your beloved will say yes? And even then, Etiquetteer thinks you should reconsider.
  • Do you have a Graceful Exit planned in the (to you unlikely) event that your proposal is declined? Even if you're 110% sure your beloved will accept, plan one.

Etiquetteer asks these questions not only for your benefit and that of your beloved, but also for the Embarrassed Spectators who, if they don't want to laugh in your face, will want to turn their backs. Please, Etiquetteer begs you, consider your plans very carefully.

Now of course Etiquetteer expects to hear from several people who did witness Successful Public Proposals of Marriage, and that's just wonderful. Etiquetteer is delighted that you had that experience. Etiquetteer rather hopes that Those Who Popped the Question evaluated their situations intelligently.

You may be sure that Etiquetteer will have Shields Up on St. Valentine's Day, and if one of Cupid's little arrows gets in the way, Etiquetteer will use it as a swizzle stick for a martini.

When Hospitalized Overseas, Vol. 13, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: You are such a well-traveled and well-mannered person, I write you to seek your wise guidance as to how to respond correctly to unexpected situations.

1) Imagine Madame in an overseas hospital operating room. She is lying on her right side with her left arm held up out of the way by a restraint, and anesthetized from the chest down, but wide awake and conversing with the surgeon during the operation.

The surgeon, while cutting into Madame, informs her of his progress, to wit: “I am now cutting through all the fat in your butt.” What, pray tell, is the appropriate repartee?

2) Madame brought along with her to the hospital her extendable “grabber/reacher” thing. It's called a PikStik, and the name is on it. There followed some smirks from the nurses.

Upon inquiry, one of the male nurses, blushing, informed Madame that “Pik” was the local dialect word for “external male genitalia”, and that the idea that such equipment could be doubled in length upon command was a concept that was appealing to many. The blushing and snickering persisted with each new staff member to see Madame’s reacher.

Any thoughts as to the proper response?

Dear Patient:

Indeed, one must be patient in a Country Other Than One's Own when interacting within its healthcare system. And it is most important to the retain the sympathies of the healthcare personnel with whom one interacts. That need not come at the expense of one's dignity.

Humor, however, relieves many an awkward situation, and each of these might benefit from a bit of levity. While under the knife, Madame might have responded to the doctor, "I guess it's too late to go on that diet now." In the second, a Victorian etiquette manual (Etiquetteer is gnashing his teeth to remember which one) said that "a lady does not even recognize a double entendre." Alas, we are none of us Victorians . . . still, one can do more with a pointed or coy glance and a raised eyebrow than with any words. But truly, as a hospital patient, one is excused from conversation on the grounds that one just isn't in the best of health and needs to catch up on one's sleep.

Allow Etiquetteer to wish Madame a Swift and Perfectly Proper recovery!

Random Issues and Commentary, Vol. 12, Issue 5

Dear Etiquetteer: When someone sees a bit of food on your face, or a smudge or something else that shouldn't be there, should they tell you about it? Even if it's small?

Dear Smudged:

The question isn't the size of the apparent Impediment to Perfection, but the ability to do something about it. For instance, Etiquetteer has on more than one occasion come home from a party with a dark green bit of spanikopita on his teeth, which would have been easy to remove had someone quietly said, "Etiquetteer, you have a bit of spinach in your teeth." On the other hand, Etiquetteer, like many men, occasionally cuts himself shaving. When the answer to "You have something on your chin" is "It's a scab; I cut myself shaving," you've overstepped.

Etiquetteer should hasten to add that it's impertinent of a gentleman to inform a lady who is a stranger to him of anything out of place about her. These days such "helpfulness" is too easily misconstrued as harrassment.

Unfortunately, the threat of being expelled from Best Society no longer deters people from behaving badly in public. Several instances have appeared in the news today:

  • Students at Tufts University were reprimanded for excessive drunkenness and public urination at the Tufts Winter Bash at a Boston hotel. Do you know why Emily Post, Lillian Eichler, Amy Vanderbilt, and other 20th-century etiquette writers never had to specify that ladies and gentlemen never urinated in plain view? BECAUSE PEOPLE KNEW BETTER. Etiquetteer blames Woodstock. If it were up to Etiquetteer, these students would be expelled. In the meantime, Etiquetteer hopes that Tufts will choose a less violent name for their winter dance than "bash."
  • Some good clean fraternity fun veered into Imperfect Propriety when a University of Michigan fraternity was suspended indefinitely for using a semi-nude photo in a party invitation. The photo features a row of ten Pi Kappa Alpha brothers wearing only a very thin American flag. While Etiquetteer chooses not to doubt the intentions of these young men - although one of them does appear to be enjoying himself a bit too much - Etiquetteer does have to disapprove. You see, the photo was used in a party invitation to a sorority, and this Image of Implied Nudity can easily be construed as Forcing One's Attention on a Lady, which as we know is Simply Not Done. A photograph of the brothers fully dressed would not have been offensive. Etiquetteer hopes this Error in Judgment will be rectified soon.
  • The Black Mental Health Alliance has launched an ad campaign emphasizing the legal penalties of sagging. For those who might be unaware, sagging is the practice of wearing one's pants below the waist, often to such a degree that they are completely below the buttocks - exposing undergarments, and often more. Etiquetteer agrees with rapper Tamara Bubble, quoted as saying "Sagging should stop now. Girls don’t like it and people don’t take you seriously in general. You can’t get job with it. If you go to court with it, you’re probably going to lose your case. In all aspects of life, it’s not healthy." But even Etiquetteer questions the penalties mentioned: a $300 fine and up to three years in jail. Etiquetteer can only imagine the hue and cry there would be if such a campaign was put into place for those who wear pajamas in public* - a practice that is carried out by too many people of all races.
  • Then there's the report of Judy H. Viger, the 33-year-old mother who hired strippers for her son's sixteenth birthday party. CAUTION: The linked article includes what most people would call a "Not Safe For Work image" and what Etiquetteer calls Most Indelicate. From the article: "The dancers stripped to thong underwear and bras and gave lap dances to some of the teenagers." The article also mentions that this party was held at a bowling alley, and it isn't clear that it was in a private lane. Ms. Viger has been arrested, and Etiquetteer would like to see her sentenced to public service working with victims of sexual abuse.

And that should be Quite Enough from Etiquetteer tonight! Now go forward and sin no more.

*Of course Etiquetteer exempts those going to or from a pajama brunch, but it is advisable not to run errands along the way.

Layoffs and Colleagues, Vol. 11, Issue 10

Dear Etiquetteer: I was recently catching up with an acquaintance and asked “How’s work?” and got the reply “Well, I was laid off.” I’m not sure what to say beyond “I’m so sorry to hear this.” How does one respond supportively, but not obtrusively? It’s a little easier with a closer friend as you can be a bit more intimate.  If it’s someone you don’t know so well, it can be tricky.

Dear Properly Concerned:

How Very Delicate of you to consider how best to respond without Unnecessary Prying. More often than not those in Unwilling Professional Transition are pestered with coded queries such as:

Question: "What happened?" (Meaning: "Were you fired?")

Question: "Were you downsized?" (Meaning: "Were you fired?")

Question: "Did they let a lot of other people go, too?"  (Meaning: "Were you fired?")

Question: "What are you doing?" (Meaning: "Were you fired?")

Question: "Are you OK?" (Meaning: "Were you fired?")

Question: "I suppose you'll take some time to yourself now." (Meaning: "Did you get a good severance package when they fired you?")

People react differently to being unemployed. Some go into complete tailspins. Others express anger, take a philosophical attitude, proactively begin networking by making the job search their Topic Number One, or decline to talk about it altogether. Gauge your response by that of your acquaintance. For the reluctant, drop the topic. For the angry and the depressed, listen and make Noncommittal Sounds of Sympathy. For the philosophical, speculate with them on ideal or fantasy careers.

The sentence "I'm so sorry this happened to you" is often the best response. Etiquetteer advises care with "If there's anything I can do to help, please let me know." Only say this if you truly intend to help out when asked! Few things are as embarrassing for those in Unwilling Professional Transition than asking for help from those who have said  "If there's anything I can do to help, please let me know" -- whether it's for a professional introduction, review of a resume or correspondence, or even grocery money -- and then not getting it.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I need your help. My male colleague in the next cubicle wears the most annoying cologne. I think this is a fairly new habit because I have never noticed it until today. I have been sitting next to him for the last five months but we have never really talked so I can't just tell him "whatever you're wearing must stop". But I guess I have to. Is there a kind way to do this?

Dear Asphyxiated:

Someone once decreed that one's perfume should not be noticed in a room where one is not, in fact, present. Which is the problem with cubicles -- they're all in the same room!

Questions of Hygiene in the Workplace must be approached sensitively. And questions of cologne are especially sensitive, since scent is used to enhance one's Personal Appeal. (Please note: Etiquetteer did not say Sex Appeal since the setting for this query is the workplace. Those looking to enhance their Sex Appeal in the workplace . . . well, all Etiquetteer can say is, they'd better watch out, or they could find themselves laid off [see above].) It must be a jolt to find out that something one thought of as a positive has turned out to be such a negative that it's created a problem for a colleague.

Your concerns must be approached with sensitivity, too. Many people have olfactory health issues that are exacerbated by heavy or pungent scent, leading them to lobby for Fragrance Free Zones in their workplaces. Whether or not your own reaction to this is medical or just annoyed, Etiquetteer imagines it impacts your productivity. No one can type well while holding a handkerchief to one's nose.

Etiquetteer believes most people who apply their scent heavily don't realize the impact it has. You can bring up the topic casually ("Did you just get some new cologne?") and then segue into the heart of the matter ("Actually, it's quite overpowering.") If the idea of raising this issue creates too much anxiety, talk to your supervisor about it. That's what supervisors are for, after all! Your supervisor can address this issue anonymously on your behalf with your Highly Scented Colleague, or can arrange for a Fragrance Free Zone for you by moving your cubicle.

Holiday Fallout, Vol. 8, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: About a month before the holidays I moved into a roommate situation with a social friend. We have known each other for years and it is a great living situation. I have enjoyed getting to know him better. I was raised Catholic, but now view myself as a more spiritual person, and my roommate is Jewish and about as devout as I am to his roots.

I was unsure how I might have approached him on the subject of a small Christmas tree somewhere in the apartment. Unfortunately my room is too small to put up a tree there.

How do you suggest that I approach my roommate on the mixing of our respective religious backgrounds when the holidays come again next winter?

Dear Respectful Roommate:

Etiquetteer must commend your sensitivity in considering the effect your choices might have upon your roommate. Battles royal have been waged over the most minuscule things, even how the toilet paper is placed on the roll. (Etiquetteer never ceases to be amazed at the fierceness of those defending either having the paper fall in the front or the back. The most Perfectly Proper solution to this dilemma is to have two rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. Why no one else has thought of this mystifies Etiquetteer.)

While roommates share many things, they don't always share holidays. But the simplest solutions are best. Ask your roommate how he would feel about having a Christmas tree, even a small one, to broach the idea. If he likes it, obviously go ahead with a tree. If you detect resistance, confine yourself to decorating your own room. It's amazing what one can do with garlands, lights, and ribbon without even having a tree!

Etiquetteer wishes you and your roommate well as your shared living arrangements evolve in cordiality, courtesy, and Perfect Propriety.

Dear Etiquetteer:

As a frequent reader of your column I am well aware that you generally deal with matters appropriate for company. That said, I hope you can asisst me with an issue of a more delicate nature, "nature" being the operative word.

My loving husband -- especially after consuming foods such as raw onions, Indian food, and Brussels sprouts but, it seems, just about any food -- has a tendency to, let us say, "toot." Sometimes these gaseous emissions are accompanies by an audible announcement, sometimes by just a tell-tale odor.

I've asked him to please give a simple "pardon me" to apologize to whatever companions may be nearby and forced to participate in a not Perfectly Proper environment. As we cozy on the couch after dinner, for example, I do appreciate a polite acknowledgement when it's not the creaking of our old house that's disturbing the romantic moment.

There are times, however, when he chooses to ignore the whole situation, telling me this is the more polite thing to do For example, at his weekly poker game, following a silent attack his fellow players are well aware of an offense while my husband sheepishly seeks to avoid a tell of his cards as well as the ownership of this atmospheric intrusion. These gentlemen have been polite enough not to fall prey to childish behavior. They do not interrogate one another followed by claims of "He who denied it supplied it" and like nonsense. It does seem ill-advised to call more attention to the situation but to say nothing seems like a case of ignoring a foul elephant in the room. If one were to cause some other offense, from arriving late to tipping a chair to a coughing gag, I'd expect a simple apology for disturbing the peace. Is this any different?

Can you please advise?

Dear Aware:

Etiquetteer has written on this olfactory subject before, and must commend your husband for knowing that Acknowledgement of Flatulence is never Perfectly Proper. It remains one of etiquette's pecularities not to acknowledge this Bodily Function while offering an "excuse me" for coughs, sneezes, and even yawns. (It differs completely from your other examples, late arrival and chair-tipping, which are not Bodily Functions.) But flatulence, never!

Indeed, Etiquetteer wishes everyone would stop asking those "What's that?!" type of question when they encounter palpable flatulence. Etiquetteer still shudders with embarrassment over an occasion several years ago. Having been the cause of a sulfurous aroma, Etiquetteer's shame was compounded when the insistent bewilderment of an idiot acquaintance could only be stopped by having to say "I farted. Would you please shut up now?!"

Etiquetteer does have to Wag an Admonitory Digit at your husband for not altering his diet. Since he knows that raw onions, Brussels sprouts, and Indian food affect him adversely, he should stop eating them! And really, if all food puts him in a State of Perpetual Indigestion, he ought to see his doctor.

Reader Response: Hell Is Other People, Vol. 6, Issue 34

Last week's column on the bad behavior of others elicited quite a few responses:

Dear Etiquetteer:

You are going to get a slew of suggestions concerning cell phones. I'm generally quite tolerant, but there are indeed a few things that irritate me in other people's behavior. To wit:

  • Talking at great length on a cell phone at a dinner table. If you are dining with someone, he or she should be the focus of your attention. A caller can always be asked to call again later.
  • Loud, foul language in public. I can swear like a sailor (actually was one once), but I believe that it should be done with friends or family and adjusted for their amount of tolerance. Swearing loudly is never proper, however.
  • Graffiti: It isn't art, it's vandalism. Case closed. The person who invented the spray paint can should be damned for all eternity.

Dear Incensed:

Etiquetteer can certainly agree with you about cell phone usage at the dinner table, but just can’t condemn the inventor of spray paint to that Suburb South of Heaven. Spray paint has many useful applications.

Profanity is never Perfectly Proper*, but of course groups of Equally Profane People may permit each other to swear colorfully when together. Etiquetteer’s point of view, however, is rapidly losing ground as profanity permeates more and more of the mainstream media and daily speech. One has only to look at the ostentatious profanity of the Weekly Dig and the way alternate spellings of dirty words (such as "biatch" or "shiat") have become commonplace. Liam Kyle Sullivan’s popular character Kelly, the Belle of YouTube, has indoctrinated millions of people into hollering "Betch!" So Etiquetteer must ask the question: is a dirty word still dirty when you change its spelling and/or prounuciation but not its meaning?

Dear Etiquetteer:

While I, along with a jazillion others, have overheard some pretty amazing cell phone conversations, one stands out. I was in line at a liquor store and the woman in front of me was having a REALLY HEATED CONVERSATION -- no, make that a flat out TIRADE -- on her cell phone while the cashier was too-patiently ringing up her purchases. Not only did the entire store got to hear about her wretched breakup with her girlfriend, we also learned why in quite graphic and expletive detail. Let's just say it had to do with sex. This woman was so distraught that I don't think she even knew she was in the store purchasing something. The cashier tried to get her attention when it came time to pay but it took a number of tries before the distraught customer threw her credit card at the cashier. When this customer finally left, all of us in the store were aghast, exhausted, and relieved to see this woman go. Really, we were all momentarily speechless!

Dear Etiquetteer:

A few years ago, I was at a neighborhood block party, where I actually got to chat with many people I had previously just waved at when travelling down our street. Introducing myself to one older gentleman, I told him which house I lived in, and that my husband and I bought it from a relative. He immediately asked, "So, d'you have kids?"

I replied, "No, we do have a bunny rabbit, though, and I have nieces and nephews." To which he barked, obviously thinking he was 'being funny,' "No kids? What's wrong with you?"

Now, he is of an older generation; one would have expected better manners. I decided, though, instead of replying with a "snappy comeback," and feeling resentful, I would just tell the unvarnished truth. I explained briefly what was "responsible" for our lack of children: childhood cancer.

He was completely mortified, and apologized several times, and I know he felt bad. But why do people feel entitled to comment on a person's deeply personal issues, like child-bearing? Even in jest? For someone else, it could have been a deeply upsetting moment.

Dear Forthright:

What a deeply courageous thing to do. The best response to such intrusive questions is usually a change of subject or icy silence. Etiquetteer hopes that your puncturing of this old man’

s rude, artificial bonhomie taught him not to behave that way again.

* If you listen very carefully, you can hear That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much crying "Ouch!" as Etiquetteer jabs him with his rapier.

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Current Events, Vol. 6, Issue 17

Celebrities only seem to get into the news when they are behaving badly. Two recent mini-dramas have captured Etiquetteer’s attention.

You will be surprised – very surprised, Etiquetteer suspects – to find Etiquetteer defending Karl Rove about anything. But after the White House Correspondents Dinner last week, Etiquetteer must Wag an Admonitory Digit at Sheryl Crow and her dinner companion Laurie David for initiating a nasty little contretemps about global warming. Crow and David, whose self-serving account of the incident appears on Arianna Huffington’s blog, certainly make themselves out to be the Calm Crusaders. From ingenuous comments like "How excited were we to have our first opportunity ever to talk directly to the Bush Administration about global warming" to glossy acccounts of their own part in the barney ("We felt compelled to remind him that the research is done and the results are in"), they present themselves as Earnest Little Girls nicely asking the Big Man about a Bad Decision. Etiquetteer finds abhorrent their idea that Sheryl Crow’s beauty alone should compel Rove to speak with them ("How hardened and removed from reality must a person be to refuse to be touched by Sheryl Crow?"). Feminists everywhere should be offended with this 19th century notion.

If they really wanted to have a meaningful dialogue about climate change with Rove, they would have used this opportunity to schedule an appointment. Indeed, courtiers of Louis XIV were always advised not to surrender petitions to him during particular audiences because the Sun King was likely to lose them while changing clothes. Instead, it just looks like they wanted to get in the paper themselves.

Not that Rove comes out smelling like a rose. Eyewitnesses indicate that he gave as good as he got, whereas a change of topic or a cold "This is not the time or place to discuss it" would have been Perfectly Proper. The truth, as is so frequently the case, is someplace in the middle.

Moving right along, we find that actress Kim Basinger has released to the press an abusive voicemail message from her ex-husband, Alec Baldwin, to their daughter Ireland. While hardly excusing Baldwin’s vicious telephone tantrum – did he miss that day in anger management class? – Etiquetteer is outraged that La Basinger and her attorneys leaked the voicemail to the press. Can you think of anything that would be more embarrassing to eleven-year-old Ireland? All this dirty laundry could have been kept right where it belonged – in the family – without the vengefulness of a celebrity divorcée selfishly shaming the father of her child, and her child as well.

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Reader Response, Vol. 5, Issue 21

Finally we are passed Memorial Day, and Etiquetteer knows you are all happily wearing white with Perfect Propriety. As you see, Etiquetteer has made the switch, too!

Etiquetteer has taken a bit of flak over a recent column about how to deal with talkative strangers:

Shame on you! Old people rarely get the company they deserve. I remember meeting an elderly gentleman on a streetcar in San Francisco. He said he rode it all day just to have something to do and if anybody talked to him, that just made it a great day. That man next to you was probably talking about your salad because that was all he knew the two of you had in common. Isn't there a compromise somewhere where you could eat and this man could get a little human communication?

Etiquetteer responds: Etiquetteer is not questioning why that nice old man was talking about the Cobb salad, or indeed the issue of lonely old people wandering cities across our nation looking for human interaction. But do you have any understanding of how difficult it is to eat food while people are talking about it? While wishing this old gentleman no ill will, Etiquetteer must sympathize with those who have only a limited time for lunch to get away from the stresses of the workday. And if this means you class Etiquetteer along with murderously self-absorbed Waldo Lydecker, well, so be it.

Do you have any suggestions for how one might extricate oneself from such a chatterbox before reaching the point of rudeness? Something along the lines of “I’ve enjoyed listening to you. I’m going to return to my book now; this is one of the few times that I get the chance to read, and I do so enjoy it.” I recognize that chatters exist (my honey is one, and being a non-chatter myself, I appreciate the pressure it takes off me at parties to be verbal) but in my experience, many chatters chat because they are lonely and looking for any sort of human connection. In your examples the train platform lady is probably the latter. I ran into a lot of lonely people (mostly senior citizens) in my first job as a high school student, working in a pharmacy and occasionally delivering prescriptions. I was not very good at tearing myself away, and frequently had to explain to my boss why I'd been gone so long. A good method for extricating oneself from these situations is appreciated.

Etiquetteer responds: Really, you just provided it. Your little speech suits the purpose almost to the point of courtliness. Etiquetteer could only add “Won’t you excuse me please?” to make it Perfectly Proper. As a delivery boy you can always say “Sorry, they keep me on a tight schedule and I can’t get in trouble.”


 

Intrusive Fragrances and Other Matters, Vol. 4, Issue 39

Dear Etiquetteer:How does one, if one does, tell a friend who's a Radical Faerie, back-to-nature type, that their not using antiperspirant or mouthwash as a matter of principle leads to their often not smelling their best? How does one tell a friend who does too much marijuana that their getting stoned leads to their exhibiting unpredictable, unpleasant behavior, and that one would rather they did not get stoned around one? Dear Affronted: Well, you can bet that Dorothy Parker never had to deal with situations like these.Why does one have such friends in the first place? By this Etiquetteer does not mean pagans, rustics, or those willing to act on principle, but those who exhibit antisocial behavior. Etiquetteer doesn’t really care how people do it, but everyone is responsible for managing their own personal odor. Deity of Your Choice above, hasn’t this person even heard of patchouli oil?!This is a tough one, and no mistake. Aside from holding a conversation with a handkerchief over your nose and mouth – "I’m sorry, but it smells like they must be burning leaves at the bottom of the garden, or a skunk, or maybe the toilet backed up again, etc."" – Etiquetteer is at a loss. This is exactly the sort of person who should be given heavily scented soaps on all holidays. As for your spleef-toking friend, you communicate your displeasure by leaving the instant he or she lights up a joint. If this behavior takes place in your own home, you have an obligation to yourself to insist that he or she snuff it. Many don’t believe it, but both these situations can be handled politely. In the first case, plead headache, as in "Oh, I’m sorry I have to go, but the pot fumes give me a migraine." In the second, simply remind the pothead that smoking isn’t permitted in your home.

Dear Etiquetteer: Is it appropriate to engage a well-known politician regarding his (to me) odious policies when he is attending a wedding as a guest?Specifically, should I find myself at a wedding at which Mitt Romney is present, may I approach him, politely, and inform him that I am one voter who strongly opposes his policies toward gays? That is, his support for the odious attempt to amend the Massachusetts constitution to overturn the court's requirement to extend marriage rights to gay men and women? And I should mention that this is a straight wedding, between previously divorced bride and groom. Dear Wedding Guest: Oddly enough, your letter irresistibly reminded Etiquetteer of the late Merle Oberon as she appeared in The Scarlet Pimpernel, saying to the Prince of Wales "Ah, but even a goddess must have moments when she is just a plain woman." (Really, Etiquetteer doesn’t know why don’t run out and rent this movie at once.) Which is to say that it’s highly unlikely that the governor is attending in the official of role of governor, but merely as a private person who is a friend of the Happy Couple. As odious as you find the governor’s policies to be, Etiquetteer would encourage you to respect your hosts and the occasion by not raising the issue. Should you be introduced to the governor, you might always write a Letter of Outrage and send it along to his office the next day. Now, if you end up chatting with the governor and he raises the topic himself, well, it’s open season and he deserves what he gets.

Dear Etiquetteer:Is there any appropriate way to ask a person of multicultural/bi-racial background what their ancestry is about, without seeming prying, overly curious, or, worst of all, somehow racist?Dear Prying and Overly Curious But Probably Not Somehow Racist:No, so mind your own business.

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