Random Issues, Vol. 6, Issue 23

Dear Etiquetteer:

So, where are you really supposed to put your napkin after dinner? Do you put it on the table or on your seat? We got into this discussion after dinner one night ‘cause we were all using paper napkins and they looked gross.

Dear Dabbing:

This is why Etiquetteer really doesn’t like paper napkins. Not only do they fall on the floor, they do not hold up well if the meal is, uh, moist. One of Etiquetteer’s favorite pub foods is buffalo wings. Most of us know how easy it is to use an entire stack of paper napkins going through a plate of those!

No matter the material of the napkin, its Perfectly Proper place at the end of the meal is to the left of your plate, not on your seat. When paper napkins get particularly messy, Etiquetteer is sometimes driven to slipping them into his pants pockets, but this is really a Desperate Measure . . . and not an option for a lady in a skirt.

Dear Etiquetteer:

What is the proper way to deal with friends who blog with wild abandon, and include one's private matters in their online diaries? If one highly values one's privacy, is the only solution to curtail social contact with the blogging folks? How does one make it clear to cyber-exhibitionists that one does not wish to be the subject of their reporting?

Dear Exposed:

Your life doesn't become a blogger's property, even the parts of it you choose to spend with and/or in confide in him or her. As soon as you read or become aware of references to yourself in someone's blog, you should contact the blogger and request that those references be removed immediately. Repeat as necessary until the appropriate action has been taken, up to and including legal assistance. (Indeed, Etiquetteer became aware of an amateur photographer who had been threatened with a lawsuit if he didn't remove photos of a former friend from his blog.)

If you feel, after repeated instances of this behavior, that your private life is no longer truly private, Etiquetteer can only recommend that you no longer communicate with this person without witnesses.

Dear Etiquetteer:

A few months ago, we were talking about mailing a letter to a lawyer and his wife who's a doctor and you said the names should always be alphabetical, not Mr. first and Ms. second. But now we're down to the nitty gritty of wedding invitations and I have a few questions. I normally start with Mr. and Mrs., but here are the questions:

Mr. Arturo Swisserswatter and Ms. Igotta Cacciabutti (married couple -- should Mrs. come first?)

Mr. Galahad Familyman and Ms. Prunaprismia Amanuensis (not married, living together, one address, one invitation, but should our son Galahad come first?)

Ms. Antoinette Outlier and Mr. Lancelot Britlington (my married niece and her husband -- again, with different names, but I feel that my niece should come first).

I admit to different rules (in one case husband first, in another case the relative first). But what is the perfectly proper way to handle it? Or does it really matter?

Dear Familyman Patriarch:

Taking your examples one by one:

Ms. Igotta Cacciabutti

Mr. Arturo Swisserswatter

Yes, this is in fact correct, even though you and I were always taught that the gentleman comes first.

Mr. Galahad Familyman

Ms. Prunaprismia Amanuensis

Etiquetteer admits that ordinarily they should be listed alphabetically, but since this is a family wedding invitation and Galahad is the family member . . . well, Etiquetteer thinks that's a good enough reason to list him first. Etiquetteer has seen some universities list the name of the alumnus first and then the spouse, whether or not the last names are in alphabetical order. This seems a universal enough precedent to Etiquetteer to apply here.

Ms. Antoinette Outlier

Mr. Lancelot Britlington

Again, family may come first for a family wedding.

To answer your last question, you'd be surprised to whom it matters! People will interpret slights over the least little thing, especially at weddings.

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Restaurant and Random Issues, Vol. 6, Issue 2

Dear Etiquetteer:

Recently at a Fine Dining Establishment we were told that there was no room to accommodate our party. As we were putting on our coats one of the waiters came past, who turned out to be a social acquaintance, and asked if we were having lunch there. We said we had hoped to, and explained the predicament while continuing to put on our coats. "Wait a moment." he said, and shortly we were squeezed into a cozy but otherwise charming table for a delicious lunch.

Though he was not our waiter, I did thank him afterwards and slipped him a tip, since I felt he had acted in a professional capacity as much as in a social capacity. Was this proper? When is it proper to tip friends or acquaintances, and how much is appropriate when indirect service is rendered?

Dear Well Led and Well Fed:

Interacting with personal friends working as service personnel does sometimes feel tricky. When friends do each other favors, they respond in kind with another favor or a Token of Gratitude, not Cold Hard Cash. But Etiquetteer thinks you acted correctly in slipping a consideration to your waiter/acquaintance because of his position in the restaurant. Had he waited on your table, you would have tipped him as you would any other.

Dear Etiquetteer:

My wife and I were out to dinner with friends not too long ago, and I started the meal with a delicious crab bisque. As I got down near the bottom, I tilted the bowl toward me to get to the last of the soup, and my wife nudged me to stop. And, she added, I should be pushing my spoon away from me rather than pulling it towards me. Was I wrong to tilt the bowl, and is that idea of spooning away from your body real etiquette or merely an old wives tale?

Dear Spooning:

Etiquetteer hates to tell you, but your wife is correct. Etiquetteer’s Beloved Grandmother even had a rhyme about it: something something "Like little ships that sail to sea/I tip my spoon away from me." Etiquetteer believes that you have less of a chance of slopping a bowl of soup on you if it's facing the other direction. So when getting down to those last excellent drops of crab bisque, please tip your bowl and spoon toward the table.

Etiquetteer hopes Your Lovely Wife didn't correct you verbally before people, which is certainly not Perfectly Proper. Nothing more than a raised eyebrow or gentle nudge should be required.

Dear Etiquetteer:

How do you address an envelope for a thank-you note if the wife is a doctor? Mr. and Mrs. John Doe seems right. Mr. and Dr. John Doe doesn’t seem right. But I'm open to suggestion.

Dear Corresponding:

That’s good, because ignoring a lady’s professional title is a bad idea. Put Dr. Jane Doe on the first line and Mr. John Doe on the second line. Please note that these are in alphabetical order; if they had different last names, they'd be in alphabetical order regardless of gender, e.g. Dr. Jane Adler/Mr. John Doe.

Dear Etiquetteer:

This came up with my wife, and then a few days later in a conversation with another couple. What is the proper etiquette for a man and a woman approaching a revolving door? I thought the man should go first. My friend proposed that, if the door is already moving, the woman should go first, otherwise, the man should go first.

Dear Revolving:

This is really a question of safety and chivalry. The gentleman goes first to keep the door from speeding out of control, thereby knocking to her knees some poor lady in spike heels or platform shoes. It doesn’t matter whether or not the door is already moving. Gentlemen similarly go in front of ladies when descending staircases or getting out of buses.

Dear Etiquetteer:

President Ford’s funeral was over a week ago. How come all the flags are still at half-staff?

Dear Flagging:

Because the period of official of mourning set by President Bush is 30 days from the date of death of President Ford. The Flag Code indicates that this is established by the President of the United States by proclamation at the time. You may find the President’s proclamation here.

While researching this, Etiquetteer also found out that when one raises the flag when it’s supposed to be at half-staff, one must first raise the flag all the way to the top of the staff and then lower it halfway down the flagpole. For two years in elementary school Etiquetteer got stuck with . . . uh, gladly took on the duty of raising and lowering the flag at school each day and understood that half-staff only meant one flag-length from the top of the flagpole. What a relief to find out what True Perfect Propriety is now.

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Reader Response, Vol. 4, Issue 38

After Etiquetteer’s column on personal solicitation two weeks ago, some readers responded with thoughtful solutions: Dear Etiquetteer: I have a budget for charitable donations and part of it is to support my friends in their choices. Some friends agree that they do not want more stuff (two days of being hosts of a yard sale convinced them) and so I make donations in their honor to charities I know they support. I give money to a local university to help students perform public service, and to the charity that any friend or acquaintance supports through marathons, bikeathons, etc. I find that being able to thank my coworkers, friends and acquaintances for the opportunity is a much better solution than having to decline gracefully. Etiquetteer responds: Your generosity and prudence are to be commended. Etiquetteer has noticed for years that knowing one’s friend’s likes and dislikes goes far in selecting gifts. You are to be commended for observing that some of your friends actually prefer what might be called a non-gift and acting accordingly. Dear Etiquetteer: I have some standard responses memorized for those seeking money for causes:
  • UNKNOWN TELEPHONE CALLLERS: As this is no doubt a telemarketing firm, offer nothing more than a curt interruption of "I do not respond to telephone solicitations. Please add this number to your Do Not Call List. Goodbye."
  • PEOPLE WHO HAVE FOUND YOU AN EASY TOUCH: "My financial advisor has put me on a strict budget since the market has gone down. At the first of the year, he allows a certain amount that I must not go over; and right now, that amount is spent. I hope you'll call me when times are better."
  • FRIENDS AND FAMILY WHO HINT FOR MONEY: Go overboard in agreeing with them about how difficult "things" have become. For example, one person might hear your thoughts on the utility bills: "Isn't it awful? How do they expect those of us in reduced circumstances to pay all that? I, myself, have been thinking of calling the Relief Agency and asking for help." You might end with ... "I hope you haven't had to cut your pledge to the Church, but of course that's between you and God."

If you remember that nobody likes to be grouped with the indigents, it's easy to respond. As for the dolt who puts linen napkins in dirty plates, there's no need to be polite. Unless this idiot is blind and cannot see what other guests are doing with their napkins, simply watch Cousin Zebulon and when he starts his act, speak in a loud voice, "Cousin Zebulon! Please don't do that! I have to wash that napkin." There is absolutely no need to spare the feelings of people like Zebulon if he has had the opportunity to learn better.Etiquetteer responds: Etiquetteer could not agree more with the way you nip solicitations in the bud, but must remind you of the age-old dictum that a guest can do no wrong. Publicly humiliating one's errant cousin at the dinner table -- tempting though it seems! -- would embarrass everyone there, not just Zebulon himself. Etiquetteer continues to believe that finding a quiet way to keep him from soiling the linens unnecessarily remains the best way.

EXAMPLES FROM THE DAILY LIFE OF ETIQUETTEERFrom the Department of Shut Up and Eat, Etiquetteer lashes out at two old men who darn near ruined a beautiful dinner dance the other night. Guests ordered tickets and indicated their meal choices six weeks in advance for this private club event. Many, Etiquetteer included, selected "Filet Mignon with Bearnaise Sauce." You wouldn’t think this would be a problem, would you? As Etiquetteer’s table was being served (ladies first, in Perfect Propriety) some faces began to fall. Murmurs of concern were exchanged between couples. "It isn’t rare," Etiquetteer heard one lady tell her husband. This did not prepare Etiquetteer for the vehemence of this man’s response when the waitress came to serve him. Before his plate even touched the table he boomed at her "I want RARE!" Didn’t his poor sainted mother ever teach him to say "please"?The poor waitress fled like a startled rabbit in the face of that, but worse was to come. Another poisonous octogenarian loudly declared "I want rare without the sauce!" as soon as a waitress came within earshot. When a sauceless filet was produced he cut into it and then vigorously protested that it was not rare. Later still, when the waitress returned with the last steak available and the information that the kitchen never cooked meat rare, the diatribe REALLY began, cowing the rest of the table to silence. "This is the worst damn food," etc. etc. Etiquetteer was mighty tempted to tell him that a lot of hurricane victims would be mighty glad to have a filet on their plate, even if they did think it overdone.So, long story short, a lovely evening reduced to a shambles by two dietary divos. Enough! If you’re going to be that fussy about your food you might as well stay home.

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Personal Solicitation and Table Manners, Vol. 4, Issue 36

Dear Etiquetteer: Half-a-dozen times each year some friend or relative, out of the blue, writes or e-mails me with a thinly disguised request for money. Sometimes it’s for a business venture that allegedly will make me rich. Sometimes it’s to help with a medical problem (which they'll then refuse to document, even though they know I'm a health professional). Sometimes it’s to support their favorite charity (even though they're aware that I support a number of my own favorite charities). How can I - preferably early in the dialogue - let them know that I don't intend to fulfill their request, without - as is often the case - eliciting an angry response? The range of angry responses is impressive: shock ("How could you think that I was asking for money?"), a guilt trip ("Your parents would roll over in their graves if they knew what a skinflint you are!"), and sometimes it's just an above-it-all "I thought I knew you better" followed by a prolonged cold wind.) Dear Solicited: Etiquetteer has a lot of experience on both sides of this question, as an enthusiastic fund-raiser for underdog arts organizations and as one who has been "touched" for particular "opportunities." Etiquetteer can tell you recognize these conversations when they start. You have the power to make your position known early on by casually mentioning that your own investment strategy is more conservative now or that you’re focusing your charitable giving on your own favorite charities. This pre-emptive strike should alert your solicitors that you’re not interested. With illness it’s a little more challenging. Etiquetteer presumes that you may actually care about the people hitting you up. Confine the conversation as much as possible to the symptoms and treatment of the illness and not its financial repercussions.As the prospect, you have a few ways to react to your solicitors when they become less than polite. (And really, Etiquetteer is appalled by the reactions you detailed.) Etiquetteer frequently finds it beneficial to ignore the "elephant in the room" until an actual request for a specific amount of money is made. This gets you out of the shocked response you mention; then you can answer "Because you just asked me for money." Otherwise Etiquetteer finds you completely justified in observing "I’m so disappointed that only my money means anything to you. I thought we meant more to each other than that." Then you can blow the chill wind.

Dear Etiquetteer:

My partner and I recently hosted a sit-down dinner at our home for my extended family. The spouse of a cousin has the habit (yes, this has happened on more than one occasion) of placing, not to say grinding, his linen napkin into the remnants of his meal on the plate when he has finished his meal. Needless to say, this is rather unappetizing, not to say unhelpful when it comes to laundering the linens.

We obviously do not want to offend the spouse, but would like to have this behavior stop. Whatever shall we do?

Dear Harried Hosts:

The solution is obvious. Instruct your housemaid to keep a close eye on Cousin Zebulon. At the first sign of his completing his meal, she should whisk away his plate before he even has time to fold his napkin.

No housemaid? No kidding! You must forgive Etiquetteer’s longing for domestic service. Of course it’s so hard to find good help nowadays that no one even bothers.

It’s a grievous thing to have to correct a guest in one’s home, and it should only be done in grave situations (like bringing up politics at the dinner table or criticizing another guest to his or her face). Etiquetteer feels sure you have been tempted to give Cousin Zebulon a paper napkin instead, but singling him out from all the others would have an insulting effect you do not want.

Can you be sure that your backwoods relative sits next to you at dinner? This way when you see him start to remove his napkin from his lap, you can relieve him of it yourself, clearing his place at the same time. Purists will note that this violates the rule of clearing everyone’s places only after everyone has finished, but Etiquetteer thinks this the best way to preserve both the napkin and the feelings of the guest.

Etiquetteer's readers respond to this columnhere.

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Restaurants and Coffee Shops, Vol. 4, Issue 34

Dear Etiquetteer: On a recent trip with some friends, we stopped for lunch near a large university. The street was lined with any number of the usual sandwich and pizza joints, and a couple of nice-looking restaurants. We chose one almost at random that looked a little nicer than pizza joints and wasn't too crowded. There was no menu posted at the door, but we thought nothing of it given the neighborhood. After we were seated and the bread and water had arrived, we opened our menus and were aghast to find lunch entrees in the $30-$40 range, far more than we had intended to spend. Properly speaking, what are our options in such a situation? Dear Starving and Startled: Your letter reminds Etiquetteer vividly of a trip many years ago to that most interesting and self-oriented of cities, Manhattan. The news that Sally Ann Howes was performing in the Oak Room of the famous Algonquin Hotel lured Etiquetteer there with two friends. The entrance was so dark that we could not find a sign with the cover charge or menu; like you, no inkling of any financial outlay was revealed until we opened the bar menu and learned that the cover charge was $35 (or some equally outrageous figure) and that the drinks were priced on an equally lavish scale. The restaurant was so dark we think the waiter did not realize we were gone until the show started. At least Etiquetteer continues to hope so.To leave a restaurant as soon as you’ve been seated will only call attention to your party. And properly speaking, it’s never a good idea to call attention to oneself in public. You may infer from this that Etiquetteer finds it Perfectly Proper to lunch on ice water, salad, and Chagrin seasoned with Good Humor.That said, Etiquetteer knows it is simply not possible, financially, for some people to take even that course. When departure is the only option, leave the restaurant quietly. If stopped by the waiter or maitre d’, simply say "I’m sorry we can’t stay for lunch, but we have been suddenly called away" and no more, no matter how tempted you are to keep talking. Trust Etiquetteer, they know why you can’t stay.This should also be a lesson always to look for the menu posted outside most restaurants in little glass cases so that you know what you're getting into before you get into it.

Dear Etiquetteer: Something happened today that really annoyed me and I have to ask your advice. At a coffee shop in the town where I vacation, I was patiently waiting for my coffee for a longer than usual time. Turns out my coffee had been taken by the mayor of the town where I live! Is this reason enough to vote for the other candidate? Dear Caffeinated Constituent: Heavens, people change their votes over much more trivial reasons, so Etiquetteer doesn’t see why not. On the other hand, was it abuse of power, absentmindedness, or ignorance of whose coffee he had that led him to take your coffee? Unless the mayor in question has a record of corruption, Etiquetteer would encourage you to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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Other People’s Behavior: Two Different Situations, Vol. 4, Issue 12

Dear Etiquetteer: I, like you, am someone who has a public website. On a number of occasions, people have written to me about my site, and I have responded with what you call a Lovely Note. However, this has occasionally been seen by the reader as in invitation to become Best Friends Forever, and I always reply to their e-mails, because I think it's horribly rude to go without responding.How do I word my replies to these lovely but misguided folks who think that, due to the fact that I write about my life on-line, they are candidates for my new buddy? Do I give them the cold shoulder (seems rude)? Write shorter e-mails with little to no actual content (a "wingnut form e-mail," if you will), or be direct? I'm unsure as to what is Perfectly Proper. Dear Webbed: Just like celebrities, "celwebrities" also have their, ahem, devoted fans. That sounds so much more polite than "lunatic fringe," don’t you think? As with most human relationships, balance must be used, in your case to express gratitude for interest in your website while also maintaining your privacy. And this balance is nowhere better expressed than in Max Ehrmann’s famous poem "Desiderata" Not only must one " . . . listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their stories," but even more important one must "Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection." You see how difficult this is, ‘cause let Etiquetteer tell you, give the dull and ignorant an inch and they’ll take 45 minutes. Using these guidelines, Etiquetteer suggests brief, pleasant, but neutral e-mail responses with only a minimum of specific content, such as:
  • "Thank you! It’s been interesting to hear from so many people about [Insert Topic at Hand Here]."
  • "Thank you for those comments. A different point of view!"
  • "Your support is really appreciated. Thanks for writing."

Etiquetteer encourages you to remember that there is a difference between a cold shoulder and appropriate reserve. While tempted by guilt or pity to respond more effusively, remember that only courtesy is required. Best of luck as you continue your e-fan-mail.

Dear Etiquetteer: So many times I want to write you with the thousands of scenarios that run through my head. This time I really need some help. It seems that nearly every time my husband and I go out with a group of people he picks up the check, bar tab, whatever the bill may be. This drives me crazy! I spoke to him about this and he agrees that I'm correct but does not know what to do. I think he is uncomfortable discussing the bill so he just avoids the situation by paying for it! It's very sweet and if we had all the money in the world I would not mind. Since that's not the case, what are some tools we could use to avoid the embarrassing "bill moment?" I hate to sound so frugal but it’s a habit that needs to be broken. Dear Mrs. Check Grabber: The stereotype of "the American who pays" went the way of café society and transatlantic crossings (as opposed to cruises), but even if your husband were to bring it back, he’d need fabulous wealth or possibly ill-gotten gains to do it. Etiquetteer really encourages neither approach.The danger of always paying the check is that one day, perhaps, that will be the only reason your friends want you there. Etiquetteer knows that your husband has more interesting qualities than this. We must now devise a way to put them into the foreground, which means eliminating his icky feelings about settling the check.First, your husband needs to give others at the table the chance to pick up the check first. Even if he has to sit on his hands (or if you have to sit on them) Hubby should restrain his Hospitable Impulse and let someone else take the initiative. (And Etiquetteer thinks that, after all his largesse, some of these friends ought to be taking him out.) It is not bad for people to pay their own bills when dining together in a restaurant. Hubby must understand this.Now if this doesn’t work and Hubby actually has the check in hand, you may need to take it from him deftly and either pass it to someone else ("Hubert darling, since you’re the accountant in the group and you ordered the extra appetizer, would you please go over the bill?") or figure out yourself what you and your husband owe (including tax and tip), add it to the check, and pass it to the person next to you who is furthest from your husband. Of course, this also assumes you’re sitting next to him, which is not Perfectly Proper when dining away from one’s home . . . let’s hope you’re sitting not-too-far away.

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer at query@etiquetteer.com!

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify@etiquetteer.com.