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.

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