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.