Fruitcake, Vol. 14, Issue 44

Dear Etiquetteer: I have bought two fruitcakes for a residential building party and am horrified to discover that both may contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The third fruitcake source charges $57 for express delivery on top of $100 for two cakes, so that is not an option. My question is do I bring these cakes to the party? If I do, should I tell people that they may contain trans fat?  Should I bring an alternative dessert which is trans fat free.  I am sure that others will be bringing desserts as well.

Dear Fruitcaked:

The type of party you describe sounds an awful lot like a neighborhood potluck. The whole point of a potluck is that the assembly "takes pot luck:" whatever is brought is there to be enjoyed, whether plain or fancy, kosher, vegan, halal, paleo, macrobiotic, artificially sweetened, lactose intolerant, pre-processed, or partially hydrogenated. So Etiquetteer thinks it Perfectly Proper to bring those Possibly Trans Fat Enhanced Fruitcakes.

A year ago one of Etiquetteer's suggested New Year's Resolutions was "Resolve not to be so insistent about your diet when you’re away from home." A holiday party is the perfect time not to be insistent. Etiquetteer also covered the topic of Diet vs. Hospitality, which could apply here.

Etiquetteer wishes you and your fellow partygoers a Perfectly Proper Time.


Entertaining with Allergies, Vol. 13, Issue 33

Dear Etiquetteer: We value our friends almost as much as we value our cat, and don't wish to cause discomfort - or, on the other hand, exclude people. How should we decide the question of whether or not to invite persons with cat allergies to our abode?

Dear Catted:

By letting the Afflicted decide to accept or decline your invitation themselves. Allergies can sometimes be controlled sufficiently by medication, suppressing the allergic reactions enough to allow party attendance. Indeed, Etiquetteer himself has acquired with age an allergic reaction to Certain Felines, and knows to apply antihistamines before arriving.* But this is very much an individual choice, and if your Afflicted Friends feel it necessary to send regrets, you must accept them with compassionate understanding.

The allergies of your Afflicted Friends to your Feline Familiar, however, provide you the opportunity to entertain them in other ways, such as a backyard barbecue or a museum tour or a restaurant dinner. You're still the hosts entertaining your friends, but in locations that eliminate or minimize their discomfort.

*Etiquetteer is not a doctor, and doesn't even play one on TV. Consult your physician about possible solutions to allergic reactions that will work best for you.

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.

Food Allergies, Vol. 5, Issue 26

Dear Etiquetteer:

In the last five years I have developed a strange spectrum of food allergies, from celery (who knew one could even be allergic to something like celery?) to lemon juice, "tree nuts," beef (I can have dairy, just not the cow itself), and more. I read ingredient labels before I purchase anything, and have to instruct waiters very specifically when dining out (no lemon in my water, thank you, I'm allergic). I always have an epi-pen with me, inhalers, Benadryl, all the medications for emergencies.

I e-mail an updated "Foods of Death" list before any family gathering, and my sister, for example, prepared two different bowls of pasta salad for a recent celebration: one with celery and mayonnaise, and one without celery, and with Miracle Whip (no lemon juice).

But it can get awkward at casual gatherings, when I have to be very selective, and ask questions quietly. On a couple occasions, people have felt bad when I did not eat their refreshments. The worst was a barbecue gathering of people from a professional association we belong to, out in a distant state, where I ended up only able to eat one person’s pasta salad, corn chips and desserts. Hardly a nutritious day, but I explained that one day wouldn’t malnourish me for life, and I wasn’t upset. It was, however, quite awkward.

I don’t want to be a diva and demand special treatment from people (except my siblings, who say, "Well, we always knew you were weird!"), but I don’t want people to feel bad either, when they notice that I’m not eating. What’s a person to do? There’s a quandary for Etiquetteer!

Dear Allergic:

Modern medicine has created so many problems for Society! If you were just dead of undiagnosed allergies people wouldn’t have all the difficulties of feeding guests with restricted diets. On the other hand, you’d be dead, which is Entirely Unacceptable.

Etiquetteer sympathizes with you in your plight, which you seem to be handling with dignity and discretion. Etiquetteer applauds your desire not to be a diva; it never gets people very far anyway.

But Etiquetteer has to Wag an Admonitory Digit, however, at your hosts. No matter how disappointed they may be that you can’t eat what they’re serving, it’s very bad manners for them to let you see it. There’s nothing you can do about that but change the subject. If they carry on to an unacceptable level, simply say to them what you told Etiquetteer: that you don’t want to be a diva and demand special treatment, and that talking about your diet is rather boring.

Do you know what Gloria Swanson used to do? In her later years she became a strict vegetarian and what was known at the time as a "health nut." When she was invited to a dinner party she’d pack her own little sandwich or whatever in her purse and slip it to the butler when she arrived.* It would magically appear on her plate when dinner was served. Now you’ll observe that this only works in a household with servants – it’s so hard to find good help nowadays – but this would work equally well at a potluck like the one you described. Just bring your own.

You could also "head ’em off at the pass" by entertaining them in your own home with recipes that accommodate your allergies. Thinking people will put two and two together after a casual reference.

*Ethel Merman, on the other hand, was invited to a Passover seder by Jule Styne and brought a ham sandwich. Etiquetteer does notrecommend that approach.