Broken Gifts, Vol. 13, Issue 48

Dear Etiquetteer: A wedding gift arrived in the mail today from a seller on [Insert Name of Popular Craft Website Here], a charming vintage martini set. One of the martini glasses arrived broken. Do I tell the gift giver that this happened, do I contact the seller with this information, or do I just write a lovely thank you note and forget about it. One pitcher and two glasses, so the set is mostly useless. Unless one is making martinis for oneself only.

Dear Shaken and Shattered:

Etiquetteer certainly hopes that your fledgling marriage hasn't already arrived at the state where you find it necessary to make martinis for one! Usually it takes a few years to get to that unhappy state of affairs . . . and often it's an unhappy affair that gets one to that state.

Receiving a gift that's broken is different from receiving a gift that's unwanted. In the latter case, as Etiquetteer has said so often, no one cares what you want or how you feel. Send a Lovely Note anyway and then put it in your next yard sale, regift outside your Circle of Mutual Acquaintance, or contribute it to a Worthy Tax-Deductible Cause.

But surely it was not the intention of your Benefactor to send you a broken gift to celebrate your wedding. In this case Etiquetteer recommends that you contact your Benefactor with this information right away so that he or she may resolve the situation; this means by phone or email, not a Lovely Note. You should not be asked to do more than repackage the gift to be returned and to receive the apologies of your Benefactor for the inconvenience. Etiquetteer recommends this approach since your Benefactor already has a customer/vendor relationship with the Online Vendor. For all Etiquetteer knows, your Benefactor orders frequently from this Online Vendor. News of deficient service (as well as how satisfactorily the Online Vendor responds) could impact that relationship. Indeed, you may be sufficiently satisfied to become a customer yourself.

At all times you should reassure your Benefactor of how much you appreciate his or her thoughtfulness and generosity, and then send a Lovely Note as soon as an (unbroken) substitute gift is received.

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.

Modern Technology, Vol. 13, Issue 28

Dear Etiquetteer: If Etiquetteer would do away with one aspect of modern technology, what would it be?

Dear Teched:

It would be the way people give precedence to people interacting with them via modern technology over people interacting with them in person. (Etiquetteer supposes this is really an aspect of the usage of modern technology rather than an aspect of technology itself, but will leave that to the hair-splitters.)

How many times have any of us been out and about with others only to have them actively engaged on their devices communicating with Those Dear and Far Away as opposed to us, the Near and Dear?

How many friends have we tried to talk with while they fail at surreptitiously glancing in their laps to read and send text messages?

How many dinner companions have we watched not just photograph their dinner (a relatively harmless trend borne of digital photography), but then post the photo to social media, and then wait for and interact with those commenting on the photo?

How many dinner parties have been derailed by focusing on a "phonestack" while everyone waits for (and perhaps bets on) a guest to weaken and respond to one's device?

How many quiet moments on public transportation have been shattered by fellow passengers with Music Loud Enough to Distinguish Lyrics blasting from earbuds firmly lodged in their ears?

How many times has one's view been blocked at a concert or performance by someone holding up their smartphone to record the whole thing, regardless of those seated in back?

How many checkout lines have been delayed by a customer calling a friend or family member to confirm something hasn't been forgotten - or just by being on the phone?

To all this, Etiquetteer can only say, stop it at once! Be with the people you're with! Show them the consideration of your attention and engagement. Not just your friends, family, and companions, but also the working people you interact with during the day: bus drivers, waiters and waitresses, cashiers, receptionists, ushers, bakers, clerks, salespeople, missionaries, tourists, law enforcement, house cleaners - everyone!

In other words, HANG UP AND LIVE! And don't make Etiquetteer come after you . . .

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!

Tipping and Panhandling, Vol. 12, Issue 16

Dear Etiquetteer: I had an ethical quandary today. I was hawking programs at Fenway Park. A man was begging for money next to me. He was in a wheelchair. He was conversant and friendly with people. He offered to buy a program from me for $2. I obliged.

When I finished my shift, I gave him a dollar. It was actually a dollar I had received as a tip.

Was this right? Was this ethical?

PS. I'm submitting this to the NY Times Magazine as a question, too.

Dear Hawking:

Etiquetteer considers that you were acting in two capacities, professional and personal. Had you not waited until the end of your shift to assist this man, it would have given the appearance that your largesse was, in fact, that of your employer.

The purchase of a $2 baseball program by a panhandler might be considered extravagant on his part, but he may have considered it expedient to ensure your goodwill during your time together outside the ballpark. (Etiquetteer can only imagine the difficulties he and others face.) Was it right/ethical of you to sell him that program? Absolutely! That's the job your employer has hired you to do, and it isn't Perfectly Proper to inquire into the circumstances of your customers - even when they're paraded in front of you. In other words, they aren't your programs to give away.

But your tips are your own to dispose of as you wish, on yourself, or to share with others.

Etiquetteer will be interested to read what the Times has to say, too!

Restaurant Closing Times, Vol. 12, Issue 3

Dear Etiquetteer: How long prior to a food establishment’s posted closing time is a reasonable minimum to expect to be able to arrive?  For instance, if the closing time is 9:30 pm, should one feel comfortable arriving at 9:15, expecting to be seated and served?  Then how long after that posted closing time is acceptable time to linger?

Is there any difference in the etiquette based on the type of establishment?  Fine dining will likely be a time consuming affair with many courses.  Casual dining establishments will likely have a shorter turnover time, but still involve seated service. Counter service places like coffee shops, have a percentage of patrons who sit and enjoy their purchases and their books/papers/homework/web-surfing/chatting with friends, while others purchase and go.  Do these difference in service styles make a difference to the way in which a patron should observe the posted closing time, and the service they should expect to receive?

Thanks much for your thoughts on the matter.

Dear Hastened:

Your query made Etiquetteer wonder if you still have a bruise on your coccyx from the doorknob hitting you on the way out.

Two competing considerations work against each other here: consideration for diners to be able to enjoy their meal, and consideration for the staff who cannot finish their work (closing the restaurant) and go home until all diners have left the restaurant. Etiquetteer believes that any diner who finds the door to a restaurant open should be able to expect a restaurant's full service. But diners arriving at such a time that they can expect still to be dining after closing time show courtesy to the staff by ordering decisively and not dawdling over coffee or paying the bill. Restaurateurs eager not to pay staff overtime would do well to lock the door against late arrivals, opening it only to allow departing patrons to exit.

You are correct that how this is handled is guided by the style of service provided, although courtesy is the common thread among each. White-tablecloth restaurants with extensive wine lists can't really expect to rush patrons through a dinner that extends well past closing time. They can manage this by not accepting reservations, or walk-in diners, after a certain time. For instance, if a restaurant's posted closing time is 11:00 PM, they can decline to accept reservations after 10:00 PM. Casual restaurants should do the same, but may also emphasize closing time when greeting late arrivals ("We're closing in ten minutes.") Sometimes restaurants make it clear that service is reduced before closing; Etiquetteer knows one popular pub that makes it clear on the menu "Only pizza after 10:00 PM." In a coffee shop or diner, Etiquetteer sees no discourtesy in a general announcement made by the manager "Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be closing in ten minutes." Young Etiquetteer briefly worked for a Popular Doughnut Chain many years ago, and for the closing shift this announcement might have been made individually.

Not long ago Etiquetteer joined a party of five arriving at a popular Chinese restaurant five minutes before its closing time. To its credit, the party was ready to order almost as soon as it was seated. But conversation  captured the enthusiasm of the party more than the excellent cuisine. The staff, not eager to stay later than necessary after a long day, made a point by beginning closing the dining room about 15 minutes after dinner had been served. They stacked chairs at other tables and brought out the vacuum cleaner, beginning closest to Etiquetteer's table. Given that the total bill for a party of five, including tip, would not have reached three figures, Etiquetteer can't fault the staff . . . but would have wished for five more minutes of vacuum-free dining.

Speaking of not dawdling over paying the bill, Etiquetteer was both interested and dismayed to read this article about restaurant technology. Etiquetteer does not like to think such applications are necessary because public education should at least provide enough knowledge of math to manage splitting a restaurant check, and because Etiquetteer finds that the longer a party parses a check, the less joyously the occasion is remembered.

Etiquetteer would absolutely love to hear your own queries about Perfect Propriety! Please send them to

Cashiers, Vol. 5, Issue 9

Dear Etiquetteer:It seems that cashiers and other direct service people, especially at large department stores, have been drilled with the necessity of greeting customers with a "Hello, how are you today?" as he or she begins to process my purchases. While I do appreciate the gesture it seems that often staff have grasped the expression, if not the intent. The surly clerk (I'm sure exhausted by a mundane job on his or her feet for the thirteenth hour) doesn't bother to look up and gives the required, half-hearted expression.A certain friend finds this terribly offensive and, seemingly in an effort to forge genuine human interaction, refuses to respond with the necessary payment until the clerk has given my friend undivided attention and a full gaze to receive his benevolent smile. In an ironic mirroring, he's got the intention right but I think the expression here is all wrong. The line behind him begins to grumble from the ten-second hold-up and the clerk seems to find the loss of rhythm only troublesome. Do you have any thoughts?Dear Customer:Etiquetteer admires your friend’s intent but not his method. Just standing there waiting expectantly for the cashier to perform like a trained seal doesn’t achieve anything but grumbling by other customers, as you pointed out. Etiquetteer has had better success by sympathizing with particularly surly or aggrieved cashiers. An innocent remark like "Must be a long day for you" or "And how are you today?" goes a lot farther. Etiquetteer has found this successful with waiters and waitresses, too. When they ask "How are you tonight?" Etiquetteer invariably responds "Very well. And yourself?" Often they are pleasantly surprised anyone cares to ask. Remember, there are at least two sides to any human interaction. Your friend errs in thinking that his side doesn’t have to do any of the work just because he’s the customer.All that said, the sullen automaton you describe is still far nicer than the cashier who is actively engaged in something else while ringing up your purchases. Etiquetteer has had the sorry experience of being "attended to" by a cashier actively talking heatedly on a cell phone in a foreign language. Others have shared with Etiquetteer the disappointment and frustration of cashiers who ignore them entirely while talking to friends with them behind the counter! (Ask yourself, would your employer let you bring a friend with you to the office or factory for the day?) Etiquetteer’s redoubtable friend said it was all she could do to keep from hollering "Excuse me, you’re being paid to take care of ME!" And while Etiquetteer is mighty glad she didn’t, Etiquetteer understands completely.

Dear Etiquetteer:I’m traveling for work to a conference, and I got an invitation to a conference-related reception. The dress code says "Business dressy." I have never seen that before; what does it mean?Dear Business Dressed:Bother! Etiquetteer supposes the host organization wants this to be an elegant affair and doesn’t want people traipsing in wearing khakis, tweed jackets with suede patches, bulky sweaters, and other, more casual clothes that people get away with at the office now. If you are a man, Etiquetteer suspects "business dressy" means a dark suit, plain shirt, and shiny tie; don’t forget a pocket square! If you are a lady, it probably means a severely tailored two-piece suit or suit-dress with hose, heels, pearls, and one Important Piece of Jewelry. Lacking that, you could probably get away with a bright scarf from Hermes. Your purse should unobtrusively match your shoes and be no larger than a silver case for your business cards, hotel key, wallet, and a handkerchief. This is not the time to show up with a big leather satchel.

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Customer Service, Vol. 4, Issue 37

Dear Etiquetteer: What does one say to the proprietor of a faraway lodge (that I really want to visit) when queried about reservations and his response is "Go online and make your reservations yourself." Twelve hours later, when I had time to get to a computer, the reservation took about 20 minutes to make. The online, impersonal response only reserved one night of my five-day request. Back online, I made reservations at the same place in a different room, surmising that the problem was that the room that I wanted wasn't available for the entire week, so I volunteered to change rooms, ergo making a reservation for the remainder of the five days.The response was favorable but the main lodge, all the other facilities and the dining room are closed for three of the five days. And by the way, once the reservation is made online, there is a no refund cancellation policy. Poor business tactics.And I remain very interested in going there: the dining room is closed, but the lodge is a refuge and CULINARY SCHOOL! Dear Frustrated Foodie: Etiquetteer feels compelled to ask if this lodge is also a refuge from basic customer service. To quote the late Mamie Eisenhower, "Never mess around with some clerk. Always go straight to the top."But with sinking heart, Etiquetteer now observes that you are already negotiating with the proprietor, and not just some reservations agent. How very vexing!  So, what do you say to the proprietor? Tell this person exactly what you told Etiquetteer: that you were disappointed to be directed from a person to a website to make your reservations, and then angry and frustrated when the website made a bad, evil reservation for you that was not what you wanted. You then need to insist – nicely at first, then more forcefully if you don’t get results – that the proprietor take your reservation by phone at once.

Dear Etiquetteer: Don’t you think people should make eye contact with people they do business with? By this I mean that I am disturbed by fellow shoppers/customers who make no human acknowledgement of cashiers and other service people and the disappearing custom of thanking customers. I am so tired of "Here you go" or "You're all set buh-bye," when I want to hear "Thank you!" Dear Eyed: Etiquetteer would add to that litany of apathy the desultory "No problem" that comes from cashiers and waiters. It always suggests to Etiquetteer that they might, in fact, have a problem with doing part of their job.The Declaration of Independence offers some of the best etiquette advice one could use in the United States: " . . . that all men are created equal . . . " This suggests that both customer and employee are fully engaged in the transaction, and not talking on cell phones (you would be amazed at how often Etiquetteer sees this on both sides of the counter), watching television, or talking to friends to the point that the customer/employee is ignored. It also suggests that customer should refrain from condescending to the employee because they (the customer) are so much more superior. You are quite correct that a professionally cheerful "Thank you!" should be the last words from a customer service employee. And it should be acknowledged by the customer with a smile and a nod to conclude the transaction before the customer has started to walk away.Let Etiquetteer add, too, that customer service shouldn’t ostentatiously call attention to itself. Etiquetteer will confess to impatience with hotel operators who say, "It’s my pleasure to connect you" when all they really need to say is "One moment please."

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