Entertaining with Autism, Vol. 13, Issue 35

Dear Etiquetteer: I have a very new friend who has a son with severe autism. I don't have much experience with this, but would like to invite the family to the same family-friendly gatherings that I invite all of my friends who have children to (I do not have children, but love them and love to include them). What is the kindest way of approaching my friend about anything their child might need that might be different from what I'm used to? I want everyone (parents and children) to feel cared for, nurtured and relaxed at my gatherings.

Dear Hostess:

Etiquetteer applauds your Hospitable Impulse. Frequently the families of children with special needs want nothing more than to be included along with everyone else, and Etiquetteer suspects your New Friend will be grateful for your hospitality and consideration. A candid but sensitive conversation with your New Friend should come first.

Confirmed Bachelor Etiquetteer, with no direct experience raising children with or without autism, felt the need to consult a friend with an autistic child. Her words tell much of which Etiquetteer was not aware. Etiquetteer has chosen to emphasize some of his friend's word in italics.

"The best thing for a hostess to do is find out ahead of time what special accommodations might be needed. Parents of autistic kids need to plan ahead as well. For example, having food that would appeal to your autistic guest. Autistic kids have trouble tolerating loud noises or bright lights. They often cannot control making noises so activities that require quiet are difficult. Open spaces or a pool or bodies of water maybe problematic due to elopement issues. My child jumped in a host's pool in the middle of winter because he is attracted to water. Having a quiet room where a parent can take their child if he melts down is helpful.

"Preparing children who will be present is helpful. Children, God love them, say whatever is on their minds which can be hurtful. When it comes down to it just being flexible to the needs of your autistic guest and their family even if they have to leave early. As a guest I call ahead to see if the activities are appropriate for my child. I want my host's party to be successful. If the activity is not a good match then I decline the invitation. A kind hostess will not take offense. It is always nice to be asked even if it isn't a good match.

"Parents of autistic children need good manners as well. If a child will disrupt a party, or ruin a special activity, or cannot tolerate the host's environment then they should decline the invitation or leave the party early. It is important to respect the host's generosity and personal possessions.

"And finally, it is sometimes easier for the family of an autistic child if they have small gatherings at their own home where the autistic child is most comfortable and has all of his accommodations already in place. This is the most relaxed entertaining we can do."

The number of people with autism, and therefore the number of people who know someone with autism, seems only to be growing, and Etiquetteer predicts that more and more people will be seeking advice about the best way to include this portion of our community. Etiquetteer wishes you well as you incorporate your new friend and her family into your social circle.

Possibly Contradictory Issues About Dieting and Hospitality, Vol. 13, Issue 9

When is one's Diet more important than Offered Hospitality? When is Hospitality more important than Diet? Sometimes the issues are clear, and sometimes they are not. Religious Diets and Fatal Allergies usually trump Hospitality, Personal Preference usually shouldn't, with just about everything else, including Weight Loss and Doctor's Directive, wandering in the middle ground. Etiquetteer didn't get very far in this article about the dangers of artificial sweetener because of the story that began it. A grandmother, who just happens to be a researcher of food sweeteners, told a hostess not to serve her little granddaughter any birthday cake at a birthday party because it was made with an artificial sweetener. Let's leave aside the food safety issues for a moment and consider the etiquette of the situation. You've been invited into someone's home for a party, which automatically means that some trouble has been taken to entertain you, and questioning the trouble your hostess has taken for you enough to suggest that it's unsafe to eat. And on top of that, you're telling a hostess not to serve a little girl a slice of birthday cake at a birthday party when everyone else is going to have cake?! This is where Etiquetteer would like to serve up a heaping helping of Shut Up and Eat! Only that wouldn't be very Perfectly Proper, now would it?

A private home is not a restaurant, and it is not realistic for 21st-century hosts and hostesses (the overwhelming majority of whom haven't hired a cook) to cater as specifically as some guests require. You can eat what you want at home. Adhere as closely as you can to your diet when you're dining out, but please keep from overemphasizing it. Very many hosts make a point of accommodating vegetarians, which is a generous and gracious thing for them to do, by soliciting that information from their guests in advance.

Some related stories: the late Letitia Baldrige, in her diamonds-and-bruises memoir A Lady, First, told the story of one Kennedy White House state dinner when President Kennedy noticed a couple sitting near him weren't eating anything? "Is the dinner all right?" he asked, to be greeted cheerfully by the reply "We're Mormons, so we can't take alcohol." It turned out that every dish on the menu had alcohol in it! But this Mormon couple were clearly going to make the best of it with rolls and mints, and wouldn't have said anything if the President hadn't asked.

The late Gloria Swanson, famous in her later years as a vegetarian, would bring her own sandwich to dinner parties when invited out (whether to a home or a restaurant). Of course this works best on occasions when there's a staff to slip it to on arrival with the instructions "When you bring the entree, just slip this on a plate for me. I'm on a diet." The point is that Gloria knew enough not to inconvenience her hosts with her dietary needs and came prepared. She also didn't make a big fuss about it.

And then there's the late Ethel Merman, who brought a ham sandwich to Jule Styne's Passover Seder, as recounted in Arthur Laurents's wonderful memoir Original Story By Arthur Laurents. Jule Styne threw it on the floor and said "Ethel, you're offending the waiters!" Which just goes to show that there are limits. Indeed, Etiquetteer has written before about how it's not a good idea, even with a spirit of compassion and multiculturalism, to invite Orthodox Jews to Easter dinner and serve them a ham.

So . . . back to the children's birthday party with the Artificially Sweetened Cake. In this case, Etiquetteer thinks Hospitality trumps Diet. At a children's party Etiquetteer is most concerned about the children, and children, especially young ones, are eager to fit in. What needs to be saved in this situation? Three things: the little girl's experience as a guest, the dignity of the hostess, and the responsibilities of the little girl's grandmother, who, although Etiquetteer can't really approve of what was reported, is doing her job as a Protective Grandparent. Rather than say anything to the hostess, Etiquetteer could almost wish that the grandmother had simply told her granddaughter that she couldn't have any cake, even if it was served to her, and to make do with other refreshments. That way the little girl is still included as an equal with the other children, the hostess's feelings have been spared, and the grandmother's role as guardian is maintained. And if the grandmother is committed to eradicating Artificially Sweetened Cakes, she can always reciprocate with an invitation to her own home and serve a cake made with the Sweetener of Her Choice and nonchalantly raise the issue of what her research is uncovering about artificial sweeteners.

Etiquetteer feels sure you've encountered such an issue before, and would love to hear about it at queries <at> etiquetteer dot com.

Etiquetteer Succumbs to Temptation and Gets His Comeuppance, Vol. 12, Issue 18

The late Mae West famously said "I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it." Today, unfortunately, Etiquetteer couldn't resist it, and paid the price. This morning Etiquetteer stopped by the library at a time when one of those special movie screenings for children was taking place (arranged, perhaps, for children to enjoy the library without actually having to pick up a book). Outside the screening room a table of little snacks had been set up: cups of snack mix, little trays and baskets of cookies, etc. Etiquetteer, from either peckishness or annoyance (though there is no excuse for Imperfect Propriety), casually helped himself to a large biscuit while passing the table.

With the first bite Etiquetteer sensed something wrong. Not that his Improper Grazing had been observed, but with the biscuit itself. Had some health faddist concocted it out of sawdust? Turning back to the table, Etiquetteer observed for the first time the box from whence the biscuits came. They were organic dog biscuits!

"Keep cool," Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden once observed. "This is a test of breeding." And of course when one has something in one's mouth that shouldn't be there, one removes it as unobtrusively as possible. Without attracting attention, Etiquetteer silently made his way to the restroom, where the remains of the dog biscuit were disposed of without incident.

And what do we learn from this little incident?

  1. Don't help yourself unless invited to do so.
  2. Segregate refreshments by their consuming species.
  3. Even Etiquetteer can make mistakes.

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.


Reader Response, Vol. 4, Issue 18

Dear Etiquetteer: What has this world come to?This week's letters are the final straw for me.... not the most egregious examples, just the final straw. I'm grown horribly tired of these people who have nothing better to do than become squeamish over the passing of crumbs or the touching of fingers or being anywhere where someone's dry lips may have passed. If I see one more anti-bacterial product I think I really will become sick. Oh yes this woman at the book club used her cracker as a scoop... really, so what is quite so terrible? Nice suggestion from you to the host that she encourage use of the knife provided but all these guests grossed out? I find myself wondering what sort of plastic bubble they live within.I appreciate that our modern, polite society pays attention to hygiene and is thoughtful enough to wish to avoid passing illness onto others. Covering one's sneeze, not sniffling all day over a co-workers desk, rodent control and all -- wonderful progress. But science has shown that living in too sterile an environment is actually bad for one's health.I hear about people absolutely disgusted by people who lick their fingers in order to effectively separate stuck papers. Not the nicest thing I suppose but is that really worth getting one's knickers in a twist? Unfortunately many are responding to this sort of grousing so that at mass on Sunday some communities are no longer encouraging worshippers to exchange a handshake as a gesture of peace. The latest and most distressing are calls to no longer share the communion cup of wine -- the very symbol of the faith and commonality -- because it's "gross." Really. Good enough for our Lord Jesus Christ but we're all above it all now I guess.Just when is this going to stop? I fear we are becoming a cold people, unable to appreciate the sensuous pleasures of life and love. I appreciate concerns about passing of colds or VD or unpleasantness of any kind. I appreciate common manners and would never encourage slob-like dinner guest but really, things are going too far. Dear Forthright: Thank you for expressing your opinion so thoughtfully. Like you, Etiquetteer laments the super-fussiness of those who cannot stomach sharing a Communion chalice or even shake hands. We are losing what Nathaniel Hawthorne once called "the chain of human sympathies." If more people remembered to wear their crisp white kid gloves to church we wouldn’t have these problems . . .Now all that said, Etiquetteer needs to leap gallantly to the defense of the book club made squeamish by the pillaging of the Brie. Etiquetteer was not present at the time, but it certainly does sound as if Brie Woman’s standard of personal hygiene was not at the level of the others present, perhaps not anywhere near it. Imagine, if you will, that Brie Woman had thoughtfully covered a sneeze with her bare hand and then reached over with a small cracker to chop out more Brie, which unavoidably got all over her fingers. Anyone watching this would automatically think that the residue of her sneeze was all over the Brie. Etiquetteer would definitely passing up the cheese course under those circumstances . . .So Etiquetteer must both agree and disagree with you. Now let us join hands and pray each to the Deity of One’s Choice that our common humanity will emerge victorious in the long run.

Dear Etiquetteer: Having eased the pain of a Monday just a little by reading Etiquetteer, I want to mention, for clarity's sake, something that gave me an uncomfortable twinge while reading about doorway décor. A mezuzah is, indeed, a religious symbol, yet discreetly applied, and in a very particular way. Unlike a wreath or a celebratory banner, however, it is not an option -- it is an obligation, a commandment. It is not a statement to the world, either -- it's a reminder of personal responsibility to the inhabitant who has placed it on his/her doorpost. The idea that it is "allowed" suggests that it might be "disallowed," which suggests a misunderstanding of its presence. (I don't even want to think about the issue of Chanukah menorahs.) Dear Doorposting: Quite true, but what Etiquetteer has seen, alas, is that what is commanded by one’s religion is not always allowed by one’s condo association. Like you, Etiquetteer firmly believes that such a gesture is not an option. And this means that one must examine one’s condo documents very carefully to be sure that no such restriction is in place. Good heavens, the fondness for gated communities (talk about removing oneself from "the chain of human sympathies" . . . ) with restrictions of yard display has kept patriotic Americans from flying the flag on their own property, which certainly can’t be right.

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.


Questions of Culinary Presentation, Vol. 4, Issue 17

Dear Etiquetteer: I recently hosted a meeting of my book group and provided refreshments that included Brie and crackers. I was astounded when one guest, the friend of a friend of one of our long-time members, used a cracker to slice/scoop up the soft Brie cheese instead of using the knife provided. Her fingers were covered with Brie after she repeated this act a few times and none of the other guests wanted to eat the cheese she had contaminated. I didn't know what to do. At the end of the evening I politely offered her the remaining Brie because she had enjoyed eating it all evening. She was delighted. Also, I had provided each guest with a small plate and napkin. This same guest chose not to use them and popped each Brie-covered cracker directly into her mouth. By the end of the evening her dark slacks were covered with white smears of Brie where she had wiped her hands and she left crumbs all over.I'd appreciate your advice on how I could have handled this situation more pro-actively. This guests' behavior was truly disgusting and distracting. In a few months I'll be asked to host the book group again. HELP! Dear Booked: Oh, beware the friends of friends! Take a tip from Rudyard Kipling, who told the tale in his story 'A Friend's Friend' of how a friend's acquaintance embarrassed himself (and everyone else) with a spectacular display of public drunkenness at a society ball. The Gentlemen had their revenge, however, by decorating his passed-out form with whipped cream, ham-frills, and other Victorian hors d'oeuvres before rolling him up into a carpet and throwing him onto a freight train. Don't you just love the English? They always know how to put one in one's place . . .Brie Woman already seems adept at decorating herself with food, more's the pity, so that approach is out. Really, Etiquetteer doesn't know why you bother; this sort of person is not the sort who understands what Polite Society means, and therefore should not be included. But, on to more practical solutions. Etiquetteer admires the way you finessed disposing of the pillaged Brie. It practically defines 'killing with kindness.' Next time your'e forced to entertain this person, you have Etiquetteer's full permission to say, 'Oh, here's the cheese knife, dear' when you see her aiming a cracker at the cheese; you may even offer to slice it for her. And when she begins wiping her hands on her slacks (ugh! just the thought makes Etiquetteer ill), go right ahead and hand her a napkin saying, 'Oh, don't muss your slacks! Here's a napkin, dear.' Her rejection of your care and attention will only redound on her. As a last resort, you might prepare individual plates of refreshments for each guest, so that everyone has their own delicate morsels to enjoy. It's more work, of course, but at least everyone would feel that their refreshments were safe from Brie Woman's cooties.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I work in a large office and hand out only wrapped candy. Why? Because there are coworkers who will run their hands through unwrapped candy, who will cough or sneeze on it ? in other words, they cannot help themselves from marking it with their germs. It seems almost unconscious.

The challenge is when someone else puts out unwrapped food. How do I politely suggest that it is a bad idea? Of course I either decide that my immune system is up to fighting off the germs or not eat them.

Dear Wrapped:

Etiquetteer applauds your thoughtfulness in providing wrapped treats for your colleagues and clients. And while acknowledging the purity of your movites, Etiquetteer really must advise that criticizing your colleagues is not going to make a positive impression. Continue to decline politely anything offered that you don't care to eat for whatever reason.

Dear Etiquetteer: When I entertain I sometimes want to keep the leftovers for future lunches. How do I handle the guest who either wants additional helpings at the time of the meal or to take some home with her? Last time one of the other guests offered her own leftovers to a hungry guest and suggested that she get seconds of the less expensive side dishes, which saved the day. Dear Pecked Hostess: Good heavens! Are you entertaining friends, family, or a plague of locusts?Asking for a doggie bag in a private home is just beyond the pale, if you ask Etiquetteer. Confronted with the request, however, Etiquetteer thinks it Perfectly Proper to decline with an apology that you need to make the pot roast, lobster bisque, macaroni, or whatever last to next Tuesday. You eliminate the problem altogether when you bring in prepared plates from the kitchen; this way your guests don't see that there's anything left over.

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.