I wonder if you could answer a question of a religious nature for me. I was raised as a Catholic, and my boyfriend was, too; however, we are both nonreligious or agnostic now. For my family, this hasn't been an issue. Although my parents attend church, there's no pressure on grownup offspring to go with them.
I will be spending this Christmas with my boyfriend's family for the first time, and they are rather religious. They've always been very sweet to me. They attend Mass on Christmas Eve every year, and I will be going with them. Would it be more polite for me to receive Communion, even though I don't believe in it, just to be polite, or to remain in my pew, even though the family knows that I at least used to be a nice girl from a properly Catholic family? I prefer the former action as less disrespectful to his family and their beliefs, but my boyfriend usually just receives Communion to avoid rocking the family boat and to make his parents happy. He is not pressuring me either way, but I'm not quite sure what the best course of action is. What do you think?
Lapsed and Wondering
Dear Lapsed Madam,
In your situation, I would remain in my pew. Most religions welcome guests of other faiths (or no faith); however, there are many religious rituals reserved for believers and the properly initiated. I'm reminded of the Catholic dismay that greeted President Clinton, a Southern Baptist, when he received Communion at a Catholic service in South Africa in 1998 -- which I mention not to imply that your behavior will cause any international outcry, but rather to point out that there's a lesson here about taking others' religious beliefs seriously. As you seem to recognize, taking part in a religious ceremony you don't believe in comes dangerously close to making a mockery of it.
On the other hand, I wouldn't presume to say that your boyfriend's behavior is incorrect. His decision will certainly make sense to those whose parents have stricter ideas about religion than they do. I also hesitate to recommend any course of action that may cast a pall over a family holiday. But I'd prefer a respectful participation that neither demeans a religion nor compromises your beliefs: You should be able to prove that you're a nice Catholic girl who's become a nice agnostic woman.
Dear Social Grace,
How do I, a non-Christian, explain to a group of new co-workers that I do not want to participate in their yearly office Christmas-gift exchange?
The New Girl
Dear Non-Christian Madam,
You may decline this invitation to participate in an obviously extra-office, non-work-related activity by saying with a smile, "Thank you, but I don't celebrate Christmas." Try to be patient with and kind to people who persist: They think they're being friendly and inclusive. Perhaps they believe that holiday-season bonuses from management (which, being work-related, are always welcome and appropriate) can be likened to (or even replaced by) a friendly exchange of coffee cups and "Far Side" calendars. A combination of continued cheeriness and further explanation should eventually do the trick.
Dear Social Grace,
You may have to send my friends and me back to Remedial Table Manners, but there was some disagreement at Thanksgiving dinner about whether a food server should remove dishes from the left or the right. Which is it?
Via the Internet
Dear Thankful Sir or Madam,
Of more importance than sides when removing plates from a table are not spilling any gravy on the tablecloth, not spilling any gravy on the diners, and keeping Kitty out of the leftovers. If you can manage all of that, I'll consider your table-clearing efforts a success. But if you want to be strict about it, serving from the left and removing from the right is the most common traditional practice. Of course, dishes at a diner's far left may be removed from the left if doing otherwise would necessitate passing an arm directly in front of a diner's face.
Dear Social Grace,
Do you have any advice for a girl going to a small holiday party hosted by people she'd really like to impress? The thing is that these people are very much richer than the people I am accustomed to, and I wonder what to bring as a host gift. I would normally bring a bottle of hooch to a party. Also, I've been instructed to dress semiformally. Does that mean your standard, basic black dress? And I'm afraid that I won't have anything to discuss with people who live in such a different world. What do rich people talk about?
Via the Internet
Dear Concerned Madam,
The rich are different from you and me, yes, but they aren't that different: Most of them appreciate a good bottle of hooch, and they can be overheard discussing The Sopranos and local politics, just like everyone else.
In answer to your first question: A person attending a cocktail party isn't obligated to bring a host gift -- and the superrich are less likely than most to host BYOB events -- but a nice bottle of wine or an after-dinner liqueur is often appropriate. (Don't expect or prod them to open your present at the party, though.) Alternatively, everyone appreciates homemade cookies and the like -- or at least they appreciate the thought.
It's hard to go wrong with a basic black cocktail dress, so on that score, you'll be fine. As far as conversational topics, if you steer clear of the standard taboos -- money, sex, religion, your diet-and-exercise regimen, and anything derogatory about a person or group of people -- you'll be better behaved than most party guests. Ask people questions about themselves, and you'll be remembered as an excellent conversationalist.