Dear Social Grace,
I was hoping you could help me with an etiquette question. My work does not provide milk, so I purchase my own for coffee, etc. I have caught a person taking my milk for their cereal and coffee more than once. How would I say it nicely that she should purchase her own milk and keep away from other people's food? Please advise.
After twice catching this refrigerator bandit in the very act of siphoning your (explicitly labeled, I assume) dairy products, the level of niceness required is only the bare minimum -- the same level with which you must treat all your co-workers. However, it's best to assume that minor misdeeds are innocent mistakes. Here's one example of how your exchange could play out: "Ms. Jenkins, I notice that there's been some confusion about whose milk is whose in the office refrigerator. Just so that doesn't happen again, I'm going to keep my milk carton in this lavender wine bag." Or you could ask your co-worker whether she'd like to organize a group of colleagues to pool resources and buy some all-office coffee additives. That way, you could share your milk -- and perhaps, thereby, bring about some of the "working together" feelings that make a day at the office more enjoyable.
Dear Social Grace,
I frequently dine out with friends, and on numerous occasions have been put off when a member of our party takes out a handkerchief during the meal and blows their nose at the table. Isn't this a social faux pas, and if so, how do I get the message across, without hurting any feelings, that this is an activity best conducted in private away from the dining table?
Dear Blown-Away Madam or Sir,
I don't know whether I should be delighted to hear that there are still people carrying handkerchiefs or dismayed that they're misusing these valuable little pieces of cloth. But as much as I share your pain -- honestly, now, anyone with enough good sense to carry a handkerchief should know that using it may have a negative effect on others' appetites -- there's little I can recommend that you do. You can't give your friends unsolicited manners instruction at the table (your children and your significant others are a different story, of course). With friends, your best recourse is to teach by example: The next time you're out to dinner, excuse yourself to blow your nose. Although such explanations usually fall into the "too much information" category, you'd be sharing considerably less than your congested friends, and it just might do them some good.
Dear Social Grace,
We are planning a housewarming party, mainly for my co-workers. I would prefer that no gifts be brought, but I'm not sure how to phrase it on the invites without sounding rude. Somehow it ends up sounding as if I do not want their gifts (part true -- if everyone could pick out a kick-@*& bottle of red wine, I wouldn't be asking). Part of my motivation in having a party is to thank my co-workers for being so patient as I "met with the (insert appropriate contractor here) guy." Is there a proper way to put it, or should I just shut up and let them do what they please?
House of No
Dear Homeowning Madam or Sir,
I'd let my guests do as they please with gifts. But if I really didn't want anything, I'd leave the word "housewarming" off the invitation. "Housewarming" says, to many people, "Bring a gift." You could just call it a party, and in the invites to the people you're thanking, say something like, "As thanks for all your patience while Evelyn and I got our house together, we'd love to have you over for drinks."
Asking for "no gifts" isn't nearly as horrendous as asking for "cash gifts" (yes, people really do this); however, the sentiment seems to suggest that gifts would otherwise be forthcoming. There are parties for which gifts are a must: showers (bridal and baby) and weddings, for example. In such cases, the discussion of gifts should come up when a guest RSVPs or otherwise speaks to the host or a relative. At that point, the party-thrower can say either "She's registered at Pottery Barn Kids" or "They say they don't want any gifts, but just between you and me, I know they'd love a nice bottle of wine." If you are asked about a present, that is the time to say that you want only the pleasure of your co-workers' company.
A housewarming party is an odd bird. Guests do traditionally bring gifts (a token present, though -- nothing fancy), but people throw these parties for themselves, which makes gift-giving unusual. I would love to be able to say that no one throws a party for himself because he wants people to bring him gifts -- but I would be lying. If, for example, a friend throws herself a birthday party, the fact that she's hosting shouldn't have too much bearing on your decision to buy her a gift -- although a little something extra might be nice as a "thanks for entertaining me."
Dear Social Grace,
Perhaps you are too much of a lady to get involved in an argument. But I am wondering if you are prepared to step back into the knife fight regarding salad, which you have told me I could cut with a knife. It seems to be an item of disagreement among one SF Weekly reader, who says that you are wrong [when] you say that you can cut salad with a knife ["Now We Know," Letters, Jan. 29].
Dear Salad Swooner,
San Franciscans do love salads, and I have proof: Not since the "salad-course controversy" of early 2001 has a column generated such hearty disagreement. This time, I was called to task for my assertion that one may eat lettuce with a fork and knife ["Hands Off," Dec. 24, 2002].
Now, the letter writer who objected wasn't exactly wrong: If you don't want to use a knife to cut a large piece of lettuce, then you don't have to. And his common misconception -- that you must not use your knife to eat your salad -- has its roots in a good kitchen rule, which is that you shouldn't use stainless-steel knives when preparing many lettuces, because to do so may discolor the leaves. However, a complete formal set of dinnerware includes salad knives. Few of us are exposed frequently to full place settings, but almost all American etiquette experts tell us that even in the absence of a salad knife, a dinner knife may be used to cut lettuce at the table.
As for getting involved in arguments, good manners do prevent me from brawling, but being a lady has nothing to do with it. The name is "Social" to my friends; otherwise, it'd be Mr. Grace.