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Outrageous Behavior 

Bathroom smells, exorbitant contractors, and dinner-party pickles

Wednesday, Mar 30 2005
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Dear Social Grace,

How do I ask a new colleague to not use the bathroom across from my desk for No. 2? The odor is horrible and very offensive. Some days this guy can take out several offices.

Thanks,
Melissa Hughes

Dear Ms. Hughes,

I get a chuckle out of letters like yours -- the ones from people asking for the polite or proper way to say something insulting to someone. Guess what: There is no polite way to say what you want to say to this guy. Polite people don't say that sort of thing.

Of course, I'm sure that everything is lavender and Chanel No. 5 where you are concerned, but the problem here is not your colleague. The problem is that your desk is right by the office restroom.

You could ask to be moved. You could also ask your personnel department (or your manager) to either officially declare this bathroom off-limits to "No. 2" or invest in some air-deodorizing spray and a polite sign that instructs people to use it. You might even offer to install the spray and sign yourself. Alternatively, you could get a desktop air freshener for your desk and, I respectfully suggest, endeavor to get over yourself.

Dear Social Grace,

You've said before that it's rude to tell people they're being rude, but is it rude to tell a contractor, nicely, that his bid is outrageous? My husband and I recently got five bids for some work on our house, and one of them was nearly twice as high as the next highest. Normally I'd just let it go, but this contractor keeps asking me how we'd like to proceed. I plan to thank him for the bid and let him know that we won't need his services, but I wonder if it's also OK -- or even helpful -- to tell him about the price difference. Or maybe he already knows how spendy he is and doesn't care? Some contractors, I've heard, bid high because they don't really want the job (too busy, too complicated, etc.).

Thank you.
Via the Internet

Dear Contracting Madam,

If you omit the word "outrageous" -- and emphasize the "nicely" idea -- I don't see any problem with your proposed behavior. In your business dealings, you should strive for a balance between honest and inoffensive: For instance, "We're looking for someone with a bit more experience" is a fine stand-in for "You must be delusional if you think you're qualified for this job," and "We've decided on another reputable contractor who made a substantially lower bid" is courteous English for "Your suggested fee was outrageous."

With the latter polite statement, you can achieve your three goals: letting him know that he may not be competitive in his market, letting him down gently, and letting him off the hook if he didn't really want to work on your house.

Dear Social Grace,

My fiance and I are in a pickle as far as dinner etiquette: I work with a good friend from college, and my fiance and I are also friends with her parents. When they visit, they often treat us all to dinner. My friend's parents are, from what I can tell, very successful. We, on the other hand, are young professionals but not in any position to pay $90 for a bottle of wine.

They are visiting soon, they've invited us to dinner again, and we happily said yes.

I've found out that the restaurant where we may eat will likely cost $100 per plate. Should we (my fiance and I) offer to buy a bottle of wine, or maybe pick up the tip? We are worried that it might be actually disrespectful to offer some form of payment (because they are older), but then again, we all carry on like friends. Would a gift in appreciation of their gestures be appropriate? We will invite them to our wedding, which hopefully can repay their kindness, but that is all I can think of so far! I don't think we're in a position to take them out for dinner, and our house isn't really big enough to host a dinner party for five.

Thank you kindly for your help,
AJ

Dear AJ,

You are in an area that, I think, many people find pickling. It's common, among friends, for an invitation to dine to really be an invitation to split a check. (Again, I counsel people to differentiate between the words "invite" and "organize": If you invite people to dinner, you should expect to pay for their meals. If you organize an evening out, you can let people know in advance what any expected costs will be.)

Even when we know that we've been invited to dine in the true sense, many of us will at least make a show of reaching for our wallets at the end of such a meal. This behavior can usually be considered a harmless but unnecessary bit of polite playacting.

You're right, though, that in some circumstances it can seem disrespectful. Age is less and less often a factor in social relationships, but there is a difference between, say, your 65-year-old friend whom you met at your knitting circle and your 65-year-old friend who is the parent of your college roommate. The first is, in the context of your relationship, a peer; she probably wouldn't mind splitting a check (or at least entertaining an offer to do so). The second is likelier to want to buy you dinner as a special treat, partly because of your relationship to her family, and she is likelier to find it odd that you've offered to help pay for it.

Although you may consider offering to pop for the meal's wine (not the gratuity, though -- that's the host's business), I wouldn't. In your place, I might suggest a great place to go after dinner, for dessert or a postprandial cocktail, and then pick up that tab. Or I might simply follow up with a nice thank-you note (your only real obligation) or a small gift, perhaps a book mentioned during dinner, or flowers or a box of chocolate. Then, the next time they visit, find a nice restaurant within your means to invite them to.

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Social Grace

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