Dear Mr. Evil,
The best way for a man to excuse himself so he may, ahem, avail himself of the facilities (or make a phone call, sip discreetly from his hip flask, or check his company's stock price on his personal wireless Internet device) is to say, "Please excuse me." He's not obligated to give a detailed report of his planned activities while he's away from the dinner table or conversation. We get the picture: He needs to be alone for a moment -- that's all we need or care to know.
Perhaps you need to find the [insert euphemism here], and you're unsure what term to use. In a public place, such as a restaurant, I'd ask an employee for the location of the "men's room" (or "women's room," as the case may be); in a private home, I think your best bet is asking for directions to the ... bathroom. (Again, you needn't tell your hostess exactly what you're going to do there, or that you're going to "use it.") But if you just can't bear to say the b-word, I'd suggest taking a cue from some women -- who for years have been excusing themselves to "powder their noses" as cover for everything from natural bodily functions to assassination attempts -- and asking your host if there's somewhere you could "wash your hands."
Seriously, "bathroom" is not a crude word. Real estate agents and landlords (though their behavior is not to be employed as a gauge in every situation) use it all the time. While society as we know it would cease to exist without euphemisms, well-mannered behavior does not preclude plain speech. A properly used euphemism spares us offensive or unpleasant details while not elevating something, such as a restroom visit, to something it's not -- namely, in this case, cause for comment.
Dear Social Grace,
My girlfriend and I recently helped a friend of hers move. As "thanks" the friend ordered pizza for us and brought out a six-pack. When the pizza arrived, she made a big deal out of locating knives and forks and washing them for us to use while eating the pizza. She then proceeded to eat her pizza with a knife and fork, very daintily. My girlfriend also used the utensils to eat her pizza, and she gave me a "look" that said, "Use the damn fork to eat the pizza, buffoon." So I did. Normally, my girlfriend and I eat pizza with our hands, but is it proper etiquette to eat pizza with a fork? I say that it's always OK to eat pizza with your hands. My girlfriend says that formal pizza requires utensils. I say her friend was being a prig. My girlfriend says I have bad manners. Who is right?
Dear Mr. Pizza,
Oh, my goodness. And pizza is supposed to be a happy food. Let me see if I can settle your argument this way: You and your girl-
friend are both incorrect. Eating pizza with your hands (holding a wedge-shaped piece in your fingers, with the sides curled up to avoid dropping any toppings) is perfectly acceptable. There's no such thing as "formal pizza" -- people in evening dress are rarely served pizza. And if they are, it's usually called something else -- for example, "Tuscan focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese." That you might eat with a knife and fork.
And your girlfriend's friend was not a "prig." Some people are more comfortable using utensils to eat pizza, and that's OK, too. Pizza can be a messy food, and sometimes a huge piece of pizza with heavy toppings and a soggy crust is best eaten with a knife and fork, the better to avoid spilling tomato sauce all over your nice clean floors. I'm sure your hostess provided you with utensils in case you wished to use them, not to force you to use them.
I want you and your girlfriend to apologize to each other right now and go someplace nice for dinner.
Dear Social Grace,
I am a straight man. I work for a small company in San Francisco. It's a fairly informal work environment, and I manage a team of several people. Recently, I was reprimanded by a woman, "Laura," on my team for telling another woman team member, "Jennifer," that she looked nice. Those were my exact words: "Jennifer, you look nice today." Later, Laura took me aside and told me that a comment like that could be construed as sexual harassment, and that it was inappropriate for the workplace.
I know that Laura is right, but I feel that this is political correctness gone too far. When did it become improper to tell a person that he or she looked nice? I certainly don't want to get sued, but I feel that gentlemanly manners are being swept away by asinine new rules about what can and can't be said in the workplace. My intentions were purely friendly and to build good feelings among the team. Isn't there some way I can be a gentleman and not worry about a lawsuit? Do the new etiquette rules require me to be ungentlemanly?
I assume from your letter that you are probably new to the workplace (and certainly new to the Bay Area). I welcome you to both. But forgive me if I don't join you in lamenting the end of "old-fashioned gentlemanly behavior" such as commenting on a co-worker's looks -- because it never existed. Proper etiquette never condoned telling colleagues that they "look nice" at the office (unless looking nice was a part of the job -- modeling, for example). It might've been commonplace, but it was not at all gentlemanly.
The major asininity going on in the workplace today is not political correctness but the creeping informality that causes people to confuse co-workers with friends. I think this misapprehension might be contributing to your inappropriate comments. Complimenting your friends and family on appearance is a lovely thing to do, and I encourage you to do so. Co-workers (however much we cloud the issue by calling employees "teams") are not together by force of fond feelings or familial ties; they're together to do a job. Good looks really have nothing to do with that.
Your comment was unfitting because it would seem to indicate that "Jennifer"'s function on your team is an ornamental one. Women have fought long and hard (and are still fighting) to be treated as equals in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a big problem that causes a lot of suffering, and any hint of it rightly makes people very uneasy. As someone responsible for personnel management, you should be aware of these things. A better way to inspire good feelings on your team would be to compliment your employees on jobs well done.
Are you unsure how to behave? Social Grace can help. Send your etiquette questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.