I recently joined a gay online dating service that lets you post a photo online. While looking at photos of potential matches, I noticed a picture of a co-worker I have a friendly work relationship with, though we are not close at all. I didn't have any interest in dating him, and I am certain he feels the same way about me; he is what you might call "out of my league," but I liked his online profile, and it actually looked like we had some things in common, and so I told him so one day when we were both in the office kitchen -- just in a friendly way. He turned bright red and practically ran out of the room, and now he avoids even looking at me. Was I incorrect in bringing the whole thing up?
Desperately Seeking an Answer
Dear Desperate Sir,
Well, yes. While you may be secure enough to understand that there is no shame in placing a relationship ad online -- and of course there isn't -- an informal poll in the Social Grace office kitchen puts you in the minority. Even among those who have placed online personal ads, there is some lingering embarrassment associated with the enterprise. There's no good reason for it, but surely you can see how it might make a person feel just a little bit vulnerable to announce to the world, "I like sushi, James Bond movies, and flea markets, and I'm looking for someone to love."
It's always better to let co-workers' private lives remain private until a real friendship develops. A co-worker with whom you're on "friendly but not too close" terms should be allowed to initiate any discussion of his love life himself -- unless you're initiating the conversation by asking him out. In that case, you already know how to get in touch with him outside of the office, which is generally a better place for such a discussion anyway.
Dear Social Grace,
A few months ago, my mother passed away. I was surprised when I received a sympathy card from the sister and brother-in-law of an ex of mine. Now, my ex and I are on good terms, but I haven't seen any of my ex's family since the breakup, which was more than a year and a half ago. My ex's sister belongs to a different branch of Christianity than the rest of the family, one that does active outreach. I am Jewish, and I'm fairly positive, though not absolutely certain, that my ex's sister was aware of that. Enclosed with the sympathy card was a pamphlet. With my thank-you card, I included a sentence stating that I appreciated the thought, but since we are Jewish we cannot practice [name of sect]. Should I have omitted that sentence?
Dear Inquiring Madam or Sir,
There are a couple of complex issues at work here. Freedom of religion is central to the American idea of equality; it requires us to leave other people alone to practice (or not practice) the religion they choose. But central to many religions is the imperative to persuade others to join -- for people of these denominations, being true to their faith includes activities such as sending pamphlets to those who hold other beliefs. When we find ourselves on the receiving end of an unwanted attempt at religious persuasion, the thing to do is firmly, but politely, express our disinclination to hear more -- understanding that the person making the attempt is taking advantage of the religious freedom that benefits us all.
This seems to be what you've done, and I don't feel that including a "no thank you" in your thank-you note was wrong. In fact, I laud your forbearance. On your behalf, I'm shocked at this woman's insensitivity. There is a line between promoting one's religion (which is acceptable) and disrupting another's practice of his, as at a death (which is not). The idea that a person might take advantage of a family's sorrow to proselytize is, to me, very unpleasant. A condolence letter should contain only what its name implies.
A more generous interpretation of this woman's actions might make her pamphlet easier to discard without suffering any raised hackles: She thought she was helping you by offering something that had perhaps consoled her in the past.
Dear Social Grace,
My girlfriend and I had a disagreement about who should pay the bill in the following situation. My birthday is coming up, and she (without telling me) invited some friends of ours out to dinner to celebrate. When she told me about this a few days before the dinner, I asked her if we (she and I) would be picking up the bill. She felt that each couple should pay their own bill and that she should treat me. I felt that since we (she) invited them, and since it was my birthday, that we should pick up the tab. Who is right?
As much as I hate the idea of you fighting with your girlfriend over a party she intends to throw you, I have to say that you're right.
Split-the-check celebrations at restaurants are quite common, and they're just fine in Social Grace's book. The nature of this dinner probably has your invited friends expecting to make a show of reaching for wallets when the check arrives -- perhaps even to pay for their meals (and a portion of yours). But, strictly speaking, if one invites guests to dine, one is responsible for providing the food. That is, unless one makes other conditions clear in the invitation -- "I'm treating dear G. to dinner at Cafe Pricey; would you like to join us?" or "Wouldn't it be fun if we all got together and took G. out to dinner next Saturday?" Otherwise, your girlfriend is responsible for paying for the guests (as are you, if your relationship is of the joint-finances sort). Happy birthday.