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The etiquette of flag burning

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
Dear Social Grace,

Since Sept. 11, my husband and I have been hanging a flag in front of our home. We usually do this on patriotic holidays and similar occasions. This week, someone set our flag on fire and burned the edges. This has started a debate in our home about the correctness of burning the flag. I understand free speech, and I know it is not illegal to burn the flag. But isn't it just more impolite to burn the flag when we are at war and at danger of being attacked?

Proud American

Dear Patriotic Madam,

There may be disagreement among proud Americans -- and among etiquette experts -- about the moral correctness of flag-burning as political statement. In Social Grace's book, flag-burning is, though somewhat repellent on a personal level, not incorrect (as long as it's done with an eye toward fire safety). In fact, the freedom to do such things is so fundamentally American that flag-burning itself can be seen as almost patriotic. One hopes that a person considering it would give thought to the strong nature of this kind of protest, as well as to its impact on those whose distaste for such an action might make them unreceptive to the message behind it.

But etiquette insists that, should you decide to take this heady, symbolic step, you burn your own darn flags. The central problem in your letter stems not from flag-burning as an idea but from the willful destruction of your property and endangerment of your home and your safety. That last is clearly illegal, not to mention dreadfully impolite.

Dear Social Grace,

I am an entrenched atheist, and living in San Francisco, I am generally left in peace and not bothered too much by God-mongers. However, in recent weeks, I find myself encountering talk of God at every corner, even from normally sane people who have never before shown any interest in religion or its trappings. At a small dinner party I attended at a friend's house, a friend asked her guests to clasp hands, bow their heads, and join her in a silent prayer before dinner. I clasped and bowed, but not without some disgust at myself for playing along in what I consider a fool's game. How else could I have responded?


Dear Godless Madam or Sir,

If prayer doesn't appeal, there are lots of things one might do while bowing one's head and clasping hands with a neighbor: prepare a grocery list, multiply 1,209 by 367, woolgather. You might even hope for the kinds of things that others may be praying for. Any of these activities would be respectful of a friend's wish to pray but wouldn't compromise your personal beliefs.

When it comes to differences of religion, etiquette asks us to have a bit of humility -- at the very least to pretend to believe that people with different views are just that, rather than "insane" or "participating in a fool's game." It asks us to compromise, to show respect for others' religions, and to allow them to practice as they see fit. Your friend's request for silent prayer sounds like an effort at compromise or inclusion, the kind of effort I like to hear about. In response, you did the correct thing. Short of declining all invitations to socialize with people who do not share your beliefs, I don't know what else you could do.

Dear Social Grace,

I recently started a new job, and after a few weeks I "came out" to one of my supervisors. She replied that she already knew, and when I showed surprise, she explained that the person I'd replaced ("Erin," a friend of mine) had mentioned it when asked to describe my "qualities," presumably as a potential employee.

I know Erin from a completely different context (school), and while I'm generally "out" in that context, I don't go around wearing a sign, either. In my opinion, my sexual orientation is my business and I should be the one to choose who knows.

What is the best way to handle this situation? I want to let Erin know that her actions were inappropriate, though I'm confident that Erin didn't have malicious intent when she told my supervisors-to-be that I was gay. Should I just e-mail her (though that seems too impersonal)? I could try and schedule a time to "talk" (though that seems to make too big a deal out of it). I don't want her to feel bad; rather, my motivation is to educate her that a friend's personal life should not be discussed with potential employers (or anyone else for that matter). I realize that I write this as National Coming Out Day approaches, but do you have advice as to a delicate way to let her know how I feel without blowing things out of proportion or hurting her feelings?

Thank you,
Via the Internet

Dear Outed Madam or Sir,

Erin was, I think, understandably confused, since the border between social and professional life is so blurry these days. A friendly relationship with your mutual supervisor may have led her to believe (mistakenly) that such confidences were appropriate. Indeed, your supervisor showed a casual disregard for professionalism by indicating that your personal life had been a topic of workplace discussion -- before you'd even been hired.

I agree with you that making a "big deal" out of what's already happened -- apparently with no harm done -- would be a bad idea. Skip letters and e-mail, and try a phone call. I'd first find an excuse to thank Erin again for putting in a good word for me at my new job and then add something like, "But knowing how discreet [or professional] you are, I was surprised to hear that you'd discussed my private life with Ms. Powers. That kind of thing might put someone in an awkward situation with a new employer, don't you think?" Even if you talk about private vs. personal in the broadest terms, Erin will think again before bringing up friends' personal lives out of context.

About The Author

Social Grace


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