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Days of Wine and Leftovers 

How to be polite to people who aren't

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
Dear Social Grace,

While out to dinner with my new parents-in-law, I accidentally spilled red wine onto my mother-in-law's lap. She was wearing her favorite pants, which were pale yellow, and she got drenched. I was, of course, profusely apologetic and felt awful. I offered to replace the pants, which I had ruined. I asked who made them, and she said [a small, upscale designer].

That was a month ago. Since I have not yet made any reparation with her, I called her yesterday to assure her that I meant to do so. I said, "I want you to know I haven't forgotten about your pants and that I just feel awful about ruining them. I'm not sure what stores around here carry [that label], so I thought I would get you a gift certificate to one of the larger department stores. I would appreciate it if you could give me an approximate value of the pants."

She said, "That's very sweet, thank you. I have been looking around for something similar and have not found it yet. Let me keep looking and when I've found what I want, I'll let you know, and we can settle it then. We're getting away from summer, though, so I may not find anything until spring."

I agreed to the arrangement, but now I'm having second thoughts about this. She routinely exhibits bad manners and always wants to control any situation to suit herself. I made a good-faith effort to make the appropriate reparation and it seems to me that she should have graciously accepted my offer of the gift certificate. So should I adhere to the manner in which she wants to handle it, or can I send her a gift certificate with a polite note saying that I do not want the matter hanging over my head indefinitely and thought it better to get it settled? Please advise.

Mrs. D.

Dear Mrs. D.,

First, let's remember that we're discussing your mother-in-law here. One hopes that your relationship with her will be long and amiable. Trust me, a disagreement about a pair of yellow pants is not how you want to start out.

Second, ponder this: The hardest part of being polite is doing it even when other people act less than perfectly. If your mother-in-law is sometimes difficult to get along with, I sympathize with your plight but suggest that you can, and should, be the better person. And to be honest, the way she's behaving now doesn't sound at all out-of-line to me. You ruined a pair of her pants, and you were properly apologetic and did the right thing by offering to replace them. She accepted your offer and you agreed on terms. The matter isn't hanging over your head. I think it would be bad form for you to send her a gift certificate at this point (saying, in effect, "Just accept my apology graciously and be done with it already!"), although if she had refused your offer of replacement, it would've been nice – and wise – of you to send something such as a gift certificate the very next day.

As next spring blossoms into summer, if you haven't been offered the opportunity to replace those pants, you could remind her again how terrible you feel. Until then, or until you are presented with a bill, put the matter from your mind – and keep a firm grip on your stemware.

Dear Social Grace,

When you have a party, what should happen to the leftovers at the end of it? Should they be divided up amongst the guests or divided up amongst the organizers or just stay at the house where the party was held? I noticed that whenever we have family parties, some people always complain about the way this is handled.

Thank you,

Dear Veronika,

Alas, this week's column isn't turning out to have quite the "Happy Thanksgiving" tone I was hoping for. At this time of year – when people come together to share a meal and bask in familial love – I hate to think of any family squabbling over Tupperware containers full of mashed potatoes.

Strictly speaking, the leftovers belong to the hosts: the people who prepared or purchased the food. At a potluck, everyone is a host, and it can generally be assumed that each person will take his own food home unless other arrangements are made and understood beforehand. The host of a non-potluck dinner may decide to offer leftovers to guests at the end of the meal. Certainly, though, one should never complain about leftovers not offered – just as one wouldn't complain about a gift not received.

Dear Social Grace,

A colleague of mine who is both charming and funny has an annoying trait, and I am at a loss as to how to deal with it without hurting her feelings or damaging our working relationship. While she is both bright and well educated, she often presents her opinions as fact, and she becomes argumentative if anyone disagrees with her.

I have tried gently challenging her in areas where I know more and often ask what her sources are, or why she believes some of the things she does. I have even on one occasion sent her research with a note explaining that she had piqued my interest, and was sure she'd want to know what I discovered. But any attempt to counter her winds up in drama.

Since avoiding her altogether is not possible, how should I handle a know-it-all who isn't credible and has on occasion led others astray?

Frustrated in San Francisco

Dear Frustrated Madam or Sir,

The know-it-all is an annoying conversation partner – and I'm sure the co-worker you describe can vouch for this as well as you can.

Of course, you have the facts and she doesn't, apparently, and this makes her doubly irritating to you. I wonder, though, why you feel the need to correct her at all, especially if you're discussing, as you say, a matter of opinion. If she's argumentative about issues related to your job, you could discuss the matter with a supervisor. But if she simply won't be swayed from her belief that the Finnish government has established secret colonies on Mars or that Liza Minnelli has never won a Tony Award, well, why waste your breath? It's a fact – and a terrible pity – that many people just can't disagree without unpleasantness.

You know that what this woman says may not be factual. And although your protective instinct is noble, you'll have to let other grown-ups reach that conclusion for themselves. Beyond saying, "Is that really true? I've never heard anything like that before," or, "Perhaps you're mistaken? I'm a big fan, and I'm certain she won one for The Act, at least," I'd suggest agreeing to disagree with her on such topics. If your colleague becomes unpleasant when you try to discuss a matter in detail, limit your conversation with her – at least to topics you agree on.

About The Author

Social Grace


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