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Just Desserts 

Is there a proper way to eat dessert?

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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Dear Social Grace,
I have a friend who's educated, from a well-off family, stylish, and old enough to understand good table manners. My friend recently told me that her new mother-in-law (better educated, from a wealthier family, more stylish, and older) had commented about my friend's improper way of eating dessert behind my friend's back. My friend, fortunately, was able to laugh it off -- but now I'm wondering what dessert-eating secrets I'm not aware of. To be honest, dessert has never seemed all that complicated to me, and I don't think that I know anything my friend doesn't. But I didn't want to seem like a dummy, so I didn't ask her for specifics. Are there any common dessert faux pas that I should be aware of?

Sincerely,
Having My Cake in San Francisco (but you can call me Helen)

Dear Helen,
The only faux pas apparent in your letter is the nigh unpardonable error of speaking ill of someone's table manners behind her back. I can't imagine what dessert-eating grotesquerie your friend could have committed to earn this treatment. It sounds more as though a rather nasty-spirited mother-in-law has chosen an unpleasant way to express her dislike of a new member of her family. Your friend is certainly right to ignore these comments altogether -- now don't you let them ruin your dessert.

I don't know of any epidemics of dessert faux pas currently sweeping the country, though I hope readers will let me know if they're aware of any. Maybe dessert leaves most people in such a happy state that they have no desire to be impolite.

There is one thing: Many people feel they must forgo dessert for the sake of their health or their figures -- which is fine -- but skipping dessert is often accompanied by a lot of bluster and yammer about why dessert is being skipped, and how this or that diet is working, and where exactly those seven lost pounds seem to have come off, etc. If you've been doing your etiquette homework, you already know that "Foods We Can't and Won't Eat" is one of Social Grace's least-favorite mealtime topics.

Other than that, dessert doesn't present too many additional hazards for the conscientious eater. We are generally given dessert spoons and/or dessert forks. For ice cream, custards, and the like, we use the former. For pie or cake, we use the latter. For pie a la mode and cream-filled pastries, we use the two together if necessary, employing the spoon as an ice cream scoop or as a cutting tool and then conveying food to our mouths with the fork. Unless we're dealing with hard fruit, we rarely want to use a knife on our dessert -- doing so might seem to intimate that we think our kiwi tartlet is too tough to cut with a fork, an intimation that may very well torment our host for weeks to come. A piece of fruit such as an apple, if served alone, may be cut with a fruit knife and eaten with the fingers. If cheeses are involved, a fork should be used. Chocolates and other bite-sized things are best eaten with the fingers.

Dear Social Grace,
I've always been under the impression that talking about money and income is taboo. It seems, though, that this is not the case nowadays. I often find myself conversing with people who bring up how much they make and then ask me about my salary, stock options, the cost of my home, and other things that to me seem very private.

Though I work for an Internet company, I don't consider myself a dot-commer. When my colleagues talk money, I'm afraid of seeming unfriendly, so I answer their questions about my income; however, these personal revelations and questions leave me flummoxed. Advice?

Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
In fact, personal finances should still be considered a taboo topic, to be discussed only with our intimates. Asking someone how much money he makes (nosy!) and announcing one's own salary (showoff!) are both to be avoided as not-very-nice behavior, for many reasons.

For one thing, being well mannered in the United States demands egalitarianism, and we Americans can be very sensitive about that. In theory, we are all equals, regardless of income. In practice, this can be extremely difficult to pull off, but we like to think that everyone is making an effort. Asking about a person's finances might seem to indicate we need to know her income before we can properly relate to her -- whether or not this is truly the case. For the same reason, many people bristle at the very common "What do you do?" line of questioning when it occurs too soon in a casual conversation. There are those who feel that a job (or lack thereof) is not a good indication of character, and rightly so.

The best response to prying questions is a gentle subject change. The next time a co-worker asks you how much you make or starts describing her queenly signing bonus, pretend that you've heard a more appropriate remark, and respond to it. For example: "Yes, the company is growing fast. I hear they're planning an office in Singapore. Have you ever been there?" Real Nosy Parkers can be more firmly discouraged as necessary, perhaps with an "I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to discuss my salary."

Dear Social Grace,
Has Social Grace yet addressed the etiquette of dealing with homeless people who ask you for money? Is it rude to ignore them?

Harry Connor

Dear Mr. Connor,
As far as Social Grace (and etiquette in general) is concerned, the operative word in the term "homeless people" is not "homeless" but "people." Therefore, dealing with homeless people in most cases is not noticeably different from dealing with people who have homes. The way we deal with their direct requests for money (provided, of course, that the requests are put to us in a polite way) should be the same way we deal with other unsolicited requests from strangers (often other people who want our money, our signatures, or our time): a courteous acknowledgement whether we are refusing the request or not. You may either hand over some money with a smile or reply with an "I'm sorry, no." Of course, attacks and insults are best ignored (no matter whence they come -- beggar or IT professional), and it's unwise to engage a person who seems threatening.

Most people who live in the Bay Area have their own ideas about philanthropy -- if, when, to whom, and how much to give -- and these are entirely personal matters. The questions of poverty and homelessness will not be solved today by Social Grace, but these uncertain and uncomfortable situations are often where good manners are most needed. At its most basic, etiquette serves to ensure respectful treatment for everyone. If we take that principle to heart, we can see that simply ignoring a polite, personal request for spare change is quite obviously wrong.

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Social Grace

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