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Of Fads and Fingers 

Do you raise your pinkie when drinking tea, you pretentious goof?

Wednesday, Nov 10 2004
Dear Social Grace,

Is extending one's "pinkie" finger when eating or drinking a pretentious affectation (in the words of my mother)?

Via the Internet

Dear Handy Madam or Sir,

I hope you did not doubt your wise mother for a second. Most modern etiquette books of repute mention the extended little finger with disdain, if at all. That crooked digit is seen as the mark of arrivistes and other self-consciously pretentious sorts.

Now, a pinkie finger arched away from a teacup has become maligned in this way exactly because it is one of the first things that two broadly defined types of people think of when they think of etiquette. One type believes that etiquette is merely a set of such meaningless trivialities (when, in fact, its fundamental goal is to help you communicate respect for other people and for society). The other type believes that a small hand gesture can be a sure mark of sophistication, even in the absence of other social graces that are more important (and that require more effort), such as pleasant conversation and tidy table manners.

So where did the gesture come from? Like everything else in the human sphere, etiquette is subject to fads, and some of those fads are sort of silly. Perhaps a couple of centuries ago some famously elegant woman was witnessed drinking her tea with an arched pinkie, and the gesture was widely copied by others. But when elegant types noted that it was being copied by folks who didn't strive for elegance in other aspects of their behavior, they gave the gesture up as a mark of, well, pretentious affectation (at worst) or a faulty understanding of manners (at best). And that's where, it seems, we shall leave it. You're much more likely, these days, to see a pinkie arched in irony than in an honest attempt at sophistication.

Dear Social Grace,

We've been invited to a wedding this winter, and we just received their registry information. The couple is registered at a Web site that allows guests to contribute funds toward the couple's honeymoon. The couple registered for all their tropical-island honeymoon activities, including spa treatments, convertible-car rental, and helicopter ride. Is this a new fad? If we don't agree with this registry contribution, would it be wrong to give something else?

Thanks for your thoughts.


Dear M&M,

It is a new fad, yes. Not everyone thinks that it is completely seemly. It does appear to presume that a couple has "earned" a tropical vacation simply because they have married. It also might appear to be a greedy perversion of the lovely tradition of the wedding gift (that is, helping a couple create a comfortable new home).

But I must add that I've heard these sorts of Web sites praised by very respectable sorts of people, who seem to see weddings from a perspective that is different from mine. I'm willing to allow that this is an area of subjectivity.

To answer your final question, a registry is meant to assist wedding guests who need suggestions; it is not a shopping list. If you'd rather get the couple something other than a day's worth of rental car -- something that makes sense for you, the couple, and your relationship with them -- you may and you should.

Dear Social Grace,

What does etiquette say about which finger the engagement/wedding rings go on for gay couples?

Wondering in Oregon

Dear Wondering Madam or Sir,

Here in the United States, and in many cultures where both men and women wear wedding bands, both sexes customarily wear such rings on the left hand. A gay couple (like any couple) has many excellent reasons to employ this tradition -- one being that these rings are widely recognized as a symbol of commitment. But a couple may also have good reasons for eschewing such traditions; iconoclasts gay and straight have forgone rings altogether, for reasons that make sense to them (if not to their befuddled parents).

I encourage all couples planning their weddings to look thoughtfully at wedding traditions and customs (as well as questionable fads), and to plan ceremonies and symbols that are meaningful for them and their loved ones. I usually encourage couples toward the traditional: Ritual can be comforting and meaningful, not only for them but also for many people likely to attend the ceremony. But you don't need rings on your left hands just because everyone else wears them, or just because a wedding Web site says you ought to have them.

Dear Social Grace,

I've asked my 25-year-old brother to house- and dog-sit for me. It was approached as a favor, and being that he is currently living at home with my mother, I imagine it will be nice to have a big house all to himself. I'm not sure of the proper etiquette in this situation, but to reciprocate, I was planning to stock the refrigerator, rent him a couple of PlayStation games, and bring him a thank-you gift from our trip. Is this enough? And should I find out what his expectations are before we leave? I would really appreciate your suggestions and comments!

Thank you,

Dear Heather,

There are two ways to approach this housesitting job. First, you could approach it as if he were doing you a favor -- that is, your brother is watching your house and your dog out of the goodness of his heart -- and repay him with sisterly love and a token gift of some sort (what you describe sounds more than adequate).

Or you could approach it as a business relationship, in which case you would ask your brother what he expects in payment for this "job," and agree to terms ahead of time. (Then, because you are not just "business partners" but also family, you might want to throw in a little thank-you gift on top of that.)

Dear Social Grace,

When tipping, do you also include the wine/bar/liquor bill? If not, what is the reasoning? Also, when you're just ordering drinks at a bar (no food), what is the proper tipping etiquette?

Thank you,
Dena Reiner

Dear Ms. Reiner,

Of course you include the liquor or wine when calculating a tip -- I can't imagine anyone using "reasoning" to reach the opposite conclusion. (If you've been served by a sommelier, you tip him or her separately -- 15 to 20 percent of your wine purchase.)

To sum up tipping for tipplers: Bartenders usually get one or two dollars for a mixed drink; a drink that is complicated, "shaken," or especially expensive earns the bartender more (Mojito drinkers, I'm talking to you). You should usually end up tipping about 15 percent of your bar tab. In higher-end places, a tip of less than a dollar at a time is often considered improper -- use your good judgment. Cocktail servers should get that 15 percent plus an additional couple of dollars per round. If you're at a bar and given a table bill, you can simply tip 15 to 20 percent.

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