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Picking Your Friends 

Toothpicks at the table, registries for housewarming parties, and other faux pas

Wednesday, Aug 4 2004
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Dear Social Grace,

Is it rude to use a toothpick at the table? I am speaking in this case of a casual dinner party at my home; I offered toothpicks to my guests, who were struggling with the aftereffects of eating meat off the bone, and a couple of them balked. If I don't mind them using toothpicks at my table, why should they? (I should say that I know it would probably be rude to use one at a restaurant table.)

Thank you,
Via the Internet

Dear Picky Madam or Sir,

Of course, rules are often relaxed a bit when you're with close friends and relations at a family table. But they shouldn't be too relaxed: Table manners make meals more enjoyable, and certainly our loved ones deserve the respect that good manners communicate.

As for your specific question, most people who have a grounding in such behavior have heard that they mustn't clean their teeth at the table -- so even when invited to do so, they will probably demur. They aren't wrong to refuse your offer: Manners are for the benefit of everyone at the table, not just the hosts. We avoid picking things from our teeth at the table for the sake of the sensibilities of everyone there.

You invited people to ignore a familiar rule, and doing so made some of them uncomfortable. (Here's a more extreme example: You could tell me to just go ahead and wipe my hands on the tablecloth -- and I might do so, but I would feel pretty weird about it.) The folks who took you up on your offer weren't misbehaving, but I might refrain from doing something that obviously made other guests feel awkward.

A departure from the expected can throw people off balance. One of the things manners rules do is take care of these details, so that we can sail along without worrying about them. When one of the rules is changed, people may feel that the social seas have gotten a little choppy.

Dear Social Grace,

My partner and I are moving in together in September and we are planning a housewarming party. Do you think it's a big faux pas to register at some of our favorite stores for our party? We know some friends will want to get us gifts, so is it so wrong to help them in their selection?

Thank you,
Domestic Goddess

Dear Domestic Madam,

Without a doubt, it would be a faux pas. And I fear that it would lead only to yet graver faux pas. I mean, you could register for your housewarming party. Heck, you can register for Labor Day if you want to. The thing is, no one would ever know. You tell people where you're registered only if they ask. Forcing that information upon people seems unbecomingly greedy. And, trust me, if your friends do find out that you've registered for a party, they will not be grateful to you for "helping" them buy you stuff. They will be flabbergasted, and you will be the subject of conversations like this:

"Can you believe Kayla registered for her housewarming party?"

"Tacky! Who does she think she is?"

You don't want that, and neither do I. So please, take heed: Throw a housewarming party as a way of welcoming loved ones into your new home. Any presents you receive are incidental; housewarming gifts are usually, and rightfully, simple tokens. Put this registering idea out of your mind.

Dear Social Grace,

My husband and I were invited to dinner to our neighbors' home, and we would rather not go. What is the proper way to reject the invite without hurting anyone's feelings? You should know that our neighbors are Indian and we are American, so we are uncomfortable with the idea of the dish that we would be served. And also, our children play with each other all of the time. Any advice you have would be great.

Thank you,
Good Neighbor

Dear American Madam,

My first piece of advice would be to just go have dinner with your neighbors already, if only to maintain cordial relations with the parents of your children's friends. They have made what sounds like a friendly, generous gesture. Surely you know that the actual meal served at this dinner represents more than mere nourishment. Refusing it, no matter how polite you are about it, may be seen as a larger rejection. I know plenty of picky eaters who manage dinner parties just fine -- they have a snack at home before they leave, then, at the event, they take small portions, eat as much as they can, and enjoy the evening's non-food-related pleasures.

But if your health, conscience, or religious beliefs restrict your diet, it is not impolite to explain that that is why you cannot accept an invitation to dine. (Being "uncomfortable" with foreign food isn't really an acceptable reason, as far as etiquette is concerned. Plus, it's hard to categorically refuse the cuisine of an entire nation or culture without sounding like a horrible sort of person.) Tread cautiously here. If I were in such a situation, I might try either to turn the invitation around or to suggest an alternative activity:

"Thank you for your generous invitation. We truly wish we could accept, but unfortunately I have some health issues that severely limit what I can eat. I wouldn't ask you to prepare anything special, but my husband and I would love to spend some time with you. Perhaps we can stop by after dinner for tea or coffee?"

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Social Grace

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