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Positive Reinforcement 

Sticky fingers and dirty feet: Managing the many trials of public life

Wednesday, Jan 8 2003
Dear Social Grace,

My nieces (aged 3 and 4) love to stick their fingers in food. And they really like to stick their fingers in birthday cake. So what, right? Kids like to play with their food. That'll never change.

But here's my problem: Without fail, their parents will hand out this birthday cake, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their dear children have been plying it like Play-Doh.

I love my nieces, and I guess I love dessert. How do I let these parents know that violated birthday cake isn't something I want to eat? I'd be totally embarrassed to say, "So sorry, but it appears the birthday girl has already mashed this piece of cake; can you please cut me another slice ... preferably one untouched?"

Uncle C.

Dear Uncle C.,

I, too, prefer cake that hasn't been mashed by tiny fingers, but it's true that most parents simply can't get enough birthday photos of darling Madison with her fists full of frosting. (We Grace children enjoyed eating our birthday cake with appropriately child-size utensils, and we're none the worse for it.) I do hope, for the kids' sake, that this cake-mashing is confined to their own birthdays, and only when they're young -- it's all very precious until little Madison is 19 and unable to eat cake any other way.

At your house (or at your birthday party), you may choose to cut Madison her own piece of cake to play with before serving the rest of the guests. Still, you'll probably be subjected to the horror of "violated" birthday cake for only two or three more years, at least with these particular nieces. (Many 16-year-olds, for example, would never be caught doing something as childish as eating birthday cake or hanging out with relatives on birthdays -- and don't we miss those tiny fingers then?) In the meantime, try to remember that you love your nieces more than you love dessert. At the next children's party you attend, simply decline the cake (or take it and don't eat it), and then stop at your favorite bakery on the way home, for a sweet the way you like it: sliced, not mashed.

Dear Social Grace,

My recent outings to theater events and films have led me to conclude that the proliferation of home-entertainment systems has eroded people's ability to behave properly in a public entertainment venue. Recently, at a 50th anniversary showing of Singin' in the Rain, the middle-aged couple in the row behind us hooked their feet over the seats in front of them, constantly shaking the entire row with their foot-bracing and readjustment of a position that wasn't particularly comfortable-looking anyway. When the woman actually began tapping her feet to the music on the wood frame of the seat in front of her, I got up, went over, and said, "Could you please put your feet down? That's incredibly annoying." She did (though her companion did not), but immediately put them back, perhaps on the urging of her partner in social crime. I encounter this behavior at theatrical events of all kinds -- and don't get me started on people who talk constantly throughout a performance or screening.

I contend that one's consideration for others should always come before indulging one's own comfort in a public setting, and that it is never, ever permissible to place one's feet on a chair in any theater, regardless of how few people may be present. What's your position on this issue?

Singing in the Ruins (of Society in General)

Dear Singing Madam or Sir,

Because they have been on the ground and therefore may be caked in greasy black muck, feet should not be rested where someone -- in a pale-gray cashmere sweater, for example -- may sit. The official Social Grace Position is, of course, "Don't even think of putting your feet on that seat." We are obliged to treat furniture that belongs to other people at least as well as, if not better than, we treat our own. And by that token, we must be able to differentiate between our homes, where we can screech and squawk right through our favorite films, and public spaces, where we should follow a few easy-to-understand rules ("Be quiet during the movie," "Treat others as you want to be treated," and so on) that help us get along without wanting to throttle one another.

Now, it sounds as though you encountered some extremely unappealing people: slouching seat-kickers who seemed to enjoy making others uncomfortable (and who were old enough to know better). I'm grimacing with dislike just imagining them. However, it's more polite (and almost always more effective) to approach this sort of situation with a smile and an apologetic demeanor: "Excuse me, would you mind taking your feet off this seat? I know you don't mean to, but you're shaking my chair. It's wobbly." With dogs and rude people, positive reinforcement works. Tell them they're good, and they may just want to be good. If this tactic fails, ask again more firmly. If that fails -- and if you can't move to another seat or tap the reserves of inner peace that help us put up with others' atrocious behavior -- find an usher. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, they are there to help you.

About The Author

Social Grace


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