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Sitting Mull 

When to take a seat uninvited, open presents, and pick a new party theme

Wednesday, Oct 22 2003
Dear Mr. Grace,

I am writing you in search of validation for a practice I use that I think is, unfortunately, becoming archaic. When I'm invited to someone's office, I stand and wait patiently for them to invite me to sit. If it seems we're about to start discussing the matter at hand and I'm still standing, I will ask, "May I sit here?" I think that's probably the best approach to that problem (you have said the simplest solution is the best). I've never actually been told that one should wait for an invitation to sit; rather, I just assumed it was the polite thing to do.

Is this an etiquette rule or just something I made up? I hope this is something people appreciate.

Thank you,
Dave Nickolchuk

Dear Mr. Nickolchuk,

Please take a seat wherever you like, and we'll get to the bottom of this. You are correct that it is unassailably proper to sit down in a person's home or office only at that person's invitation. And continuing to live your life as you have done -- either waiting for an invitation or requesting one before sitting on someone else's chair -- would be a fine thing to do. But you could go a step further by paying heed not only to impeccably proper etiquette, but also to the real situations in which you find yourself. "Pay attention to your context" is an etiquette rule that countermands many others.

You've started in the right place: When in doubt, err on the side of formality. But many modern workplaces intentionally adopt a casual atmosphere. If you work in one of those, following its codes of conduct (written and unwritten) can also be important. For example, it's my first instinct to address a new business acquaintance by his last name and an honorific. But when I'm a guest in Mr. Smith's office and he starts off by calling me by my first name, I understand that he means for us to be on a first-name basis. In that context, I may call him "Joe" rather than make him uncomfortable by calling him "Mr. Smith" -- or by giving him permission to use my first name after the fact. (I could, if I found Mr. Smith's behavior too intimate, correct him and ask him to call me "Mr. Grace"; etiquette would be on my side. But I don't mind this bit of overfamiliarity too much, and in many arenas, this battle has been resoundingly lost.)

So take a look around you: Are your colleagues sitting right down and getting to work when they visit you? Are people looking perplexedly at you as you hover over their desks? If so, you might need to adjust your behavior slightly, in the context of your office. Instead of waiting to be invited, you could ask, as soon as you approach someone's desk for what could be a lengthy discussion, whether you should take a seat.

Dear Social Grace,

I have a quick question for you: What is your opinion on when to open gifts at a gathering? Should one wait to open them when alone or should the gifts be opened in the presence of the giver as well as a room full of people going, "Ooooooh" and "Ahhhh"?

Thank you,

Dear Marcus,

It depends on the occasion. At a baby shower, one can open gifts -- the point of the whole affair -- in front of the gathered crowd. At many birthday parties, too, tearing off the paper is a fun group activity. But it's better not to open presents at a packed celebration if only one or two people have brought wrapped offerings. Making a big deal about it in front of everyone might make those who showed up empty-handed feel uncomfortable.

Dear Social Grace,

I'm considering throwing a Halloween party in which everyone dresses up as a despised person such as Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler. Many people have said that they think this is in poor taste. Do you think such a party is in poor taste?

Via the Internet

Dear Costumed Madam or Sir,

I do indeed -- shockingly so.

Speaking generally, you know you're treading into an area of dubious taste when you treat the death of real people -- especially real people whose loved ones are still with us -- as a source of hilarity. That's not to say that dark humor is always inappropriate. But for it to rise above pure offensiveness it must at least attempt to educate or illuminate, not simply amuse (and even then, it will still offend some people).

Frankly, I just can't imagine that a crowd of people dressed as the most loathsome of history's despised personages would have a very good time at a party. Even if it weren't in poor taste, it would be a party foul.

Dear Social Grace,

My name is Chinese and difficult for people to pronounce. Do you think I should bother to correct their pronunciation? Sometimes it seems hopeless, and the only solution seems to be an English name. But my parents dislike that idea. Any advice?

Via the Internet

Dear Mispronounced Madam or Sir,

Trying to help a new friend or business associate pronounce your name correctly is perfectly proper. Of course, you have to understand that a person who doesn't speak Chinese may never get it exactly right. I'm going to side with your parents and say that changing your name is probably unnecessary in this case. If you want to change your name, please do -- but for just about every name you can think of, there's someone out there who can't say it correctly. You may have to settle for a slight mispronunciation as the best certain folks can do, rather than repeating your name back to them every time they say it.

About The Author

Social Grace


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