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Social Grace 

Playin' the Field, Bread-Soaking, and Feuding Friends

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
Dear Social Grace,
As a somewhat stable gay man in my early 30s, I'm enjoying dating now more than I ever did in my 20s. I'm having fun meeting new people, going out to dinner, kissing, etc. And even though I'll kiss a real frog from time to time, overall it's been an uplifting experience playing the field and seeing who is out there. I have yet to find that one true relationship to pursue, but that's OK. I'm learning about who I am and whom I want to be with.

At one point I found myself having a date with one guy on Monday and calling another on Tuesday. I started to become worried. I am so not a slut -- but is this sluttish behavior? Are there rules about dating more than one person at a time? If so, I don't know them. Again, these aren't serious boyfriends (yet) they're just the fourth or fifth date. What is the etiquette about dating more than one person at a time? Is sex where you draw the line? Your eloquent words of advice would be most helpful.

O, These Gentleman Callers

Dear O,
Stop worrying. Your behavior doesn't seem to be at all "sluttish." (And keep in mind that etiquette and promiscuity are hardly mutually exclusive -- if you've set out to be a cheap tart, good manners will certainly smooth your path for you). Standard dating practices in modern Western culture presuppose that we're free to date whom we choose -- until such time as both (or all) parties decide that they will pursue a relationship with each other to the exclusion of others (or not). At that point, rules are laid out, contracts are signed, and the heavy chains of commitment are applied to one's wrists and ankles. I don't see that date number five, or sex, or anything else is a magical demarcation after which exclusivity can be assumed.

On the other hand, people will make assumptions, and we've got to be gentle with their tender emotions. You needn't ruin a nice dinner by announcing, "Hey, I'm seeing other people" (unless you're asked), but a conscientious single person will be aware of the signals he's giving his dates. If it's a casual relationship, keep it so. Once you've spent an entire weekend in bed with someone, sharing intimate secrets and professions of love, it's hard to go back to "casual" without leaving some poor gentleman feeling betrayed.

I'm all for the long courtship. "Instant relationships" often turn out very badly, indeed. This is more than a fact -- it's a cliché. Don't give in to peer pressure to pair up if that's not what you want, and let honesty guide you.

Dear Social Grace,
1) Is it proper to use bread to soak up all the good "juices" left on one's plate after the more tangible part of the food has been eaten? 2) In your first column, you seem to say that etiquette is a subset of civility. Is that true?


Dear Peter,
The answer to your first question might seem rather unsatisfying. Basically, it depends. For one thing, there are plenty of cuisines in which bread is used as an edible utensil (Ethiopian, for example). In most European-influenced meals involving bread and a fork, and in most of the United States, it's completely permissible to use a small crust of bread as a "pusher" for moving food onto a fork. You should be able to discreetly capture some of those precious food juices during the "more tangible" part of the meal with that neat little trick. I suggest you give it a try.

I think diners in some European countries would find the use of bread to soak up the remains of a delicious sauce or gravy (I speak here of bite-size pieces of bread that can be put entire into one's mouth; some manners experts recommend using a fork for this) perfectly acceptable. Many American diners, however, might find that using bread in such a way borders on impolite behavior. Consider that dragging your bread across an empty plate might seem to indicate a desire for more food -- and it just doesn't look very adult.

So is bread-soaking proper? I'd recommend against it, but your environment might provide reason enough to ignore me. Like much of etiquette, it depends somewhat on context. However, excusing yourself by saying something like "That's how they do it in France" doesn't work if you know that's not how they do it wherever you happen to be. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

I'm so glad you've taken an interest in the definition of etiquette. The answer to your second question is yes. Etiquette is to civility as grammar is to language. A person can have all the civil intentions in the world but not know how to express them. "Vocabulary" alone isn't enough; you need to know the language's structure. Bon appétit.

Dear Social Grace,
I've lived in San Francisco for several years, and in that time I've developed a circle of close friends (mostly women, as I am) that numbers about a dozen. Some of these friends knew each other before I came into the picture, some we've met after, but we're all close with each other to varying degrees. Until recently. Two of these friends began an intensely bitter feud a few months ago. Now they despise each other. Some in our circle have taken sides, but most, like me, are staying the heck out of it.

My problem is this: Their behavior is ruining social events. They refuse to speak to each other. I throw parties regularly. How should I handle these two? Not only don't they get along, but there are definite "camps" forming in my circle of friends (not to mention that they both have significant others who have of course chosen sides, and the significant others have friends too).

Thank you,
Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,
There are two schools of thought as to how you might handle this situation. If the party is what's important to you, many manners mavens will tell you to make an effort to avoid inviting enemies to the same event. A successful social event requires some care with the guest list. I'll add that you might consider not inviting either of these women until they can behave themselves. Why encourage their rude behavior -- inconsiderate of you and of their other friends?

If you'd like to repair your sundered circle of friends, stick to "staying the heck out of it." Ignore the feud. Refuse to take part in any character-bashing or snubbing of either person. Monitor party conversation and do your best to keep it on neutral topics. (Getting a person to talk about herself and/or celebrities often works -- "Oh, Fiona, tell us that hilarious story about meeting Jon Bon Jovi in the women's room at LAX.") Include both "camps" in your social calendar. Virulent animosity is very often conquered by social nicety -- most of us are just bred that way. Soon, these two will find a place where they can function in social situations. However, if they refuse after a reasonable amount of time to play nice, refer to the end of my first paragraph.

Are you unsure how to behave? Social Grace can help. Send your etiquette questions to

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