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Social Grace 

Old-Fashioned Gentleman Revisited; Can I Eat Meat with Vegans Present?; Recycling Etiquette

Wednesday, May 17 2000
Dear Social Grace,
Your reply to "Old-fashioned Gentleman" (May 3) was very astute. ["Gentleman" had expressed dismay that a compliment on a female co-worker's appearance was met with indignation.] However, there are a couple of additional factors in the equation I would suggest are important, aside from the ones you mentioned. One is that women are also often guilty of offering unsolicited commentary on co-workers' or subordinates' clothing or appearance. To my mind, this is just as inappropriate as when a man does it; not all women in a workplace are automatically "sisters" just because they are the same sex.

Additionally, "Gentleman" appeared to feel some chagrin and embarrassment at being reprimanded for his comment. That strikes me as a very normal, universal, and even healthy reaction to realizing one has, in spite of one's best intentions, made a faux pas. One doesn't have to be male, straight, and old-fashioned to have that unpleasant experience. Anyone living in a culturally diverse society is going to find, occasionally, that they've put their best foot forward only to find it clenched firmly between their own teeth. "Gentleman" is not alone in this regard. A faux pas can be a valuable learning experience, after one gets through the initial guilt, resentment, and embarrassment.

This is the first time I've seen your column. It looks good.
Sue Johnson

Dear Ms. Johnson,
Thank you for your kind words. We are in total accord on the value of learning experiences gleaned from unintended blunders -- why, even Social Grace has learned a thing or two from the bitter taste of well-polished shoe leather. If my response to "Old-fashioned Gentleman" seemed harsh, that was because I wanted to be sure that a lesson was, indeed, learned from his gaffe. It seemed to me that he was trying to excuse his behavior by invoking a nonexistent grandfather clause. (As I explained to him, remarks about a female employee's appearance are neither old-fashioned nor gentlemanly.)

And I agree with you completely that comments on co-workers' looks are inappropriate no matter who delivers them or to whom they're directed. I received other letters in response to this column, one from a man asking if there is perhaps a special etiquette dispensation allowing gay men to compliment female colleagues on smart outfit choices, hairstyles, and the like. (I'm afraid that the answer to that question is no.) Even if the possibility of sexual harassment is not immediately apparent, personal remarks (compliments and insults) do not belong in the workplace. They can seem belittling -- no matter whence they come -- and we do not come to work to have our appearance appraised.

Of course, as another reader pointed out, co-workers do sometimes become friends comfortable with offering and receiving these types of compliments, and that's wonderful. I am solidly in favor of friends saying pleasant things to one another (as long as those kinds of conversations in a work environment are conducted privately). However, the assumption that adjoining cubes mean anything more than a professional relationship is a dangerous and false one. Now get back to work, everyone.

Dear Social Grace,
I have a good friend who became a strict vegan several years ago. We don't eat out very often because there are not many places that are comfortable to her and appealing to me, but we do end up eating together sometimes. In a recent discussion, she described how the faintest smell of meat nauseates her and how she can't bear to watch people eat meat. I thought back on the times she's watched me gobbling salmon steaks and crunching calamari tentacles; and now I'm worried that I've been rude by eating meat in front of her. (If we're together, I usually eat only fish.) Have I been?

Dear Cat,
Attempting to force your friend to join you in crunching calamari or gobbling salmon would have been most impolite; however, eating meat in front of a vegetarian is not bad manners. When dining together in a restaurant, friends are not required to observe the same dietary regimen. I hope you aren't taking your friend's comments personally -- I'm sure they point to nothing more than a momentary loss of tact. Let this serve as another reminder that making a big to-do about the foods one can't or won't eat is not very nice at all (or very interesting, for that matter). It seems you and your friend have already -- perhaps unconsciously -- developed a way around your dietary differences by restricting your activities to those that don't involve food, and I think that's an excellent solution to your problem.

Dear Social Grace,
My boyfriend and I were helping friends clean up after a party. In charge of the trash, I asked the hostess where I should put the recycling. When she answered that the household didn't recycle, I decided to fill a garbage bag with the empty bottles and cans and take them home to deposit in my own recycling bin.

After driving away from our friends' house, my boyfriend told me that I'd been rude to take the bag of recycling. But I can't see why. I didn't make the hosts feel bad at all. I actually thought I handled the situation with subtlety and grace ... but you tell me.

Dear Eco-Guest,
Subtle and graceful? Not exactly. Rude? Well, yes, but not horribly. I'd need to know a bit more about the situation and the relationships involved to be certain, but I'll call this a well-meant error in proper guest etiquette. I'm going to go out on a limb here (fully expecting to get angry letters from other ecology-minded folks) and say that our friends' garbage is our friends' business. As a rule, guests should not take items that are not offered to them out of their hosts' homes. Our hostess might not be disposing of her trash, displaying her snow globe collection, or raising her children as we think she should, but we must refrain from making off with her possessions (even though we clearly know better how they are to be handled).

Only because we're talking about belongings your friends were planning to throw away do I hesitate to soundly slap your wrists for your recycling "rescue." Did you at least ask before making off with the empty wine bottles? Regardless, I hate to think that you've somehow suggested to your friends that they aren't properly managing their home. And I hate to imagine how I'd feel in their situation, as I watched my dear friends leaving my home after dinner, not with a dish of lovingly prepared leftovers or a loaned book I knew they'd enjoy ... but with a bag of my trash.

Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpopular? The solution to your etiquette problems may be found by writing to Social Grace at

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