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Social Grace 

I Want Chopsticks Too!; Funeral Arrangements; Compliments in the Workplace

Wednesday, May 31 2000
Dear Social Grace,
When eating in certain Chinese restaurants, I notice that the non-Asian customers (including me) are routinely given forks, though they haven't asked for them. I have never seen this done with Asian customers. This practice bothers me a lot because I can't help wondering if this is racial stereotyping -- the assumption that I'm too ignorant or ham-handed to deal with chopsticks. A friend of mine tells me I'm being hypersensitive. Who's right?
No Forking Stereotypes

Dear No Forking,
Agreed: Basing assumptions about a person's character and abilities on his or her ethnicity or some other characteristic is wrong. Sadly, people make these assumptions a lot, often unconsciously. Your letter points out the danger of unwittingly offending someone when we do so. (Are all people who aren't able to use chopsticks "ham-handed"?)

A food server who hands you a fork you don't want -- only because you aren't observably Asian -- is guilty as charged. But (and this is a very big but) there are many different shades of stereotyping, from the malicious, intentionally hurtful sort (which calls for moral indignation) to the well-intentioned, simply uninformed kind (which calls for gentle correction). The behavior of your silverware-wielding food servers surely falls into the latter category. I'd say that being "bothered a lot" in this situation is being somewhat hypersensitive. Why not gracefully decline the offered silverware and politely explain that you are comfortable with chopsticks -- and perhaps accept the incident as a valuable lesson about the danger of stereotypes?

Dear Social Grace,
A friend of mine committed suicide earlier this week, and I am in the process of making arrangements for his funeral and wake. He has left quite detailed plans for the service, though there are still lots of decisions to be made. I wondered if you knew of any useful advice about funerals that you could pass on to me.

We very much want things to be a celebration of his life, to compensate for the inevitable sadness of the circumstances of his death. We're doing things like a mock club flier to notify people of the funeral, because he worked on the door at clubs. (We're also struggling to find a word instead of "wake" to use; if you had any suggestions for that, that would be great.)

I'm concerned about finding a balance between being respectful and being celebratory. I don't want to trivialize the event. There are other problems about making sure his family is looked after. It's going to be really busy, which is fab, but at the same time we don't want it to be a disorganized scrum.

I've enjoyed reading your advice page; it strikes a good balance between refinement and realism. I hope that you might have some advice for this occasion.
Many thanks,

Dear Russell,
I'm very sorry to hear of your loss. I think the word you're looking for is "memorial." A wake is typically held directly after a funeral service and is by nature a somewhat somber affair (especially when someone has died unexpectedly). A traditional wake involves a viewing of the casket.

It bears remembering that, as much as you rightly want to celebrate his life (and fulfill his wishes), you should allow time for your friend's parents, family, and loved ones (not to mention you) to properly mourn a life cut short. Efforts to "compensate" for sadness with gladness often dilute both emotions, with unpleasant results. My suggestions for funerals (and wakes) typically tend toward solemnity (though I hesitate to make any suggestions, not knowing the people involved). Grief is just as important as joy. Don't give it short shrift.

There is value, however, in more festive remembrance of a loved one who has died. The type of affair you'd like to have for your friend, your memorial, might be better held a day or two after the funeral -- memorials can be held as long after a death as two months, and can often accommodate more people.

You're wise to be concerned about seeming "respectful." The death of a child is said to be the most painful thing a person can endure, and I hate to think that your good intentions might be misunderstood by grieving parents. Perhaps you could invite them to come to your memorial ceremony early, giving them a chance to participate in sharing memories about their son, before the more youthful celebration -- in which they may not want to take part -- begins.

I hope you'll keep the above in mind in your efforts not to trivialize the event, and I applaud your concern for others at what must be a very sad time for you. Finally, I encourage you to share your fond memories of your friend with his family, who'll be glad to hear them. And thank you for your kind words.

Dear Social Grace,
In your ongoing campaign against friendliness at work, you stated: "Even if the possibility of sexual harassment is not immediately apparent, personal remarks (compliments and insults) do not belong in the workplace." I'm glad I don't work with you. Perhaps if your column acquires a logo, you can use something chilly -- a prison of ice, perhaps?
Niceness Over Etiquette

Dear Niceness,
Oh, dear. Though reader feedback has tended toward applause and accolade, I've received a few letters arguing against etiquette in favor of "niceness," in response to recent columns about workplace conduct (strangely, the majority of these letters, like this one, are not very nice at all). I've scoured my writing in an effort to find the point at which I said friendliness at the office was inappropriate. I can't find it, and I'm sorry if I've somehow misled readers. The opening salvo in my "campaign" was in response to a letter from "Old-fashioned Gentleman," a man complaining that he was not allowed to tell a female employee that she looked pretty. I insist that this kind of personal comment is out of order in the workplace. However, I'm certainly not against what we're calling "niceness."

With an infinite number of conversation topics at your disposal, I don't know why you'd want to risk discussing personal appearance. This topic is a minefield unless you know a person quite well. (And what about your co-workers whose looks don't warrant appreciative comments?) But if your work schedule permits you a discussion with colleagues about the weather, Japanese restaurants, holiday plans, the IKEA opening --whatever -- that's marvelous. I'm all for social chitchat. I am, however, uncomfortable with those who take the new informality in the workplace (which I don't deny) to mean that they are invited to treat all colleagues as intimate friends.

Even I have managed to form friendships with people at my office -- despite the constraints of my icy prison. Because we're at work, though, some might say that we're bound to maintain a professional demeanor. That would necessitate keeping intimate conversations between friends to a minimum, out of respect for other co-workers, one concern being that friendships in the workplace might seem to disadvantage those not involved. Etiquette comes down firmly in favor of treating everyone (not only friends, and not only the good-looking) respectfully and equally; in this way, etiquette and "niceness" go hand in hand.

Do you need advice on how to behave? Or do you have advice for Social Grace? Send your letters to

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