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Social Grace 

Are you unsure how to behave? Social Grace answers all your toughest etiquette questions

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
Dear Social Grace,
What am I to do with my chewing gum when I sit down to dinner at a table with no paper napkins to wrap my gum in? I hear swallowing gum is very bad for my health, and I know you don't want me to leave it on the edge of my plate (or stick it under the table).

Dear Myra,
Well, yes, you're quite right about that: I'd rather not discover your discarded chewing gum the next time my shapely, silk-clad knee encounters the bottom of a restaurant table (that would be very bad for my health). In truth -- and please don't take this personally -- I'd prefer not to have my attention drawn in any way to your mouth's contents. What to do in the situation you describe (even if paper napkins are present)? Stand yourself right back up, excuse yourself with a gentle smile, and retire to the women's room, there to dispose of your chewing gum, wrapped in tissue, in a trash can.

Dear Social Grace,
What are the differences in the social innuendoes attached to the phrases "Bless you" and "Gesundheit," and which one (if either, or even an alternate) is appropriate after someone sneezes?
Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
What a delightful question (and people accuse Social Grace of hairsplitting when the conversation turns to etiquette).

In ages past, a sneeze was thought by many cultures to herald some kind of danger to the soul of the sneezer. (I'm not certain if this belief is current in a strong way -- some cursory research indicates it's not.) Many believed the soul might take advantage of a sneeze to escape the body. The origins of this belief are lost in prehistory, but it was current even among the ancient Greeks, at a time when -- without the aid of modern antibiotics -- a sneeze might truly indicate serious danger to one's mortal soul. (The soul's alleged propensity for escape may have led also to the nice practice of covering our mouths when yawning.) "God bless you" and its variations ("Gesundheit," German for health, is the major one in English) were originally attempts to invoke divine protection against the loss of another's soul.

There are those who find "Bless you" mildly offensive. Some atheists, for example, might prefer that a religion's intervention not be sought in their names. I, however, don't find it so -- the phrase has effectively lost its literal meaning and is simply a friendly social convention (like "goodbye," literally short for "God be with you") that should be understood as such. If you were brought up to acknowledge sneezes verbally, "Gesundheit" might be safer, as it's further away from any mention of religion, but I can't find anything wrong with "Bless you" either. Of course, it's perfectly mannerly to treat another person's sneeze as one would treat another involuntary bodily function (a cough, a belch, or a sniffle) -- that is, simply to ignore it.

Dear Social Grace,
I recently ate dinner with several colleagues at an awards ceremony. We were packed very tightly at our table, and the person next to me mistakenly picked up my glass of wine and started drinking it. I was unsure how to handle this situation. Should I have informed him of his mistake and asked for his glass? I didn't want to embarrass him, so I just didn't have wine with dinner (and it was a long ceremony). How could I have pointed out his error to him without embarrassing him?
Thirsty in Sonoma

Dear Thirsty,
Exactly how low was this gentleman's threshold of embarrassment? Though I commend your desire to avoid humiliating your dinner companions (something for which we should all strive), I hate to think of anyone forgoing liquid entertainment during a tedious evening of speechifying. We shouldn't suffer too much in the name of good manners. In a similar situation, I might take on some of the blame myself (or, more accurately, blame the close quarters) as a way of diffusing potential embarrassment: "Goodness, our dishes are so close we seem to have mixed up our wineglasses." Or if the prospect of confronting him yourself is too terrifying, you might call upon your food server to correct the problem of your "missing" wineglass.

Dear Social Grace,
I am a Chinese-American woman who works in an office with another Chinese-American woman for whom English is a second language. Although she is trying hard to improve her English, until it is better we sometimes converse in Cantonese so that we can more easily and efficiently communicate. Our supervisor recently told us that it was inappropriate to speak in any language other than English while in the office because it made the rest of the staff feel excluded.

I don't know how to take this. What about the feeling of exclusion of my Chinese-American co-worker? I don't think our private discussions in Cantonese are any more exclusive than our other co-workers whispering in a cubicle -- which is sometimes necessary given the small space we inhabit. Don't say to take our conversations outside. We are eight floors up, and if we had to leave every time we had a conversation, we wouldn't get any work done. Please advise.
Social Vivian

Dear Vivian,
Never fear: I am certainly not about to put "speaking Cantonese" beneath "smoking cigarettes" and "dueling with pistols" on society's list of things that are better done outside.

In a professional setting -- most places of business are not very "professional" these days, a fact of which I am painfully aware, but bear with me for a moment -- both whispering in cubicles and conversing in languages not necessary to the task at hand should probably be kept to a minimum. If your conversation pertains to your work, there should be nothing to whisper about. And I'm assuming that your co-worker speaks English well enough to do the job for which she was hired -- so there shouldn't be much to speak in Cantonese about, either, and "talking shop" in English will only help your co-worker improve necessary language skills.

You seem to be asking how to conduct personal conversations at the office. My answer: rarely and somewhat discreetly. Your letter, though, also indicates that you feel you are being unfairly singled out in an office where private conversations are allowed other employees. If that's the case, I strongly suggest taking the matter up with your supervisor or, if she is unapproachable, with a higher-up, a personnel manager, your union, or an arbiter of some kind.

Speaking a foreign language (or whispering) in order to exclude partners in conversation is quite impolite, but a polyglot society is our reality (and our extreme good fortune). I am most disturbed by occasional agitation for an "English-only" state (Social Grace's semiconversational Spanish hasn't been easily achieved, and she would like to exercise it). Of course not all conversations are for all ears. Those offended by others' private conversations in an unfamiliar language are hereby advised to stop eavesdropping.

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Social Grace


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