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Social Grace 

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

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
Dear Social Grace,
I enjoy your column, and I now have a question for you. What are the etiquette rules around hand-holding between consenting adults? My honey and I like to hold hands. Is it impolite to do so in public? What about when socializing with other people? Does it make a difference if they're single people or couples? Does it matter if we're out walking, or sitting on the couch at someone's house, or holding hands under the table at dinner? We don't hold hands continually but have done so in all the aforementioned instances. I would like to know the etiquette rules on this issue.
Thank you,

Dear Affectionate,

As thanks for your kind letter, I hope to ease your mind about this hand-holding issue. And I sincerely hope that you haven't been withholding hand from your honey in anticipation of my answer to your question.

While (ahem) excessively romantic public displays of affection are inconsiderate of others and often unpleasant to see, not to mention somewhat juvenile, affectionately holding hands doesn't fall into this category. Holding hands is one of society's sanctioned ways of showing affection publicly, and it is available to everyone in most situations.

But perhaps ... hand-holding on escalators should be avoided. I know many people are frustrated by couples who insist on holding hands while standing side by side on escalators, because this blocks those who want to pass on the left-hand side. (When riding escalators, we stand on the right and pass on the left.) By the same token, maybe holding hands on narrow sidewalks is impractical and obstructive. And holding hands in extremely formal situations (a state funeral, say) or while working at your job might seem rather odd. Other than in situations such as these, though, I don't think there is any restriction on holding hands (accompanied only occasionally by ravenous looks of passionate longing, which frankly leave Social Grace feeling mildly unsettled).

Dear Social Grace,
There's been a lot in the news lately -- in the Chronicle and in USA Today, for example -- about how rude San Franciscans are. I think USA Today said we were the rudest city in the country or something, and today I read in the Chronicle that San Francisco scored a miserable 27.5 percent on a politeness test they conducted. Could this be true? What do you think about these reports? I have always thought that San Franciscans were a breed apart, polite and civil. Maybe that's just because I'm a New York transplant. What do you think? Are we as a city rude?
Proud, Polite San Franciscan

Dear San Franciscan,
I, too, was distressed to read the Chronicle's story -- to see, there on the cover of the daily newspaper, the sentence, "Civility, that necessary but impractical trait that makes human beings different from wild beasts of the jungle, is dead." Why, I nearly dropped the paper into my Cream of Wheat! I read further to discover that our city's manners had undergone tests, and had received what seemed to me a suspiciously low score. "Aha," I thought, "some clever minds at the Chronicle have finally found a way to quantify politeness, and though the news is bad, surely San Franciscans will be driven to raise their score, if for no other reason than civic pride. San Jose is beating them with 32.5 percent!"

The news, however, was not as bad as it seemed. Rudeness does seem to be on the rise, but to my mind, the newspaper's methodology was flawed. The Chronicle conducted four tests: a "bus" test, which counted commuters willing to give up seats to those in need of them; a "map" test, which counted passers-by willing to stop and give directions to "confused tourists" with maps; a "door" test, which counted those who held doors for others; and a "grocery" test, which counted grocery-store shoppers who gave "cuts" to other shoppers with only one item.

Yes, giving up your seat to a person in need is a kind, civil thing to do. Like many other "tests" of manners, it comes down to simply paying attention to people around you (they're headed in your general direction; why pretend they're invisible?). Is someone trying to get past you? Is your backpack cutting off someone's oxygen? Is your portable stereo's volume inflicting Celine Dion on fellow commuters? Don't pretend you didn't notice. That San Franciscans failed this simple test is further evidence that Muni is succeeding in making savages of us. Resist, fair San Franciscans! You are better than Muni. You deserve a public transportation system that treats you like the gentlepeople you are -- and that can begin with you treating each other this way.

Making seats available to people on crutches is certainly a step in the right direction, as is not slamming doors in others' faces, a nice (and quite simple) way to show respect for them. It was heartening to read that we passed at least this test.

But I hesitate to punish San Franciscans for allowing adults (who have maps, for heaven's sake) to decide whether or not they require directions. (And how was the Chronicle certain that passers-by had directions to give? On any given day, there are many more tourists than residents in large areas of San Francisco.) While offering directions to tourists is a friendly thing to do, I think many might prefer to ask for aid -- I'm rather proud if I can make it from Berlin Punkt A to Berlin Punkt B all by myself. And if I'm walking alone, a stranger approaching me might seem threatening. Sometimes good manners require us to respectfully leave others alone. While coming to the aid of strangers in obvious need of assistance is a requirement of a civil society, I'm not certain that a map is a cry for help.

I think the biggest error made by this test, though, was its assumption that allowing "cuts" in a supermarket line is a requirement of politeness. Yes, allowing Mr. One Item to go before your bulging shopping cart is one of those "random acts of kindness" that everyone was so excited about a few years ago. But I don't want shoppers with one item to feel they're entitled to advance to the front of the line. They aren't. The offer, if it comes, should be recognized for what it is: amiability above and beyond the call of duty, of which I am completely in favor, so please don't write in and tell me that I'm mean. More to the point, are shoppers refraining from obvious impatience when the people in front of them have trouble with the debit-card keypad? Are we treating clerks respectfully? Have we begun parking our shopping carts and stopped eating from bulk-food bins? These are more basic rudeness tests that I'd like to see conducted.

Civility starts with concern and consideration for other people, and it's hardly "impractical." Simple thoughtfulness will make the Bay Area a better, kinder place. And why should you care about that? Well, because the Bay Area is where you live, my dear.

Do you think San Francisco is becoming a rude city? Why is it happening? What can we do about it? Write me with concerns and suggestions, and I will share them with readers.

About The Author

Social Grace


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