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Social Grace 

The End of the Affair

Wednesday, Jan 24 2001
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Dear Social Grace,
Finding myself "in the market" after the end of a long-term relationship, and having reached an age where it's not easy to meet single women, I've begun to explore meeting women online. But there's a problem with this efficient way of meeting people: When meeting someone online, the goal (in my case a monogamous, long-term partnership) is understood at the outset. Maybe you'll click with the person, and maybe you won't, but the assumption is that you're looking specifically for a partner. I've met a number of very nice women -- attractive, intelligent, personable -- but there's no telling when or why that spark will happen.

So here's my question: How and under what circumstances does a man explain tactfully that he isn't interested in pursuing a relationship? Under "normal" circumstances, you already know there's an attraction before the first move is made. With the personals, it's all backwards: You chat online and on the phone, then meet, and then figure out if you're attracted. I figure that if there's no buzz after a couple of e-mail messages, just not writing back again is OK -- or maybe saying, "You sound/look very nice, but I don't think we'd be a good match." But what about when you've actually met someone and nothing's happening? I figure that in most cases, the feeling is probably mutual, but it leaves a bad taste to just disappear with no word after a personal meeting. On the other hand, it feels presumptuous to contact someone just to say you're not interested, when the feeling may be mutual. Ending a relationship is bad enough, but how does one end a relationship that hasn't even begun?

Perplexed

Dear Perplexed Sir,
So it seems as though you're looking for a way to "let someone down easy" -- but the ever popular "I'm just not looking for a serious relationship right now" excuse isn't going to work. Well, good. There's nothing nice about lying to good people who consent to go on dates with us. Whether you've met a woman online or on BART, you owe her more than some transparent, cowardly fib such as "I just got over a serious relationship" or "I'll call you." And you rightly want to soften the blow of rejection.

Most people understand that not every coffee date or e-mail exchange leads to a serious relationship, but having the tender shoots of romantic feeling brutally pruned does hurt. Rejection -- even from someone we would've rejected first, given the chance -- can bruise the ego.

So it should leave a bad taste to disappear after a date with no word of farewell or explanation. If your date was simply fair-to-middling and no sparks flew -- if the date wasn't out-and-out awful, ending in tears or bodily injury -- you owe your date a thank you. It could take the form of a phone call or an e-mail message if flowers and a love poem are not exactly in order; just show appreciation for the fact that she showed up on time -- showered and dressed -- and spent a few hours of companionable time with you. Something about the evening must have been noteworthy: Your date's car was exceptionally clean, say, or the avocado flan was enjoyably unusual. A thank you note or call unaccompanied by "Let's do it again" is a gentlemanly way to end a nonstarting relationship. If you are asked out again by a woman you do not wish to see, the politest thing you can do is to decline, with thanks. There is nothing inherently rude about saying no.

Dear Social Grace,
I received a beautiful and expensive set of throw pillows for Christmas. I love them, but I can't use them -- they don't fit in with my home's décor at all. In this case, is it all right to ask the giver for the receipt so I can exchange the gift for something else? Can I give the pillows to a friend in whose house the pillows might be more appropriate? (In that case, what should I do if the giver asks about the pillows?) The gift obviously took a lot of thought and cost a lot of money, and I would hate to have to keep the pillows on a shelf in a closet where nobody would be able to enjoy them.

Signed,
Pillow Case

Dear Madam or Sir,
There is more to a gift than meets the eye. You apparently recognize that these pillows are a symbolic gesture, the result of much thought about you. I ask you to recognize as well that returning them might be seen as spurning that gesture. Understanding this should prevent you from asking the giver for a receipt. If the giver had made these pillows, you wouldn't ask him to make new ones more in line with your living room's color palette.

If you cannot exchange a gift without insulting the giver (meaning that you do not let him know that the gift was unacceptable to you), you may save the gift, donate it to charity, or give it away -- though it'd be wise to avoid giving it to a mutual acquaintance. When the giver asks you about those gorgeous pillows, respond to the spirit of the gift: "It was so thoughtful of you."

Dear Social Grace,
A friend visiting from out of town brought me a gift, which I opened in her presence and for which I thanked her in person. After she went home, I called to get her new address (she recently moved) so I could send a thank you note. She insisted that one doesn't have to send a thank you note when the gift is opened in person. I disagree -- I think you should always send thank you notes except to your parents (unless it's a really big gift) and to live-ins. Who is correct?

Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
You are in the right. A gift opened in the giver's presence (just like an overnight stay in someone's home or a meal served to you at someone's table) requires a written thank you note -- no matter how effusive and heartfelt your verbal thanks were. People who live in our homes are excepted from this rule, but I think that a little note is thoughtful (and shows that we don't take that live-in, whatever the relationship, for granted).

As for parents -- well, I've never made my mother the exception to any etiquette rule (and should you ever encounter Mother Grace, you'd do well to mind your p's and q's). Everyone's family is different, however, and sometimes our intimate relationships evolve to a level of understanding that no longer requires written thank yous.

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Social Grace

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