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The Pleasures of Eaves-dropping 

What to do with sensitive information you shouldn't have heard?

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
Dear Social Grace,

While sitting alone at a bar, drinking my weekday sorrows away, I overheard a rather loud conversation between two people next to me. The discussion, [to my] surprise, turned out to be about a friend of mine, and it was extremely unflattering in nature. The people speaking were apparently co-workers of my friend -- but the tone of their discussion seemed to indicate that she would soon be out of that job, if they had anything to do with it. I sat there and eavesdropped, which was probably an etiquette error. But now, do I tell my friend that her co-workers are at best hoping for her termination and at worst actively plotting it?

Via the Internet

Dear Eavesdropping Madam or Sir,

The real etiquette error here happened when these people so indiscreetly discussed a person loudly, by name, in a public place. Your friend's co-workers were displaying the odd, increasingly common blindness to others (the childlike "I'm not looking at them, so they can't see me" misconception) that leads to all sorts of inappropriate behavior. Private affairs -- and let's agree that maligning and plotting against a co-worker fit that description -- must be discussed in private. We'll take a moment to tsk-tsk your listening in on what was clearly not meant for your ears, but honestly, how could you resist? (Human nature being what it is, the Social Grace Letter Screeners are dying for more details about what, exactly, was said -- and they probably don't even know your friend.) If I'd found myself positioned on a barstool in such a situation, I might have tried to move away. Or I might have cheerily chimed in, "I couldn't help hearing you mention Viv Plotsky; why, she's a dear friend of mine." That might have shut them up, and striking up conversations with strangers on neighboring barstools is not impolite.

Your central question, though, is what to do now that you have this information. My best advice is to forget that you heard it -- though I realize that doing so will be difficult, and I recognize that the closeness of your relationship may preclude keeping this information a secret. But you have no way of placing this overheard conversation in context. Can you be sure that what you heard was in fact a "plot"? Or might these two have been dealing with their own weekday sorrows by blowing off steam? Passing on what you've accidentally overheard will not improve your friend's outlook on or ability to do her job; in fact, the news will more likely do her harm. Questionable information that you obtain inappropriately should, in the main, stop with you.

Dear Social Grace,

The question has come up in my family about monograms (on towels, sheets, etc.). Having been married for 45 years, I am obviously not a bride. Should my towels and the like be monogrammed with my initials (SJS) or my husband's (SPS)? I have searched the Internet and can't find the answer to my question, so I would very much appreciate your comments.


Dear Sherry,

In the past, it was more customary for household items to be marked with the wife's initials or monogram -- initials in a row being less formal than a monogram, which is styled with the first letter of the last name larger and in the middle. (For example, Sherry Person Smith's initials would be SPS, while her monogram would be SSP. However, an increasingly common variation more accurately reflects the fact that household possessions are jointly owned. In this design, the first letter of the last name is prominent while the first initial of the wife's name and the first initial of the husband's name appear next to each other (in that order) or on either side. (In other words, Sherry Person Smith and Simon Johnson Smith's joint monogram would be SSS -- a pleasant symmetry.) After 45 years of marriage, you and your husband should be able to share the bathroom towels without too much acrimony, and a joint monogram could be a nice answer to your question.

Dear Social Grace,

I have a question that really needs an answer: What is the normal time to respond to a phone call? I have let the machine answer it because I just don't feel like talking -- is this rude? How long can I wait before I return a personal phone call? A day? A week? The messages aren't urgent; they're just from people wanting to talk.

Thanks for your help.

Dear Janet,

It isn't at all impolite to let your answering machine answer your phone. We are not required to answer the phone every time it rings. It may sting to hear, but very few of us are that important.

As for returning calls: It's accepted that in business situations, calls should be returned within 24 hours, but there's no set time for returning personal calls. A faraway friend with whom you speak once a month doesn't need to be called back right away -- especially if she just wants to chat. On the other hand, if you speak to your mother every day, she might interpret a delay of even a couple of days as a snub.

About The Author

Social Grace


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