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The Right Note 

Being nice to a soon-to-be-ex relative and the teacher whose class you dropped

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
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Dear Social Grace,

My sister is divorcing her husband of 20 years. The divorce, initiated by my sister, is relatively amicable, though there are naturally some hurt feelings on the part of her soon-to-be ex-husband. My question is: As a soon-to-be ex-sister-in-law, what is an appropriate acknowledgement of the changing relationship I will have with my brother-in-law? I do not in any way wish to be perceived as taking sides, but I also wish to acknowledge the end of one thing (our "family" connection) and the beginning of another. I should add that I don't foresee that he and I will continue any sort of separate relationship; we were never particularly close, but I had come to consider him part of the family, and as such feel pretty uncomfortable about doing nothing at all. However, I don't want my only acknowledgement of the divorce to be that I simply never see him again -- a scenario that is entirely plausible since we live in different states. Is a note of some kind appropriate?

Sign me,

Confused

Dear Confused Madam,

Yes, a brief note may be appropriate. It could take the form of an expression of sympathy -- that is, you'd respond to this divorce as you would to any sad news: "I was sorry to hear the sad news," "My thoughts are with you," "I sincerely wish you happier days," and so on. As in most letters of this stripe, avoid overly specific advice and any sort of "blessing in disguise" sentiments. You should avoid discussing details, for sure, and you needn't encourage reciprocation or further communication if you'd rather not. But if your relationship with your sister's ex-husband must end, then at least it will have ended with an expression of kindness. This will make things less awkward when, a dozen years hence, you run into each other at an airport or salad bar somewhere.

Finally, were I in your shoes, I might first discuss my letter-writing intentions with my sister, just to make sure that she did not have any strong objections to my communicating with her soon-to-be ex-husband.

Dear Social Grace,

I'm a college student with a degree just out of reach. This summer I chose to invest in the accelerated semester. I absolutely loved the class I took. Unfortunately, I dropped out prior to the course's conclusion. From the eyes of an instructor, I have proven to be a waste of our valuable time, to her a pink failure notice. There are endless consequences to everyone who becomes a dropout. As a professional, there is a tugging need to acknowledge our mutual disappointment. Got any ideas?

Gunther

Dear Gunther,

I'm amazed that the notion of writing a letter has become so fanciful, so outrageous, that it seems not to have occurred to someone wondering how to apologize for something and acknowledge an error in judgment. If I were you -- that is, facing a "tugging need to acknowledge ... disappointment" -- I would write a simple note of apology and gratitude to my instructor. I'd explain that although I enjoyed the class and thought I'd been taught well, unforeseen scheduling conflicts (or whatever the reason was) necessitated my withdrawal from the course. I suggest that you put pen to paper without delay.

Dear Social Grace,

In your "Editorial Etiquette" column [July 7], you printed a letter from a lady who wondered about wearing stockings with a casual summery dress at work.

The shortest answer is that she is correct and professional and her bare-legged co-workers are unprofessional slobs. Of course, "sandalfoot" stockings are the thing with open-toed shoes -- this woman obviously is not an idiot -- but the bottom line is that business dress for women, even casual business dress, means wearing stockings (or tights).

Casual casual dress means bare legs are OK. Very few banking offices are that casual. I must say that this woman's co-workers are singularly impertinent to comment on her wearing stockings (or on anything else she wears).

Perhaps we stocking-wearers are antiquated. Call Katie Gibbs and ask there for the absolute Word of God on this subject. [Note: The Katharine Gibbs Schools, affectionately known as "Katie Gibbs," are business colleges found on the East Coast; the name was once, in many circles, synonymous with top-notch secretaries and office professionals.] That's where I learned how to dress for the office, and like everything else I learned at Katie Gibbs, it has served me well! Admittedly that was 20 years ago.

Curmudgeonly yours,

Anonymous

Dear Curmudgeonly Madam,

It's always a pleasure to correspond with a self-proclaimed curmudgeon -- to be sure, I have my own curmudgeonly tendencies.

Allow me to share a comment a friend of mine recently made. This friend, a woman who has lived many years in San Francisco, and I were walking near Union Square. As we walked behind a midriff-baring, underwear-exposing, flip-flop-wearing young woman carrying several shopping bags, my friend turned to me and whispered, amusedly, "Can you believe there was a time when I wouldn't be caught dead shopping downtown without gloves and a hat on?"

The point is -- and you do acknowledge this -- fashion is, by its nature, always changing. Now, no one disputes that, in conservative business environments and with conservative or closed shoes, stockings of some sort are likely in order. But, in fact, a plethora of modern fashion experts agree that pantyhose and open-toed or open-backed shoes do not mix well. And at least one multinational, very prestigious financial corporation with offices here in S.F. does not require that female employees wear pantyhose with skirts. So that's the current state of business casual here in the city, no matter how we curmudgeons may feel about it.

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Social Grace

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