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What can a man do when he's constantly being mistaken for a woman?

Wednesday, May 29 2002
Dear Social Grace,

I look to you for some discreet advice. My partner is often mistaken for a woman. It could be his wardrobe, his voice, or his gender-neutral first name -- or maybe people just aren't as observant as they used to be. In any event, he is called "ma'am" quite often, and it is irritating, embarrassing, and something he'd love to put a stop to.

What can he do about the "ma'am" sayers? Should he just ignore them? Should he make a joke ("It's the purse, isn't it?")? Or should he call them out? What is your advice?

The Butch One in the Relationship

Dear Butch Madam or Sir,

Newspaper columnists are not the best place to seek "discreet" advice, but thank you for trusting me with your question. If you are a man named Hilary and your signature color is pink, say, you will occasionally have to deal with cases of mistaken gender. The correct thing to do in such a case is similar to the correct handling of a mistaken name: We gently correct the error -- as if it were a minor thing -- and then go on with the conversation. In your partner's case, it might go something like this:

Waiter: "What would you like, ma'am?"

Sir: "Actually, it's 'sir.' Do you recommend the salmon?"

Simplicity itself.

This scenario assumes that the person who calls your partner "ma'am" is attempting to be polite, but has made a slip that -- by your admission -- is understandable, so there's nothing to get upset about. The error, though, can and should be corrected immediately. I see nothing wrong with making a joke about the mix-up -- indeed, it could be a gracious way for your partner to lighten the situation.

Dear Social Grace,

I have been asked to be a bridesmaid for an old but no longer close friend, and I would like to decline, for various reasons. How might I do so gracefully?

No More Lavender Dresses

Dear Declining Madam,

Faking your own death, leaving the country, and living the rest of your life under an assumed name would each be an effective, if not gracious, way of avoiding being a bridesmaid. On a more realistic note, getting out of the job can be awkward, because declining such an honor can be taken as an insult. In most cases, a very good reason (prior involvement in another wedding, a baby due at about that time) is necessary. Because saying no is so awkward for someone asked to be a wedding attendant, brides and grooms ideally wouldn't ask friends with whom they are "no longer close." Such people are less likely to enjoy performing the duties that the couple's loved ones will be delighted to do. Your former friend perhaps goofed in asking you -- but then, maybe she thinks your relationship is closer than you do.

Social Grace in no way supports dishonesty, but we know that society couldn't function without those well-intentioned little fibs that we must occasionally tell to spare others' feelings. Decline the invitation with just such a feint: "I'm very happy for you, and I'm so honored to be asked. I'm sorry, though, that other plans conflict with those dates." If your conscience pains you excessively, you could turn that small lie into truth -- and plan, for example, a trip to coincide with this wedding.

Dear Social Grace,

In person and in correspondence, how does one address a former U.S. senator?

Via the Internet

Dear Corresponding Madam or Sir,

In any correspondence with a senator -- in fact, with many government officials, from the attorney general and the secretary of state down to mayors and local judges -- you can't go wrong with "The Honorable." It's a good catchall title of respect, appropriate for current and former holders of public office: the Honorable Barbara Boxer, for example.

In person, address a senator as "Senator" or "Senator Boxer." A former senator is called by the title appropriate to his or her new station in life. You can never go wrong with "Sir" or "Madam" for anyone worthy of an extra measure of respect.

Dear Social Grace,

As a couple with similar tastes, we often like to sample one another's meals when out on the town. Is there a polite way to do this while seated with other guests?

Via the Internet

Dear Dining Sir or Madam,

Never fear: There is nothing incorrect about sharing food. Done politely, it involves no actual placing of food into someone else's mouth (no one wants to be reminded of 9 1/2 Weeks while trying to eat). Instead, simply use utensils to place food on your partner's plate. Pass plates if spilling is a danger or if you'd otherwise have to reach over another diner; better yet, ask your server for a small extra plate.

About The Author

Social Grace


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