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Wake-Up Call 

How to tell someone, politely, that you were sleeping when he phoned

Wednesday, Aug 17 2005
Dear Social Grace,

I work a graveyard shift and often receive calls early in the morning from people who don't know I sleep during those hours. I must keep the phone on for emergencies, as I am on call.

Sometimes when people call, they ask, "Did I wake you?"

Saying no is a lie.

I have tried "Yes, but it's OK." The person often apologizes and feels bad. I don't mean to make them feel bad. And saying something like, "I am glad you called; what's up?" seems like you're ignoring the person's question.

None of these seem like good responses. What would you suggest?

Allen Crist

Dear Mr. Crist,

I'm sorry, but those are your only options when you are asked a question -- you can fib, you can avoid answering altogether, or you can tell the truth. (There is no super-secret Social Grace way to answer questions.) And in this case, as is often true, none of the alternatives would be impolite.

First, the fib: Without it, society would cease to function. There is nothing wrong with a well-placed untruth when your intention is only to spare someone's feelings.

Second, there's avoidance -- a fine way to handle inappropriate or unwanted queries. You don't have to answer every question you're asked. I should also point out that "Were you sleeping?" is a fairly impolite question; it seems to imply something unflattering about the answerer's tone of voice, for one thing. A better question is "Do you have time to talk right now?"

In your case, though, I would choose the third option: a truthful answer, with a mitigating explanation -- "I usually sleep until noon, since I'm at work until 5 a.m. But I do want to talk to you, so I'm glad you called." (Or: "So can we talk this afternoon?") This may at least prevent further sleep-interrupting social calls, until you're in a position to consider a second phone line.

Dear Social Grace,

Do you have any ideas about how wearing dreads is currently viewed in a corporate setting?

I'm an African-American male wearing shoulder-length dreads. I'm considering job hunting in corporate America after being self-employed and teaching high school for the past two years. Prior to the past two years, I had a clean-cut hairstyle and worked for 20 years in a corporate setting. My dress style is still very neat and business casual when conducting business.

I don't have any tattoos or piercings, and I'm otherwise considered very formal. The dreads are part of my effort to shed the stuffy conservative image that I had. But I do like them and they fit much better with my creative side.

Would my current style be considered a handicap during the corporate interview process?


Dear Vernon,

I know from recent experience that my answer to this question will elicit some e-mail missives explaining that what people wear shouldn't matter, that people should not be judged by how they wear their hair (or the style of shoe they wear), and that behavior is more important than attire.

And I won't deny any of these points. But the fact is, we are all judged by our attire. And we all make these judgments -- we can't help it. How a person chooses to look tells the world who he is, who he wants to be, and how he feels about his surroundings. A bright green mohawk (or a shaved head, or a wig made of tinsel) will mean different things to different people (and in different places), but it will mean something to everyone who sees it.

Now, with all that out of the way, I advise you to consider what you're trying to say and with whom you're trying to communicate. I think that dreadlocks are on a par with any long hair on men -- the style can look a little bit "counterculture"; however, neat long hair, pulled away from the face, is a fairly common sight in many creative corporate fields. I can think of a couple of "corporate" types I've known who wore dreadlocks. (A hairstyle can also inspire a personal reaction: If your interviewer is deeply fond of someone who wears dreadlocks, yours may even improve her opinion of you.)

If you are going into a more conservative field, or if you are applying for positions that entail a lot of meeting with clients, some employers may consider a "creative" look to be a disadvantage. You should probably ask some people in your field what they think.

I do understand that wearing dreadlocks can be more than a counterculture statement -- it can also be a political statement or an act of religious devotion. When that is the case, the argument for cutting them, for the sake of getting a job, becomes flimsier.

Dear Social Grace,

I can't believe your answer to "Loving But Confused Big Sister" [July 6], who asked how to introduce a gay couple at a family get-together (with "conservative" people). You said a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy could be adopted.

How rude! It's saying, "I'm sorry but a homophobe's sensitivities are more important than your feelings, so we'll diminish who you are for the sake of their evil prejudices."

Would you tolerate a guest who's a bigot getting upset that you invited an interracial couple? Would you try and hide the fact that they're a couple in case it might bother any racists who are at the party? Hopefully not! But if so, then why do you think it's appropriate to do it to a gay couple?

If that's your "etiquette," then I want no part of it, but then again, I'd want no part of a family who would take this advice either.

Art in San Francisco

Dear Art,

Often when I bring up an issue that touches on the social rights of gays and lesbians, a concerned reader will write in with a "what if the situation involved a person of color" argument. So, first, I'll say again that discrimination and prejudice are never "OK," as far as etiquette is concerned.

But it's plain to me that American society's acceptance of same-sex couples is quite far behind its acceptance of lady-gentleman couples with different skin colors. That is reality, as unpleasant as it may be for us same-sex couples. We must continue to fight the good fight.

I entreat people who want to live a courteous life to examine the gray areas that real-world social situations provide. I know I'm not alone here: People who love me and my partner don't always introduce us as "partners" or "boyfriends." In some parts of the country, the omission may be a simple matter of concern for our physical safety. And then there's Great-Aunt Agnes, who "just wouldn't understand, and she's 94, bless her heart -- why get into all that?"

Nonetheless, he and I get invited together to family events, we are treated as part of the family, and so on. Making a stink about semantics would be, I maintain, impolite, because it would cause those people -- well-intentioned, good-hearted people -- unnecessary distress. It might even make them think that we can't sit down at Thanksgiving dinner and be civil to Great-Aunt Agnes, who agrees with the majority of her fellow citizens that same-sex relationships are not the same as mixed-sex ones.

In fact, I can dine with Agnes. It doesn't hurt me to sit and talk about the weather with someone who "doesn't approve" of same-sex marriage. I know who's right, and I know that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is only an evolutionary measure. (I also know how to pick my battles. When we take this matter out of a private family gathering and into a public arena, my answer takes a 180-degree turn.)

But there's room on the moral high ground for you, and I can even applaud your stance. When you are invited to spend time with a family you find ethically repugnant, declining the invitation is, in fact, well within the bounds of "my etiquette." It's not the only polite course of action, though, and I think many same-sex couples will sometimes find it too drastic.

About The Author

Social Grace


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