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miss conduct chat transcript

October 17, 2007

Robin_Abrahams: Hello, everyone! This is Robin Abrahams, aka Miss Conduct, and I'm here wit'ch'all to talk ethics, etiquette, and engineering! And I'll also be on the Peter Blute show on WRCN 830 AM tomorrow morning at 9:35. The STATION is 830 AM, the TIME is 9:35 am. Got it straight? I certainly hope I do. Okay, let's chat--

oopsies__Guest_: I got married in mid-June, and I had completed all my thank you cards for wedding and shower gifts we recieved before the wedding. however, all the gifts we got day-of... well I haven't sent out thank you cards. At first the delay was due to wanting to include wallet sized pictures inside the thank you cards and then there was a money issue with getting these developed. Now it's moths later and I'm just embarrassed. How do I send out the rest of my thank you cards?

Robin_Abrahams: As a recovering procrastinator, it took me a long, long time to learn that it's better to do things promptly than perfectly. So I have sympathy! But send those TYNs out pronto. You're perfectly fine if you send them out within a year of your wedding. Most Official Etiquette Experts say you don't really have a year, but most wedding guests think you do, which means you do as far as I'm concerned.

sd__Guest_: I know that table manners are a little annoying so I hope you won't mind a really picky question. I know that the napkin is on the left and the glass is on the right; many restaurants now put the napkin in the wine glass. Which napkin is yours: the one in your glass (on the right) or the one on the left (in your companion's glass)? I would assume it is the napkin in your own glass, but I've seen waiters take napkins from my companion's glass to put it on my lap.

Robin_Abrahams: The possession of a napkin only becomes truly critical once it has been used. So take the one in your own glass, which is logical, if the waiter gives you the freedom to do so. And don't feel self-conscious. The point of these rules is to make it CLEAR what you should do; if restaurants want to get all creative then the ensuing confusion is hardly the diners' fault.

Artist__Guest_: Hello - Love your column it's a must read by us every Sunday. During the holidays when we are invited to a friends home for dinner and take food or a gift the hostess never seems happy with what we bring and ends up giving it back to us or brining it over the next time she visits us (ex: brings us the same bottle of wine, using the same gift bag we took her). For our last visit we made a gift basket filled with a variety of items..cookbooks, food, potholders, etc...she didn't open it during our visit, and did not say thanks or even comment about it after the visit. We don't know what to do for the next visit -- when we ask what to bring she always says just bring yourselves. What would you do?

Robin_Abrahams: Thanks, Artist! I'd say you may as well start following her explicit directions (and implicit preferences) and bring just yourselves. Your hostess doesn't seem to want anything else. Her behavior is a bit rude, I think, but whatever--there's no burden on you to find the Holy Grail that will please her.

missy__Guest_: my husband and his brother are very close, we see him and his wife at least 2 times a week. his wife is throwing a party for her mom in new york and didnt include us, Is that proper etiquette??

Robin_Abrahams: It's not really a question for rules, which is what "proper etiquette" implies. She may be trying to keep the party primarily to her side of the family, and may have very good reasons (from finances to family dynamics) for wanting to do so. If your husband's not bothered (it sounds like his relationship with his brother is the close one, and not yours with bro-in-law or his wife) you should let it go, too.

LLW__Guest_: I have a friend who had a child several years ago - several other of her (still single) friends still expect her to go out on Friday nights with no notice, expecting she can easily do it without realizing that it is hard / costly to get a sitter. They get mad at her for not going out with them; staying out partying until all hours of the night. How can she tell them it just isn't possible anymore?

Robin_Abrahams: Telling them is easy; getting them to *hear* it is something else. If they're not willing to accept that her life circumstances have changed, then they're not really friends, and it's time to move on. This is assuming, of course, that she has made efforts to do other things with them that do work for her schedule/responsibilities.

quirky__Guest_: how can I gauge what kind of gifts to bring to a friend's house for Christmas? A couple of times when I have been invited to spend the holiday with friends (I am single), I have gotten several nice gifts from them, far more than I brought for them. I know it is not a contest, but I always feel that I under-give in comparison; most of my friends already have what they need, so I assume they dont need much.

Robin_Abrahams: Holiday angst already and it's not even Halloween yet! Oy. I'd love to hear other folks thoughts on this one--ideas? I would not stress out over it if I were you. It's okay to "undergive"--some people just like going all out and others don't. But it's also okay to calibrate expectations in advance. My mother likes to set a spending limit with her friends, where they both agree to spend no more than a certain amount on each other. Or do something like "let's each buy each other the best CD we've heard all year" or something like that. Other suggestions, folks?

TC__Guest_: What is the best method to respond to super-inquisitive future in-laws who insist on asking probing questions? I'd like a way to politely stop them in their tracks. Thanks!

Robin_Abrahams: "I'm not comfortable discussing that," then change the subject. Repeat as necessary. Firmly, cheerfully, nonconfrontationally, PERSISTENTLY. You may not be able to stop them asking, but you have complete control over whether or not you answer. But talk to your fiance, too, to make sure he understands your privacy standards, will back you up, etc.

Smiley__Guest_: I acknowledge up front that this is a silly question about a trivial topic, but it caused some angst in our family, so I'd love your opinion. My six year old son was invited to another boy's birthday party. On the invitation was written "[INSERT BRAND NAME OF WHAT I NOW KNOW IS A STUFFED ANIMAL] exchange party." I didn't understand what that meant and, frankly, didn't take the time to reseach and understand what I was getting into. I sent my child with a building toy that I knew he wouldl love to receive. When he came home, he was quite distraught because apparently most parents had done what I did, sent what they thought was a boy-appropriate toy, and a Yankee Swap situation ensued. He ended up with a stuffed animal and was sad that he got suck a "stinky" toy when he brought such a good one. Of course I told him to buck up, you don't always get what you want in life, be happy you even got to go to a party etc, but I am still wondering how this situation could have been avoided, if it could have. Thanks!

Robin_Abrahams: More gift angst! I think you did the right thing. Your kid learned a valuable lesson, that gifts for others aren't a quid pro quo. Yes, he's momentarily unhappy, but he'll survive. Kids need a little stress and disappointment in order to grow into adults who can handle bigger, adult-size stresses and disappointments. And you certainly didn't commit a social error, especially as none of the other parents could figure out what a [I.B.N.O.W.I.N.K.I.A.S.A.] swap party was, either.

Robin_Abrahams: Advice for quirky--

Ms_Fit__Guest_: For quirky guest: have you been invited back to spend the holidays with the same people? If so, they obviously don't mind your less expensive gift. Don't sweat it. Maybe you could invite them for a post-holiday cocktail party (runs the risk of getting a very expense bottle of something or other - but you can share that the evening of the party; or take them out to dinner and don't let them pay. If they insist on leaving something, ask them to supplement the tip.

sushi__Guest_: I ran into this issue with close girlfriends recently: in a quest for all 3 of us (busy moms) to have dinner together on a sat night, 2 of us suggested places that we love, but the 3rd poo-poo-ed all of them, never suggesting a place herself until 24 hrs prior, when her tone was a bit "clearly I have to put a stake in the ground". She was testy, then, when I wasnt a big fan of the place we decided on (and happily directed us elsewhere when we arrived at her choice and it was packed (they are an awful chain and dont take reservations). When one negs someone's suggestions, shouldn't they offer an idea, and maybe not at the 11th hour (while obviously waiting for us to come up with yet another suggestion that met her standards?)

Robin_Abrahams: Yes. So figure out a system going forward that will distribute the decision-making responsibilities. I have brunch with three friends once a month or so, and we rotate neighborhoods, and whoever's neighborhood it's in decides where we're going to go. That works pretty well for us.

Ihatemanners__Guest_: I recently studied about manners in the antebellum period. Nowadays, there are a lot fewer formalities. What does this say about society and the social order today?

Robin_Abrahams: I think a lot of it has to do with increasing diversity. A homogeneous society can have elaborate rules; a diverse one (in which different groups and individuals are all accorded respect) can't. This is the VERY short version of something I will someday write a book about! I did, in fact, just yesterday write a blog post about it--check it out at www.boston.com/missconduct. (After the chat, that is--don't you all abandon me now!)

Ms_Fit__Guest_: Invited some friends of a friend over for drinks and they declined because of a prior engagement saying "some other time." I replied, "Yes, some other time." Am I obligated to invite again? We are not really close and I invited them because of the mutual friend.

Robin_Abrahams: The ball is in their court. But if you like them (you say you're not close, but do you think you could be?) it's fine to float an offer again. Or do that in-betweeny thing of sending them a friendly e-mail with a link to a newspaper article you thought they might find interesting, or some such. You've got a lot of freedom of movement on this one.

annakins: What is the proper way to address a wedding invitation to an unmarried couple who have been living together for years and have a child together? I'm in this situation and recently received an invitation to my cousin's wedding addressed to me and 'guest'. I found this in poor taste.

Robin_Abrahams: Yeaaaah, I'd be pretty annoyed at that myself. Proper invite would name both of you (not going into details on typography and honorifics here). You and your partner are a family and ought to be treated as such. But keep in mind that weddings leave EVERYONE swamped with details, and balancing tradition and common sense is a challenge, so cut your cousin some slack, assuming she's always treated your partner with respect in all other ways.

WinOh__Guest_: When ordering a bottle of wine at dinner and you pour the wine yourself the entire time, do feel it necesary to include that bottle of wine($40.) when it comes time for gratuity on the check?

Robin_Abrahams: Yes! You always tip on the full bill, booze included, regardless of who pours what.

MILL__Guest_: what have happen to our society ,people don't even speak in the elevators in the hall ways ,no good morning !!! it's sad

Robin_Abrahams: That's Boston. Go to the Midwest, you'll never take an elevator ride or walk down the block in peace. Neither way is right or wrong, it's just different customs. Bostonians really value leaving people to their private thoughts. People in other parts of the country, not so much. (Um, I don't mean this to be all about my blog, but I've blogged about this too, sometime in September.)

szq37__Guest_: what is the timeframe for sending a thank you card for a get well gift?

Robin_Abrahams: That really depends on how sick you are! And if you've broken your writing hand a phone call is fine.

Chimp__Guest_: I am getting married next year and am 33, my wife to be is 27. We do not want to be on a standard registry and do not need the "standard" wedding gifts and in fact have no room for them in our condo if we did recieve them, but we are spending a lot on the wedding and we are not well off and could use large ticket items (a honeymoon and cash). What is the etiquette on this?

Robin_Abrahams: It's really, really rude to request money overtly on the invite, so don't do that. When people ask it's fine to tell them, and it's also fine to get the word out by using a gossip grapevine. The thing you want to avoid doing at all costs is behaving as though you are ENTITLED to something.

wmd__Guest_: Holiday Tipping/Gift Etiquette ?s: Hari Salon receptionist and hair cutter - do they expect money or gifts? If money how do you figure out how much?

Robin_Abrahams: They don't expect anything because their hopes and dreams have already been crushed, usually. Give your stylist about 75-80% of what a cut costs, and the remainder to the other service providers. You can skip the receptionist unless that person has been really accommodating and helpful in some way (getting you in at the last minute, calling with special offers or some such). And this is all based on frequency and quality of service. I only get my hair cut two or three times a year, so I tip well at the time but don't bother with holidays. I do tip my housecleaner and massage therapist well at the holidays, and often give them a small gift as well, because I see them more often and they improve my quality of life like you wouldn't believe. It's really about the relationship. Gifts are nice if you like to shop and are a good gift-picker, but if you're not, don't bother.

kb__Guest_: In this busy day and age, what is sufficient advance notice for a party? Weddings have save the dates and invitations sent months in advance, and while that seems a bit much for, say, a birthday party, it seems like people already have plans arranged. Is there a (modern) rule of thumb?

Robin_Abrahams: This is a good question! What are other people's thoughts? I find about four weeks tends to get you a fairly good turnout. Obviously, the more formal the event and the more crucial it is to you that people be there, the more advance time you have to give. (But you'll still get about a 10% no-show rate, and the no-shows won't give you the courtesy of a call or e-mail to let you know they're not going to make it, either. Such is life.)

BeaconHillGirl__Guest_: Hi Robin, I just met someone I knew many years ago, and he used to be a nice guy. The problem is, everytime we meet now..he talks about himself NON-STOP!! ALL THE TIME! I know he does this with other people as well, is it too much to expect a few questions about how I'm doing? How does one deal with a person like that?

Robin_Abrahams: You can try to talk to him about it, or you can just let the friendship fade back into oblivion. You're implying that somehow he's changed, though, which is interesting. This makes me think that a conversation, awkward though it would be, might go some ways to helping repair your friendship. Maybe something has happened that's hurt his self-image in some way, so that he's overcompensating? (Me getting all Frasiery.)

Mansfield_Mom__Guest_: On invites to a party - I use 4 weeks as a rule for myself. A lot of parents only do 2 or 3 weeks on kids' parties and no one seems to mind. I do feel that an invite I receive on a Wednesday to my neice's birthday party THAT Saturday in NJ is just a request for a gift!

Robin_Abrahams: Four weeks seems good, I agree. You're just never going to get everyone. And yes, the Wednesday-for-Saturday is a bit ... transparent! (In other situations, though, I've noticed this odd paradox where with busy people you either have to give them a lot of advance time, or else you can often have really good luck calling them that day and just seeing if they're free. For dinner or a beer and nachos, I mean, not a birthday party in New Jersey!)

beebo__Guest_: Speaking of thank you notes - how about a time frame for flowers or donations after a death in the family. I had two tragic events in my immediate family recently and am just not up to the task of recalling the events with each note I write.

Robin_Abrahams: It's not as strict. Can you get other family members to help with the writing, though? It shouldn't fall on one person if there's any way around it.

jmc__Guest_: My in laws watch my son (free of charge) once a week. He is their only grandchild (although there is anothe ron the way). My son is also watched by my parents and my sister the rest of the week. The problem is (for me) that every week, they have a new toy/gift for him. I understand their want to buy him things as their only grandchild. But, it's very bothersome to me that he now expects to get soemthing every week! (He's just 3 yrs old) They also let him do whatever he wants. I've mentioned to them before that they don't need to buy toys all the time. He's happy with a pan and a spoon - doesn't need a drum set! But, they continue. I feel like this makes it harder for my jparents and my sister who don't get him gifts each week. But, besides that - he doens't need all the stuff and I feel it's teaching him the wrong thing. I'm not sure what to do/say to my in laws to get them to understand I really don't want my son so spoiled. Any advise?

Robin_Abrahams: You've got to make a stand on the discipline issue, for sure, and get your husband to back you up on that. Your kid, your rules. With the gifts, you might be able to compromise by having the gifts stay at the grandparents' house, where he can play with them but not take them home. Be as blunt as you need to about this, while acknowledging that their intentions are good--you're defending important principles.

Lisa__Guest_: Hello Miss Conduct, When my boyfriend and I go out to dinner, at most restaurants (not the nice onces) if he finishes eating before me (which he always does) they clear his plate while I'm still eating. This makes me feel bad about taking my time to eat, and I end up not finishing my food. Is it just me, or is this a really rude tradition of waiters (it doesn't happen in europe - they take them both at the same time).

Robin_Abrahams: Oh, I hate that. It is such a wrong practice. Plates should be cleared when the ENTIRE TABLE is finished, and not before. Don't let them hurry you up. Eating slower is more enjoyable and better for your health.

Bostonia67: Hi -- With regard to invitation lead time: four weeks seems appropriate for close friends who you certainly want to attend and who you believe will certainly want to be there. For others who may want to oil out gracefully, I generally invite two weeks ahead. They can legitimately say "gosh, I'm busy that night" (and mean it or not) two weeks ahead; it's sometimes more difficult to do that a month in advance (since it leaves time to re-arrange existing plans and not doing so might be poorly received).

Robin_Abrahams: I appreciate your intent, and I love the phrase "oil out gracefully," but I think all invites should go out at the same time. Otherwise you send a strong message that there is an A list and a B list. And one can always come up with an excuse no matter how much lead time is given, if one is sufficiently motivated. (Sometimes the excuses are even true!)

Robin_Abrahams: And that is it for today! Great chat, everyone--thanks! Remember, I'll be on the Peter Blute show tomorrow--830 AM *station*, 9:35 am *time*. And I'm still looking for medical-related questions for an upcoming special issue--send them, and anything I couldn't get to today, to me at missconduct@globe.com. Enjoy this beautiful day, and I'll see you again back here on November 7!

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