Miss Manners: Bringing Back the ‘Salon’ to Facilitate Friendships

Friday, April 20, 2018

Dear Miss Manners: I’m almost in tears and I’m not even the one affected.

I have a difficult cousin who is getting married. She has no friends. No one is standing up for her, there are no showers or festivities, and the one abortive attempt at one was canceled because no one would come. I’ve had trouble with this person in the past, but I wouldn’t wish this on an enemy, much less a relative.

As I reflected on what I could do for her (I’m throwing a small party in her honor and prevailing on my own friends to come meet the bride), it occurred to me that I am surrounded by lonely friends, relatives and acquaintances who are living like virtual hermits. They only happen to brush up against other people at work or grocery shopping, often not even then, and they are depressed about it. I’m hardly a popular person, but I try to make introductions.

What can the somewhat-more-popular people do to relieve the friendlessness of the less popular people they know and care about? What has happened to society, Miss Manners?

Don’t worry, I won’t call it a shower when I fete my cousin, the bride. I may be an unwashed heathen about most things, but that much was drummed into my head.

Gentle Reader: Some of the things that happened to society:

Screen time.

Longer work hours.

Obligatory socializing with colleagues.

The shirking of guest responsibilities — including answering invitations, showing up and reciprocating — resulting in an unwillingness to entertain.

The shirking of host responsibilities, so that those who do entertain rarely have their hospitality reciprocated.

The notion that any gathering must be about an occasion (such as a birthday, graduation, marriage or birth), and one that involves presents for the hosts.

The redefinition of “friends” to describe strangers.

The elevation of the importance of the menu to the extent that attempting to provide a communal meal, even within a family, means catering to a bewildering variety of requirements and preferences.

Bless you for trying to fix this. It will not be easy. All of the above behaviors will be working against you.

But Miss Manners has a suggestion — one that she has plucked out of the distant past. At its grandest, it was called keeping a salon; the more modest version was having “a day” when one would be “at home.” In both cases, the idea was the same: making it known that you have a regular time when your acquaintances may drop in without notice.

For example, Saturday or Sunday afternoon, so they might stop in after their chores or before going out for the evening. It would not be mealtime, so you could serve only soft drinks and cookies, or perhaps crudites and prosecco.

At first, you would invite a wide assortment of people from different aspects of your life. But then you could make it known that this was a weekly (or monthly) event, when they needn’t commit themselves, but would always find a welcome. Many will probably veer off, but those who find it interesting will soon be introducing others. And acquiring friends.

Dear Miss Manners: I am a left-handed student, and wanted to ask about seating arrangements. Perhaps you can answer this for people in college.

In a seminar class, we use the small desks with tops that attach to the right side of the chair. There are usually a few “left-handed” desks with the writing surface on the opposite side.

However, in my last class, I realized I’d taken the only such desk because I’d arrived early. Is it proper for me to stay in that seat, or offer to alternate seats with the other left-handed students on different class days? It’s difficult to take notes when the writing surface is on the “wrong” side.

Alternately, since there are no people with disabilities in the class, would it be wrong for one of us to take the classroom’s one table designated for that use and use it until (and if) the classroom gets more left-handed desks?

Gentle Reader: That you have not pleaded your left-handedness as a medical condition — or worse, a disability — pleases Miss Manners. Your failure to do so does not diminish the reasonableness of asking the school for some accommodation on the grounds of being a recurring customer.

But it avoids the moral indignation that too often accompanies the realization that you will have to speak with the professor to work out a solution. Any and all of your suggestions should be discussed and implemented, even if Miss Manners is perplexed to hear of a student taking notes by hand instead of on a laptop.

Dear Miss Manners: An organization that I am part of raises funds for scholarships and awards for students in the local school district. In 32 years, we have given over $500,000 to students.

About six years ago, I noticed that the organization no longer received a thank-you in any form — written, emailed or text — for the scholarships or awards from any student. Many members of my committee tell me that thanking anyone for a gift is no longer something students do. I have said that a thank-you for a gift is still the proper way to go.

I am seriously wondering if it would be proper to remind the students that thanking people for their gifts is still in vogue. Or would that be considered tacky in today’s society?

Gentle Reader: Expecting thanks for a favor bestowed is never unreasonable, or subject to fashion, whether or not it is commonly given.

The questions, then, Miss Manners thinks, are: 1. To whom thanks should be addressed, and 2. How to change students’ behavior without being rude.

One thanks a person, which in a corporate setting would generally mean the boss. But charities have donors, to whom the students can be asked to write. By giving the students a specific donor to thank, you will benefit the institution (whose donors will be pleased), improve the recipients’ manners — and avoid the ban against demanding your own thanks.

Dear Miss Manners: How should I respond to co-workers who wear earbuds?

I start talking to them without realizing they have these gadgets plugged into their ears. They miss half of what I am saying, and then I have to repeat myself. I find this very frustrating.

Gentle Reader: These co-workers should convey a signal (pointing to their ears, half-embarrassed, half-apologetic) so that unsuspecting conversationalists are forewarned.

In lieu of that, Miss Manners suggests that you make up your own system of sign language as you approach them (one arm outstretched in questioning mode, one finger pointing to your mouth) so that you are not continually forced to repeat yourself. It would also not be remiss for you to start going to someone else with any important issues, so as to discourage any non-work-related earbud activity.

Dear Miss Manners: I’m a freelance singer/stage director and music activist. I also do some voice coaching. People will introduce me as “a voice teacher,” or even worse, as “a music teacher.” How can I avoid these embarrassing situations without seeming ungracious? Should I just tell them in advance what to say? Seems kind of egotistical!

Gentle Reader: Your accurate title is quite a mouthful — and Miss Manners confesses that she is not entirely sure of its meaning. Others, no doubt, feel similarly. That you find the title of “music/vocal teacher” to be embarrassing is ungracious, but not for the reasons you state. Miss Manners suggest that you come up with a succinct way of describing your professions that satisfies you. But she permits you no more than three words to do so.

Miss Manners is written by Judith Martin, her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. You are invited to email your etiquette questions from www.missmanners.com, if you promise to use the black or blue-black ink you’ll save by writing those thank you, condolence and congratulations letters you owe.