Miss Manners: On Awkwardly Waiting to Join a Conversation

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Dear Miss Manners: When it comes to parties, networking events and other “mingling” situations, are there etiquette rules for how to divide your attention among fellow guests?

Admittedly, I’m not the most patient person in the world, but I find it highly annoying when I have something specific to ask someone and am left standing by, while they chat on and on with someone else for 10 minutes or more.

Is there a polite way to break in under such circumstances, especially if what you have to say can be dealt with in a couple of seconds? And is there a polite way to wait your turn, other than staring into space, fuming silently?

And for those on the “deep in conversation” end, what would be a reasonable length of time to keep the “next person” waiting before acknowledging them with more than a quick “just a minute”?

Gentle Reader: The length (and depth) of conversations — and the wait time to be included in one — are in direct proportion to the speed with which one can make a polite getaway.

Thus the conversations you describe — both the one keeping you waiting and the one you wish to initiate — are out of place in an event designed to encourage quick mingling. The most in-depth conversations go with events that require luggage.

At a seated dinner, half the meal can be spent speaking to the person on your right before switching to the person on your left, so conversation is expected to be lengthier than at a cocktail party, where the idea is to make multiple contacts that may be followed up later.

In either situation, a desire to join the conversation is signaled by an attentive expression, followed up with more active participation in the subject matter. The current speaker acknowledges the new person, and then draws the newcomer into the conversation at the earliest opportunity.

This would be necessary at dinner, when those on either side of you have disobeyed the right-left order, and you would otherwise be left staring at your salmon.

Dear Miss Manners: My daughter has booked a venue, purchased a dress and chosen attendants for her upcoming wedding. The bridesmaids have also purchased their dresses and threw an early bachelorette party in another state.

The couple has now decided to get legally married soon (for insurance reasons, etc.), and are considering canceling the formal gala. There will be obvious financial hits, but the big question is: What is proper etiquette for the bridesmaids who have bought dresses and organized a weekend celebration? The bride has already purchased lovely bridesmaid gifts. Should she plan a dinner and present the gifts? We are struggling with what is fair and just.

Gentle Reader: Uninviting one guest would be unmannerly. Miss Manners is therefore unable to contemplate the details of uninviting an entire wedding party.

She understands, or perhaps merely hopes, that the invitation in question is not the engraved one to attendees, but rather the implicit invitation that occurred when the attendants were asked — and agreed — to participate. Separating the legal and formal wedding is common, and should not be used to justify the contemplated rudeness.

Dear Miss Manners: A visit to a family-style restaurant found me next to a table with three males, all wearing designer baseball caps indoors. Their actions showed they felt they could do whatever they wanted, even early Saturday morning.

The mother ordered soda pop while trying to convince an infant their only choice in the matter was juice or water.

Letting others know how I feel about something like this gets me labeled a hater with rude remarks about “wait till you have children!” Such behaviors impact other aspects of society now and later.

Gentle Reader: You know what else is ruining society? Freelance critics who go about examining the behavior of people who are minding their own business, and delivering unrequested criticism. If Miss Manners did that — and she never criticizes unless appealed to, as you have done — she would rate your behavior below theirs.

Dear Miss Manners: We would like to put something on the invitation for my daughter’s wedding that alcohol will be served, but that we want our guests to be smart and not drink and drive. What would be the best way to word this?

Gentle Reader: Probably “There’ll be free liquor, but don’t get drunk.” Miss Manners asks you to refrain from any such pre-emptive scolding.

Dear Miss Manners: My ex-husband’s extended family pulled away from me once we announced we were divorcing. (I left my ex due to his negative treatment of me over several years.) Previously, I had a good relationship with all of them. I was hurt by their silence, but of course am working to move forward.

I ran into one member recently, who chirped, “We should have lunch!” I was taken aback, and just smiled and said, “Sounds good!” but I knew that no real invitation would ever be forthcoming.

It actually did not “sound good” to me and I hated saying that, but didn’t know how else to reply.

Can you help me formulate a reply that wouldn’t make me look like an idiot? I have no desire to participate in such a fake exchange, but do not want to be rude.

Gentle Reader: A “fake exchange” is better than a frank one, with someone from whom you are estranged. In this case, that might be more like, “I don’t want you to believe that I am shunning you, but I’d just as soon not resume being chummy.”

Or, Miss Manners supposes, it might be, “I wouldn’t mind getting back together, but on the spot, I can’t quite think when. And I may or may not remember to follow this up.”

Even under more pleasant circumstances, “Let’s have lunch” is rarely meant to be taken literally. If it were, a date would be named. So the equally vague response that you made is suitable. And even if you meant, “Too late — you dropped me, and now I want nothing to do with any of you,” it should not be said.

Dear Miss Manners: A dear relative has invited me to high tea at their home. I have been before. Great effort is put into the event with homemade scones, tea sandwiches, desserts and several kinds of teas. All served on lovely porcelain from around the world.

The issue is, I don’t care for the type of food served, even though it is authentic “high tea” fare. I am pretty much a vegan; I can’t stand the thought of eating butter, egg salad and several desserts.

Everyone else loves the event. How can I decline without hurting the host’s feelings? It is a very long drive from my town to theirs, to add to it. I would appreciate any thoughtful words that could help.

Gentle Reader: There are three points that Miss Manners would like to make, two of which actually pertain to your predicament.

First, one can always decline an invitation politely. Gratitude for the invitation and regret at not being able to accept are all that need be expressed.

Excuses are not only unnecessary, but can be offensive if they are trivial, and dangerous if they are untrue. But in this case, distance does seem a legitimate consideration, so you could mention how sorry you are not to be able to make the trip.

Second, it is not necessary to eat the food served at a tea. It isn’t even easy to do so, as those of us know who consider cucumber sandwiches to be a culinary triumph. The teacup’s saucer isn’t big enough to use as a plate, and holding a teacup in one hand and a small plate in the other makes it perilous to try to transfer the delicacy to the mouth.

So Miss Manners assures you that you need only drink a lot of tea, and it will not be conspicuous if you skip the food.

She asks your indulgence for the third point. That is that the event you are describing is not “high tea“; it is “afternoon tea” or just “tea.” “High tea,” also known as “nursery tea,” is an informal supper taken in place of dinner. “Authentic high tea fare” is potted meat and other things you wouldn’t eat, either.

The misnomer, which is common in America, probably arises from commercial establishments wanting to make their offerings seem grander, and mistakenly believing that the “high” has something to do with high society.

Dear Miss Manners: What is the proper way to ask guests to chip in and help with washing dishes? When it happens over and over again that the same people are stuck doing dishes, how does one broach the subject? There is nothing worse than the same lazy people who just get to sit around and do nothing.

Gentle Reader: They probably don’t scrub your bathrooms, either, the bums. After all, you don’t pay them just to sit around consuming your food.

Oh, whoops. You don’t pay them. You claim that they are your guests. In that case, Miss Manners requires you to treat them as guests. You may accept any offer of help –some hosts prefer to decline them – but you cannot expect or demand it.

Dear Miss Manners: I live in a small community, where I am actively involved with a political party that is by far the minority. I consider myself reasonably well-versed in politics, and I am happy to have a civil conversation about it if a person seems genuinely interested in an open exchange of ideas.

But of course, most people are far more interested in telling me why their view is right than in actually participating in a productive discussion. I generally avoid political conversations in social situations such as church and family gatherings, and as a result, many people know me for years before learning my political affiliation.

How should I react when people learn of that affiliation, and immediately express scorn or begin trying to explain to me why I am wrong before even bothering to learn my personal views? I refuse to be drawn into hotheaded political arguments, because they seem like the surest way to end a genial relationship. But by leaving these attacks unanswered, I’m afraid some of my acquaintances are beginning to view me as dim-witted.

Gentle Reader: As that appears to be the result regardless, it seems to Miss Manners that not engaging involves far less effort and preserves more friendships. So does changing the subject.

Dear Miss Manners: Online fundraising has gone viral, and I am at my wits’ end. Friends importune me for money to go on trips, to go back to school, to get married, to create babies (no joke), and even to replace stolen personal equipment that people once insured against loss.

I have occasionally participated, usually either when I knew the people personally or when it was a terrible tragedy, well-documented in the media.

I’m at the point now that I try to ignore new fundraising projects, since any critique of such begging, however gently phrased, is interpreted as “insulting” to those who are presumed to be in such dire need (although the truly desperate circumstances are curiously rare).

Miss Manners, could you please wade into the fray and remind these people that it was once considered shameful to accept charity that was freely offered, even during desperate times such as the Great Depression? The idea of able-bodied people begging for handouts would have appalled our great-grandparents.

Gentle Reader: It would have indeed. The modern solution of “coping” with “negative emotions” — Miss Manners is thinking specifically of shame and guilt — by banishing them is foolish. They exist for a reason, namely, to discourage recidivism.

Proper shame at improper behavior, which certainly includes the solvent importuning their friends and neighbors for cash, has value. On a more practical note, people who have suppressed their own ability to feel shame should not be surprised if they find their intended victims impervious to guilt.

Dear Miss Manners: My niece invited me over to dinner, and she made fried chicken, along with some side dishes. The chicken wasn’t too good.

Should I share with her that her entree wasn’t good so she will know this? Or should I just be quiet and be appreciative that at least she tried?

Gentle Reader: No; try being grateful for your niece’s effort. And for the side dishes.

Dear Miss Manners: A co-worker called me out because I do not respond to her “good morning” greeting by saying “good morning” as well, although I do acknowledge her greeting. I was more than a little upset with her stance that I was responding inappropriately, because she takes the attitude that she is always right about such things.

However, this same pillar of politeness speaks with her mouth full of food — often. It’s frankly annoying and disgusting. And neither of us is a youngster; we are both well over 50 and should know better.

How can I (politely) point out her lack of manners? I’m a little uncomfortable stating, “Imogene, please stop talking with your mouth full.”

Gentle Reader: Interesting that while you objected to this co-worker correcting your manners, you are enlisting Miss Manners to help you to do the same. She is more than happy to do so, she just wants some acknowledgment of the duplicity.

“I am so sorry that I caught you while you were eating. I will come back at a more convenient time” is a polite way to ask her to finish her food before talking.

Not for nothing, “good morning” can reasonably be expected to be responded to in kind.

Dear Miss Manners: Is it appropriate for a bride to dictate her bridesmaids’ shoe color (e.g. requiring all bridesmaids wear silver shoes)? I’ve read wedding etiquette articles that suggest bridesmaids are responsible for buying their own attire of the bride’s choosing, but I’m not sure whether or not this includes footwear.

Gentle Reader: It should not, but seeing as brides also like to dictate hairstyles, makeup and the visibility of any tattoos or piercings, Miss Manners is sure that they feel entitled to mandate this expensive detail, as well. She suggests that you rally your fellow bridesmaids to offer the bride a choice from the range of shoe colors that are already in your closets.

Dear Miss Manners: I am in a situation where I live out of the country part of the time. It is pretty homogeneous here in this other country, and I do not look like them. It is pretty obvious that I am a foreigner because of my race, height, language, etc.

When I am walking, people will just stop and stare, take photos, videos, point, try to touch me, reach for my hair, you name it. I try to ignore it or turn away from the photos. Is there another way to address this without using words? There is a language barrier, also.

Gentle Reader: Short of wearing a hat with a low brim and sunglasses (which will probably attract even more attention, as onlookers will assume you are a celebrity), your only choice seems to be to use words. Miss Manners advises you to learn how to say “no, thank you” in the appropriate foreign language. If you are living in another country part-time, surely these words will not go to waste.

Dear Miss Manners: What do you recommend to start emails for business, and for personal messages? And how to sign off?

I often see “Hi” as the start and “Thank you” as the ending, and sometimes that just doesn’t feel right.

Gentle Reader: Emails cover a wide range of formality. Therefore the recipients and subject matter must always be considered when using salutations — and they may even be excluded altogether, once you are deep into the exchange.

“Hi,” although becoming commonplace, still strikes Miss Manners as being cheeky, or at least too breezy for business correspondence. And “thank you” is premature when accompanying a request.

Treat formal emails as you would letters — using “Dear” and “Yours truly” for business, and more affectionate terms for your personal affairs. Miss Manners will leave those to your own discretion, depending on the degree of intimacy — and the relative privacy of your internet connection.

Dear Miss Manners: When eating a pastry (doughnut, muffin, cupcake) in public, should you eat it with a knife and fork?

Gentle Reader: These are classified as finger food, so you will be considered amusing to do so. However, Miss Manners notes that you will also avoid getting cream on your nose.

Dear Miss Manners: Two of my former next-door neighbors (elderly father and 50-something daughter) have passed away. It was very tragic, and I expressed my condolences online soon after I heard the news. But I also wanted to send a card, and now it’s been a couple of months.

I am visiting in their family’s town, right next door to them. Would it be inappropriate to send the card at this time? I really regret not having sent it sooner, and I really would like to express how I feel. I think it may also be an opportunity to pay a welcome visit.

Gentle Reader: It is never too late to express sympathy for a death. Its subject is unfortunately not going anywhere.

However, since some time has now passed, a full letter, something more substantial than just a card, would be kind. Especially if your intention is also to visit the mourners past the reasonable time for a condolence call.

Do so, saying that you would like to pay a call on them when it is convenient. Miss Manners cautions you, however, against using the letter as an announcement that that visit is a foregone conclusion.

Dear Miss Manners: My wife and I dine out often, and never cease to be amazed when restaurant servers feel compelled to comment on how much of our meal we’ve eaten.

We’ve heard comments like “You really killed that,” “You must have hated that,” and “Wow, you must have really been hungry.”

These type of comments have ruined more than a few otherwise pleasant meals. I would think that restaurant management would stress the need for appropriate communications with customers. What is the proper response to such boorish and unprofessional comments?

Gentle Reader: “How kind of you, with the work you have to do, to take the time to watch how I eat.”

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.