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Miss Manners: Learn to Work the Room — or Stay Home


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dear Miss Manners: My husband is well-known in our community. His job and his volunteer work with nonprofit groups require that we attend quite a few social functions. He has a great sense of humor and everyone loves him.

We often go to events where I don’t know anyone. Should he stay by my side at these events, with us navigating the room together, or is it acceptable for him to leave me alone?

It’s difficult for me to strike up a conversation with complete strangers. I wander about, looking for someone to talk to, and it’s awkward. I’m friendly and outgoing with people that I know, but I find that I’m nervous and quiet in a room full of strangers.

This is causing a problem in our marriage. What is the correct social etiquette in this scenario?

Gentle Reader: Must you attend? As you are not adept at doubling your husband’s representation at these events — known as “working the room,” a common practice for political spouses — the simplest solution would be for him to offer your apologies and explain that you are otherwise occupied.

The only excuse for couples’ sticking together at social events is that one needs the support of the other, which generally means physical support. That your husband should compensate for your shyness stretches the point and puts an extra burden on him.

Also, it is insulting to the other guests. A couple who cannot bear to be apart long enough to enjoy the company of others should stay home.

But a happier solution for you would be to learn to draw out strangers. If the guests work for one of those groups, you need only ask them what they do and why they got involved, and then express appreciation. To others, you can express your admiration for the work being done. Miss Manners is guessing that your husband is good at that, and can teach you something to recite before you become relaxed enough to chatter on your own.

Dear Miss Manners: Is it appropriate to respond to “thank you” with “thank you”? After a TV interview, the interviewer will thank the guest, and the guest most often replies “thank you.” Would not the correct response be “It was my pleasure,” or some other response?

I always thought that you don’t send a thank-you card in response to a thank-you card, and that a thank-you for an interview should not be followed with another thank-you.

Gentle Reader: These are two different thank-yous. Did you never have a social host thank you for attending, and respond, “Thank you for inviting me”?

But Miss Manners takes the opportunity to note that while you are right that a card of thanks does not require a response in kind, presents sent in thanks most certainly do. People often claim that this will create an endless chain, but that would only be the case if yet another present were involved.

Not that television interviewers should offer such rewards. But neither do their subjects want to say, “You’re welcome,” as if their very presence was a present. Or “It was a pleasure” if some serious issue was discussed.

Dear Miss Manners: Could you let ladies know how to sit? Especially those on TV who show their legs, some up to their panties, because they cross their legs?

At my school, in England, all the girls were taught to put our knees together. That way, you can sit without showing your panties but still look nice.

Gentle Reader: As prominent ladies are more and more often wearing trousers, this should get to be less of a problem. And the fashion industry keeps announcing that it is bringing back longer skirts — where else does it have to go? — but Miss Manners notices that this never seems to happen.

So it might be a good idea to bring back correct posture. It’s not just the peekaboo effect, but the fact that the loosely swinging bare leg is clumsy and distracting. Skirted ladies may properly cross their ankles instead.

Dear Miss Manners: I have gotten involved with a wonderful nonprofit organization as a volunteer. Some elements of this organization would benefit from some extra cash so they could better serve their clients.

Is there an appropriate way to ask friends/family to donate to this cause rather than buy me gifts? It seems presumptive to assume that Auntie Sue is going to buy me something, and I don’t want to put people in an awkward situation.

Gentle Reader: It is presumptive, and not a little annoying. Auntie Sue may also not agree that your organization’s mission is so wonderful.

Therefore, what you can do is to tell her about it. It astonishes Miss Manners that the standard idea of fundraising is to exert social pressure, rather than to engender enthusiasm about what the organization does. If you take the trouble to explain to Auntie Sue why you are involved in it, she may well want to open her purse, and still want to give you presents.

Dear Miss Manners: A while back, my husband and I met, through mutual friends, a very nice couple with whom we immediately bonded. The six of us are newly retired and often do things together, including meals.

Almost immediately, an abhorrence surfaced during dining. Our newfound friend’s wife, upon sticking a forkful of food into her mouth, will moan with eyes closed, as if she has not eaten in days. This occurs for the first few bites, and then tapers to occasionally. Seemingly “hubby” has learned to tune out “wifey’s” ritual, as he ignores it.

We have noticed other patrons looking over, laughing quietly, whispering, or most often shooting stares of annoyance. “Wife’s” behavior embarrasses us, and we are at an absolute loss as how to handle it. Can you help?

Gentle Reader: Neither you nor Miss Manners can properly say, “Please cut that out; it’s disgusting. We know you like the food. So calm down.”

But what you can say, in an alarmed tone, while grabbing her arm, is “Are you all right?”

Dear Miss Manners: My son is recently engaged, and I’d like to throw him and his bride-to-be an engagement party. Do I need to coordinate with my soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s mother?

Gentle Reader: Or do you want to serve notice that you will be running this show, and she should just fall in line behind you?

Dear Miss Manners: My granddaughter is 7. She loses interest in her dinner, says she’s full. Her dad says, “four more bites.” She balks. He demands it again.

Sometimes he starts to count to a declared number. Then it teeters on to, “OK, then, no dessert.” Or whatever.

Sometimes it happens at my house, sometime theirs. My husband and I have great difficulty witnessing this. (We have overbearing parents in common.) We have baby-sat for years, and we don’t make problems at dinnertime, so we don’t have them. Is there a flippant response that I can at least say to myself while witnessing this pattern?

Gentle Reader: Reasonable people can disagree on the proper placement of the line between teaching discipline and making dinner unbearable. So can parenting consultants.

Much as Miss Manners appreciates you and your husband not making problems at dinnertime, she is not convinced that the only problem being created is by your granddaughter’s parents. Taking the word of a 7-year-old that she is full — and will not be starving by bedtime — seems to her to require a great leap of faith.

There are many flippant responses that you can say to yourself, but as manners deals in the realm of behavior, it cannot help you script them. It instead urges restraint, as your children are no doubt doing their best with their own children.

Dear Miss Manners: On the occasion of my daughter’s graduation from college, my friend, an avid scrapbooker, gifted my daughter with the promise of a scrapbook of her college years. For this project, she asked my daughter to go through four years of photos and mementos, organizing them by date, occasion, milestone, etc., including explanatory notes to make the journey clear to my friend so that she could scrapbook it. She suggested that my daughter have copies made of social media pictures that would be included.

My daughter privately expressed her dismay at having to complete that extensive task just as she was concentrating on finding a job in her field and moving to another city.

This all happened two years ago. I am so grateful to my friend for offering this service as a gift, but frankly, it isn’t going to happen. My daughter has no interest in taking the time to do this. She wrote a lovely thank-you note to my friend, saying she was looking forward to gathering the material when she had time.

Now my friend is asking me about it, and I believe I hear an edge to her voice. Is there a kind way to let her know that this isn’t going to happen? And is it ever appropriate to “gift” someone with a service that requires a lot of work on the part of the recipient?

Gentle Reader: Whether they are proper or not, such presents are dangerous — if you hope to instill gratitude, rather than annoyance, in the recipient.

Your daughter’s letter of thanks expressed the proper gratitude, and gave the proper warning. Your friend, unfortunately, did not take the hint.

Miss Manners fears that your daughter will now have to do one more thing she may not wish to do: She will have to let you apologize to your friend and explain just how busy she is. Your apology will imply that your daughter is failing to accomplish a reasonable task (“But what can one do?”). This is neither true nor fair. But on the bright side, it will save her from sneezing over old swim-meet ribbons.

Dear Miss Manners: My son passed away, unexpectedly, eight years ago. He was 21 at the time and dating a very nice young lady. We kept in touch for a while following the funeral, but then things tapered off.

Because of the mutual friends she shared with my son, I now see that she is getting married in a few weeks. Would it be weird for me to send wedding congratulations? I wish only happiness for her as she begins her married life.

Gentle Reader: Friendships that outlast the loss of the relative — or friend, boyfriend or spouse — who brought you together have a special status, particularly when they cross generations. They honor the person you both lost, but they also demonstrate a generosity of spirit in caring about someone who was dear to someone dear to you.

Far from being weird, Miss Manners thinks it would be lovely of you to reach out to her to wish her well. Not everyone finds themselves able to do so.

Dear Miss Manners: I was at a bar for a work-related dinner meeting and ordered soup. I peppered said soup before tasting it and was castigated by one of my dinner companions.

Is the etiquette in a bar the same as what should be practiced in a more formal setting?

Gentle Reader: The peppering of one’s food is not subject to degrees of formality. Nor should they be your dinner companion’s concern — unless that person also happens to be the chef.

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.