Underwear at the Dinner Table: Proper dress for dinner at home

by epi on May 25, 2012

Q: My best friend’s almost 13 year old son gets home from school or play and changes into a pair of boxer shorts – nothing else – no pants, no shirt. He walks all around the house this way, sits on the furniture and talks with us this way, and even eats at the dinner table with us this way (shirtless). He has friends over to play while he is dressed like this (only boxer shorts). I was brought up that it is bad etiquette not to wear a shirt – certainly while eating – and especially when around other people.

My best friend and I would like to have her son learn good manners, so our question is: Is it bad etiquette? Or, are the ‘old’ rules of etiquette now considered archaic? And, when – if ever – is it okay for a teenage boy to walk around in underwear, including sitting on furniture and eating at the table?

A: Maybe some old rules of etiquette are considered archaic, but not the ones that say people should come to the table fully dressed. The formality of dress may change depending on the dining event, but even at the most informal dinner at home men and boys should wear a shirt and pants or regular shorts over their underwear. A 12 year old daughter would certainly not come to the table in her bra and panties. We expect no less from our boys.

You mention that your friend would like to have her son learn good manners. She can begin by setting some limits in her own home. As her son is now approaching puberty she can broach the subject in terms of his impending manhood and say that this is the expectation of everyone in the family. If there are younger children in the house she should also require them to come to dinner fully clothed.

The same really holds true for the common areas of the house. If he wants to relax in his own bedroom in his underwear, that should be his choice. But when he is in the commonly used rooms, he should dress at least in a shirt and shorts or pants. Again she could point out that she doesn’t wander through the house in her underwear – nor does his father. (If his father does, that’s another story and she should be sure he is willing to set the right example.)

And finally, I would suggest that she refer to his boxers as underwear. He may think “boxers” are okay, but will respond to the notion that he really shouldn’t walk around in his underwear.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jerry May 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm

It’s very sad to me that someone would feel the need to ask whether the “‘old’ rules of etiquette [are] now considered archaic.” Does anyone else feel the same way?

Etiquette is a set of principles or cannons unique to a particular culture that help others feel comfortable and welcome around you. (For example, burping after a meal is good manners in some cultures; in the United States it is considered to be in very bad taste.) There are no official sanctions for violating a rule of etiquette — you won’t go to jail or pay a fine if you act boorishly. A breach of etiquette is not a civil or a criminal violation. But if you continue to violate the cannons of etiquette, people will eventually stop hanging around you. How can you tell if you’re violating a cannon of etiquette:

1. Is the behavior in question gross or disgusting? Consider the example of a teenager walking around in his underwear. That’s just nasty. I come to your house and you greet me in your underwear (and we’re not romantically), and I am going to leave. Similarly, chew with your mouth open in front of me, and I’m going to stop eating around you.

2. Does the behavior make me feel welcome? Again, consider the example of the teenager walking around in his underwear. Would it be ok for me, as a visitor to your home, to strip down to my skivvies? No? Then cover up. Or, by way of another example, if you invite me to a steakhouse knowing I’m a vegetarian, that’s not particularly cool. Some people feel that asking guests to take their shoes off crosses that line. (I saw they’re wrong, but that’s not the point of this exercise.) Requests for gifts on invitations violates the cannons of etiquette because it makes the guests feel like they’re being charged some sort of admission.

3. Does the behavior upset, embarrass, or offend? This should be pretty obvious. Correcting someone else’s etiquette is a faux pas because it suggests that they are so ignorant as to lack social graces. That’s why we’re taught that, unless you have jurisdiction over someone (i.e., they’re your minor child or your employee), or they ask you whether their behavior is ok, you can’t go about telling others how to act. Use soft power when possible.

3a. If the behavior will upset, embarrass, or offend, is there a way to get one’s point across in a way that allows everyone to save face? Again, this should be pretty obvious. By way of example, someone slams their seat into you on an airline, ask nicely if they can refrain from reclining onto you. Avoid the confrontation if possible.

3b. If there is no way to avoid a confrontation, fight with class. While the cannons of etiquette are designed to make others comfortable, they do not require you to subordinate your comfort or happiness for someone else’s. Someone reclines on top of you on a plane and they won’t move, you can beat the back of their chair to make them uncomfortable. Someone insults you (or acts in a passive aggressive manner), you can call them out and/or put them in their place. The martial art of judo roughly translates to the “gentle way.” Despite being the so-called gentle way, judo is a very effective means of self defense. Similarly, the principles of etiquette do not prohibit you from using highly effective verbal methods to thrash someone who verbally attacks. You can’t swear, but you can put someone in their place.

4. How will the exchange register with a neutral third-party observer? Does a behavior defy a social convention? By way of example, consider an able bodied person seated on the subway, an obviously pregnant person gets on and there are no more seats. Offering your seat to a pregnant woman who may (emphasis on the may) need it is a charitable act. Refusing to offer your seat may garner dirty looks from others; give up your seat and people may think well of you for the rest of the ride. Don’t bring a birthday present to a child’s birthday party? People will think you odd, or cheap, because the social convention states that you bring presents to children’s birthday parties.

What makes discussions of etiquette so interesting is that different cultures have different views. Recall, again, the discussions on removing shoes versus leaving them on, or whether a wedding invitation obligates the recipient to send a gift. Sometimes there is no single “right” answer — just a series of differing opinions. That the only sanction etiquette offers is ostracism and the only reward is social acceptance makes the discuss even more interesting.

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Elizabeth May 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Lots of food for thought, Jerry, thanks!

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Cindy Post Senning May 29, 2012 at 10:50 am

Thanks Jerry for your thoughtful four points. They provide a great way of thinking about etiquette. I like to think of etiquette as an equation:

Etiquette=manners plus principles.

As in all equations, all components are essential to make the equal sign work. The manners and principles are definitely different. The manners change over time and across cultural boundaries. The principles are timeless and universal. Respect, consideration, and honesty (the principles) form the basis for building and sustaining strong relationships and social interaction in every culture and era. The manners clearly change but are essential to the articulation of our principles in all our interactions.
Your four points reflect the same thinking. Again, thank you.

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Audra May 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I have 2 1/2 year old twin girls named Sofia and Alexa. My first cousin is expecting twin girls in August, and a couple of weeks ago, she posted an announcement on Facebook stating that the “official” names of her twins are Sophia and Alexie. She made no attempt to contact me before hand, and her family has now condemned me for being “rude” and “making a mountain out of a molehill” for being upset by this situation. We are a small family, and have been close-knit, but they are claiming that since we are separated geographically and won’t see each other that much, that I shouldn’t be concerned at all and it should be none of my business. In response to her FaceBook post, I commented “Except that they already have twin girl cousins named Sofia and Alexa. That’s not weird at all”. My cousin, her sister, and her mother all unfriended me on FaceBook now. Should my cousin have approached me on this matter and considered my reaction?

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Just Laura May 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Good morning, Audra,
Your question was already posted and answered over here. I hope that helps!

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hate my name November 28, 2013 at 11:58 am

Many families have the same names as in James & John. Since there is many miles between these two families don’t sweat it. My brother used to kid about naming his twins if he ever had any , one “pepto” and other “bismol” . Just love you niecesand nephews. And stop posting to facebook.

Parents need to write the names down before and say the
Names out loud. Like , “Norman Paul Loud ” but most people use only the first letter of the middle name, so say the name ….

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Nonnie Mowse November 29, 2013 at 9:34 am

Realizing this in an old thread, but wanted to offer my two cents anyway. Wearing of only underwear around the house and at the table, absolutely inappropriate.

However.

I’m the ‘family oddball’, and I want to know WHY the young man feels he has to do this. Is it to be intentionally obstinate, or is there a reason particular to him. I have two friends with children under the autism spectrum, and one of them used to do this. Turns out, he had a hypersensitivity to the way certain fabrics felt against his skin. So as soon as he got home from being out in public he would strip naked. Once his parents figured this hypersensitivity out, they tried to find easier, more comfortable fabrics for him to wear. The child of the other friends for some reason can’t tolerate the way denim looks. Something about the thread pattern was totally overwhelming to her (she also has definite savant abilities, so what is barely discernible to us is loud and obvious to her). Both children are older now, and both have had to work at their issues and are more tolerant of ‘problem fabrics’ because they got to be school aged and had to learn how to cope. Not all children with autism spectrum issues will be able to accomplish this, but these two have.

That given, I’d have to think about were I guest in the poster’s friend’s home, could I be tolerant and forgiving enough to endure someone at the dinner table in their boxers. While the reason why is technically none of my business, if I knew that it were some kind of organic attribute, I hope I would be willing to adapt. I also hope that I would not assume the worst at first. Only having been exposed to my friends’ children, was the education needed to help me do that.

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