39 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Is there a way to send an etiquette question privately? I have an issue that is very deeply upsetting me, and I really do need some advice from etiquette people on this one, but I would prefer more discretion in addressing it.

    If not EPI, is there someone else out there who could help me (as in, another place I could send it)?

    Thanks!

    • Elizabeth

      Anon,
      This is a community board moderated by volunteers and not the EPI staff. It is possible that one of us could get in touch over email, but then you would really just be getting one person’s opinion. The great thing about this board is that you will get multiple perspectives. I would recommend that you phrase your question in such a way that it is general, gives no names/dates/places, and is just abstracted enough from your particular situation that no one could ever know if it was you. I think you will find the community here helpful if you do this.

      • Anon returning

        The main issue is that I don’t want the people involved to see this. I don’t want to badmouth anyone or anything, but I don’t want repercussions for seeking help on these issues. I need advice, but don’t want to be put in a bad position.

        If it helps, my problem is with communication. This is leading to other problems. I also need some advice because I feel really hurt by someone, and angered at that person. I’m at the point where it has built up enough over time to really bother me (I feel physically stressed and upset just thinking about it). In addition, the problems there are causing me problems with others outside of the situation.

        • Elizabeth

          I think if you looked through the pages of previous discussion, you would find very many descriptions of difficult situations that are abstracted enough to be unrecognizable to their participants. Don’t use names, or use other names, frame it in terms it happening to a friend, switch genders around, describe people in terms of related roles (not your mother, but your mother-in-law, etc) don’t use direct quotes – there very little way for anyone to know if they’re being talked about. Unless you know that the people involved are regular readers of this site, you really have nothing to worry about.

          But in any case, you must do what you feel comfortable with! I wish you the best and hope that you find good counsel. If the problem really is bad enough, you might seek the help of a counselor, clergyman, or trusted friend or family member.

          I should also say that the rules of etiquette are in some ways very general and will not help you resolve personal conflict. If you feel that someone is in the wrong, in terms of etiquette, chances are they probably are – but their not having good manners is usually the least of their problems!

      • Anon again

        *I tried submitting, but I don’t think it went through, so I’ll try again.

        I really don’t want the people with whom I am having conflict (my advice question is how to deal with this politely and courteously; it’s to the point that I literally feel bad physically around the people with whom I have conflict, and I can’t avoid them unless I give up something that I love and enjoy) to see this. Even though I have no wish to badmouth them, I don’t want to be punished if they should find this. To be clear, this is a personal/social situation, not a work one (my boss is amazing and I’m lucky to work for my boss).

        • Elizabeth

          So you are involved in a group social activity and you have some kind of personal conflict or dislike of some of the people who are involved. Again, etiquette can’t instruct you or make a choice for you in such specific circumstances, it only guides the manner in which you play out your choices. If you no longer with to get together with this group, you just politely decline all future invitations. If it’s possible to continue attending the events without engaging the people you dislike, then do so. You can do either of these politely. Whether or not you dislike them enough to discontinue an enjoyable activity – that is something you have to figure out for yourself, I’m afraid.

  2. Thea

    Hi All,

    My husband and I have always been close with our 37 year old nephew and family. Recently he has become very distant from us. We have always sent gifts to his children and this year did not recieve any thank you notes. Our twin sons graduated from college and there was no recognition, they are hurt since we have traveled with them. We have paid for our nephew to vacation with us when he was younger, we have had them stay with us on numerous ski vacations.
    What has really upset us is that my nephew and his family were visiting their families for 2 weeks. He was at his mothers beach house for 7 days, this is only 1 hour away from us, and did not call or make any attempt to get together with us. He was 20 min. from our home 3 times and we invited them over for dinner every time. Both my husband and I work and felt that since they were on vacation they could have made the effort especially since they were near us 3 times. My sister-in-law assumed we knew that we had an open invitation, however there was no room for us in her home and it seemed as if our nephew had made several plans to get together with friends.
    I have a gift for his daughter for her 2nd birthday but am so angry that I really don’t want to send it.

    Thoughts?
    Thanks,
    Thea

    • Elizabeth

      I think you should do two separate things. First, send the gift. It would be unfortunately to penalize a two-year-old for her parents mistakes. Second, I would send an email or letter separately from the gift (give a distance of a couple of weeks) that gently explains your feelings and asks if anything is wrong. It sounds like you know very well why you’re upset, but what I didn’t see in your note is any questioning of what you might have done to cause this alienation. Maybe nothing. But your best bet would be to write something like: “Dear Nephew, we’ve always enjoyed a long and close relationship, so I was a little hurt when you came into town that you weren’t able to make time for us. Is there something wrong? Have we offended you in some way? etc”

      I would not bring up the thank you notes (everybody has an off year), and I would not bring up the lack of gifts to your graduates. You may feel you are “owed” but no one is actually owed gifts. Focus on what matters – family connection, sharing experiences, time spent together.

    • Thea

      Thanks for your reply’s. I agree with you that it is not fair to penalize a 2 year old. Yes we all have off years but we haven’t recieved a thank you for 3 seperate birthdays and holiday gifts.

      My sons were not expecting a gift but thought that a post on their facebook wall or a congratulations e-mail would have been nice. I understand people being busy and forgetting to do things and would be gracious but I can think of so many incidences where our nephew has snubbed us with rude texts and e-mail replys. I had asked him this winter if anything was upseting him since he was frequently short with us, I never got a reply except that he was very busy. When I asked for the last time that he was near our home if they were considering stopping by he texted us back “that was never in our plans” nothing more and no phone call. I will consider reaching out again. Out of interest my in-laws, his grandparents, found him rude and distant during his visit. They spent 6 days with him.

      • Elizabeth

        The additional info is helpful. It sounds like you have already asked him if anything was wrong, and it sounds as if the distance and rudeness isn’t new, but growing in the past few years. I still think a letter can’t hurt, but I might modify my original suggestion to say something like: “We can’t help noticing a growing distance between us. If there is anything wrong or anything that happened, we would like to make amends. We’ve been close for years, and we’ve always valued the relationship with you and your family. However, if this is what you want, we wish you well and won’t continue to press for contact when it seems so unwelcome.”

        Leave the ball in his court. It sounds like you’ve tried and tried and for whatever reason this nephew has decided to distance himself and his family from you. It sounds awful, I’m sorry you have to go through it. But you’ll just set yourself up for continuing heartbreak if you keep hoping and pushing for more when he and his family seem to be sending a clear signal. I should add – it could be something that has nothing to do with you. Perhaps he’s dealing with a serious illness, there’s an affair in the marriage, he found out he was adopted, etc. Stuff like that can really whack people out, and it might be information you’re not privy to.

        • Country Girl

          If I might play devil’s advocate for your nephew, I think aside from the seriousness of such things as an illness or a personal trauma being the cause of him not visiting you, there is also the real possibility that your nephew simply planned out a trip home ahead of time that left no room for additional visits.

          I have various friends and family members in one particular area, all of whom are dear and important to me. Sometimes I plan a trip to the area solely to visit family, sometimes to visit family or see sights, sometimes just to spend time with just immediate family or my significant other. Other times my trip is more flexible with opportunities to see many people. I certainly don’t visit every close family member and every close friend within driving distance on each trip I take, and have been quite surprised at the hurt feelings from my own family members… As though my not planning or having time to meet up with them each time I am in the area was an intentional slight. Not the case. And just because your nephew was near your home doesn’t necessarily mean he had available both the time and opportunity to visit. He may have had important events planned with friends or other family members that didn’t allow even a quick stop by your house. (And let’s be honest, many times a ‘quick stop’ by a loved one’s house turns into an hour or more very quickly. =) ) If a relative of mine persisted to ask me to visit them on 3 separate occasions in one trip, I might honestly start to feel as though they didn’t respect my having any plans outside of seeing them.

          Now I may be off and there may indeed be an emotional separation occurring with your and your nephew’s family, as unfortunately sometimes happens. But perhaps, being busy with a number of many various things in his own life, your nephew simply hasn’t had the same opportunities in the past year or so to give you and your family the attention he once did. This doesn’t necessarily mean he has become an bad person or loves you any less.

  3. Pam

    I just had breakfast with my very good friend. I have realized, however, that I always feel very self conscious when I am with her. I am fidgety and unfocused. I don’t feel like this with other friends or acquaintances. I think I always feel like she is looking people up and down and commenting. I sat in the booth and the first thing she said to me, with a look of deep concern “what’s the matter? Your eyes are glassy.” As I did my make up this morning I thought to myself “she is probably going to say I look tired.” I am not tired but I think my allergies have made my eyes look a little glassy and puffy. She, too, started rubbing her eye at the end of the meal. However, I felt completely ill at ease through the entire meal b/c I felt like she was analyzing my face. It was very uncomfortable. Has anyone else had a friend or co worker who always pointed these things out?

    • Elizabeth

      Goodness Pam, with friends like these…

      I am happy to report that in my adult like I have not had to endure any friends like these. The kind of anxiety you’re describing sounds awful! Is this a different friend than the depressed one?? Was this woman always like this, or is it a new trend? The only comments I ever hear in my circle are positive complements, never anything negative. Generally people like that are insecure themselves and very obsessed with their appearance – which to me does not sound like someone fun to hang around. And/or, you can call her out during specific instances. When she comments on a passer-by, you can ask her “What’s up with your obsession with others’ appearances? Yes, that woman may have a big butt, but she probably does something really amazing like work in a cancer lab, write beautiful poetry, or bake amazing muffins. Our looks are not the be-all end-all of our existence you know.” If she comments on you, just give her an incredulous look and ask, “why would you say that?” She will stutter some response, and you can just say – “well, whatever your reasons are, I would prefer it if you wouldn’t comment on my appearance. Unless you would like me to comment on yours as well? Did you know you have a huge zit on your nose? (or similar) Why don’t we talk about something substantive instead. What do you think of Romney’s pick of VP?”

      Other than the obvious suggestion (to end the friendship), you might be able to manage it differently if you perhaps get together for other types of activities – say, some physical exercise when you are not expected to “look good”.

    • Vanna Keiler

      Pam, your friend sounds judgmental and a little superficial. Perhaps you are starting to realize this and re-evaluating how much of a friend she really is to you? The biggest indicator seems to be how uncomfortable you describe yourself just sitting opposite from her, and secondly anticipating her personal comments on your appearance. Do you think this friendship has run its course and/or you have less in common with her than you once thought? It’s possible you have changed over the years, whereas she has not, or vice versa. Regardless, you may want to reflect before your next get-together how much you want to “endure” for the sake of calling this a friendship.

  4. Eric

    Thea, I agree completely with Elizabeth. Send the gift and write an email or letter that expresses your hurt and inquires about the situation without sounding angry or accusatory. I suggest that you sit on the letter or email a day or two before sending it, though. Your emotions sound raw right now, and you do not want to aggravate the situation needlessly.

  5. Eric

    Pam, your friend may not be at all aware of the hurt she causes and the energy she saps from you. Try testing the relationship a little. Instead of being defensive (as Elizabeth seems to suggest), try to steer the conversation away from the negative and into the positive. See if she follows. For example, when she comments upon your glassy eyes you might bring up that new blouse you’re wearing and how much you like its texture and sheen. If she does not follow, then you have a choice to make: you can either set clear boundaries and expect her to follow them or drop the relationship due to stress.

    • Jerry

      Eric: “Defensive” is a means of deflecting criticism, often by pointing to a third-party’s actions to justify one’s own rudeness. (E.g., I wouldn’t nag you to stop for directions if you would just . . .) What Elizabeth is suggesting is the opposite of defensive behavior. She suggesting clear and direct communication. That there is a potential for confrontation is irrelevant. The rules of etiquette do not require us to avoid confrontation at all costs.

      Changing the topic? That doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to deal with the bully. One deals with a bully by smacking him in the nose.

  6. Katilyn

    Hi,
    So a groomsmen called yesterday to inform us that he may not be able to be in our wedding. I immediately thought, ‘i can ask my cousin Tony!’. Our friend is still in conversations with his boss but now i will be disappointed if I don’t get to ask Tony. Is it okay to ask Tony regardless? Is it bad form to ask someone to be in the wedding 8 months after you asked everyone else? I wasn’t as close to Tony when we asked the rest of our wedding party and over the past few months we have grown closer. What should i do?

    • Elizabeth

      Well, usually the groom chooses his groomsmen, but it sounds like you’ve chosen the wedding party collaboratively? There’s no reason you can’t have an uneven number of groomsmen and bridesmaids, so if you both want to ask Tony to be in the wedding, I’m sure he’d be flattered and understand that it was because of your growing friendship that you asked. Alternatively, you could ask him to be an usher, to do a reading in the ceremony, to do a toast, etc. There are lots of nice ways to include people in weddings.

    • Howard Burkhart

      As someone who has photographed over 200 weddings, and officiated at a few, I can only tell you that last-minute substitutions for groomsmen are not at all rare. If your fiancee is OK with it (and discussing the wedding with him is only the start of a life-long conversation), then asking Toni will be flattering for him, and a good back-up for the person who may not be able to attend. And if the original friend does make it, he can be a part of the wedding party, and also usher or otherwise be valuable to you.

  7. Howard Burkhart

    Yesterday at an Apple store, while waiting to speak with a tech, a toddler started screaming, and continued on for what seemed like 5 minutes. I finally asked the father to consider taking the child outside. He replied that wasn’t possible. The child finally quieted somewhat, and as he left the father called my actions “inappropriate.” It seems that parents have a belief that the rest of the world should tolerate their child’s squalling; as someone who has never been a parent I do not share that view. If a child screams, and the parent can’t complete their business because the child needs to go outside, that’s just one of the consequences of becoming a parent –which they volunteered for.

    • I’m not sure that you have a question here, but I’ll chime in anyway. As a person who has no children and will have none, I do agree. There are places for children, and there are places where children will be less comfortable. A good, understanding parent knows that their child may be having an off day, or may not tolerate a certain environment well. Those parents either “head the problem off at the pass,” or remove the child from the situation as soon as they sense an issue (perhaps something has frightened the child, or the child is unwell). The entitled, selfish parent does not do this. Every environment is fine for Little Darling, and all people should be accommodating of Little Darling at all times. These are the parents who aren’t being fair to poor, tired Little Darling, nor to those around him/her. Unfortunately, I have no suggestions for you other than you should try to be places where children generally are not. An Apple Store, however, seems like that sort of place, though for you it was not.
      In the future, if you feel you must speak up, try to put the focus on Little Darling: “Your poor child. Something must have scared him. Perhaps removing him from here for just a little bit will help him? He looks so unhappy and I can’t bear to see that.” Maybe they will take the hint and not be offended. If they choose to force the kid to stay there, then I wonder about their parenting capabilities.

      • Howard Burkhart

        Actually, I do try to avoid child-populated environments, although I also, by necessity am often in areas where there are older children (elementary school age and older). I avoid “family” restaurants when possible. I have always said that “the problem with family restaurants is the families that go there!” But a large part of it is also the socio-economic class, or lack thereof, of the families. I spent 14 years photographing families with many small children at a local country club. The children there were much quieter, and much better behaved, than those at the local McDonald’s, and infinitely better than those at a low-income area McDonald’s. The wealthier parents had much better parenting skills, and taught their children manners that the low-income parents never learned.

  8. Howard Burkhart

    Can someone please tell me who decides when the tip percentage should rise, and how much that percentage or dollar value should be? Is it some organization, or some person? For years, as I grew up and entered the business world 45 years ago, tips were 10% of the bill. Then, out of the blue, someone decided that tips should be 15%. Service didn’t get better, but the server got a raise! Now it’s 18-20% or more in some circles. As a consumer, I just say “NO!”. Inflation alone has given servers a raise. As food and bar prices have risen, even at a 10% tip, the server has gotten a 300% raise over 1970’s tips. Can someone explain why I should tip any more? Please don’t give me the “everything’s gotten more expensive” reason, for I have already included that in my argument!

    • Elizabeth

      Well, obviously there is no one person or body who decides this. It evolves, and gradually a new standard becomes “generally accepted.” However, I would think it has to do largely with the overall wages of a waiter/waitress in comparison to some overall standard of living measurement or purchasing power. If you compare what a waiter’s wages used to buy him in terms of home, lifestyle, etc with what he can afford today, I would not say that a waiter is any better position, and is probably less better off than then. So, if we want to continue having waiters and good service, we (collectively, the dining public) need to make it lucrative enough to keep decent people in those positions. Surely you have experienced waitstaff who just went through the motions, were slow or inattentive as well as really professional and top-notch waitstaff. Unfortunately our American system is tip-based, so that’s the game we play I’m afraid. If you only tip 10%, I can’t imagine that you get good service wherever the waiter remembers you.

      • Country Girl

        I agree with Elizabeth. I will also add an important fact: ‘tipping minimum wage’ (which is significantly lower than minimum wage) has not increased in the past 20 years federally and in most states! That’s right, the same wage as servers made in 1992! So servers’ wages have not nearly kept up with inflation. My friends were always surprised to find that when I was a server I made under $3 an hour… before taxes. Servers also aren’t offered heath insurance or retirement benefits. I’m not suggesting everyone in this country agrees with our system as it is, but it is the way things currently are, and these are just a couple of things to keep in mind when tipping your server.

        • Waitstaff minimum wage is never less than actual minimum wage ($7.25/hr as of 2009) in the United States due to the Fair Labor Standards Act. This is a common misconception. It is true that wait staff are paid $2.13/hr; however, they are expected to make up the difference in tips. If they do not make up the difference in tips (slow night, for instance), then the employer must by law make up the difference. Waitstaff are treated no differently than other minimum wage workers in this regard (no health insurance, no retirement). Those are the breaks of that sort of job.

          Here is the Department of Labor stance on workers who receive tips.

  9. Eric

    I know I’m day late here and no one will probably read this, but I feel a need to respond a just a little to Jerry’s comment on my post.

    I believe that most of Elizabeth’s position is designed with the intent to communicate directly, but when she offered the suggestion to give an incredulous look and ask “why would you say that way?” a defense posture is being assumed. Using your definition – defensiveness is “deflecting criticism” – Elizabeth is indeed suggesting a deflection of criticism here. The second portion of Elizabeth’s suggstion – “I would prefer it if you wouldn’t comment on my appearance” – is spot on and direct and would be a much stronger approach in this situation. The only addendum I would add to her statement is to attach a feeling to it. (e.g. I feel inadequate when you comment negatively on my appearance.) Moreover, the question “Did you know you have a huge zit on your nose?” is also defensive in that it is an attack. It makes one no better than the bully.

    My reply in no way suggested an avoidance of confrontation. On the contrary, my response suggested setting clear boundaries, and when those boundaries are not respected, I suggested that dropping the relationship might be in order. When you counter a bully by being a bully yourself, you have actually served to empowered the bully and justify (at least in their mind) their crude behavior. I believe clear boundaries and consequences are a likely better way to manage this situation.

    • Elizabeth

      I think so much depends on the personality of the friend, the personality of the person being criticized, the dynamic of the friendship, what one’s aim is in the conversation (to save the friendship, or to confront no matter what, etc. My little “script” was written with myself in mind, as I can be outspoken and direct, yet diplomatic, when need be. I think there’s a way of saying direct things “with a smile” in order to simultaneously convey that you’re keeping it “light and friendly” but really you mean business. But not everyone can or is inclined to operate this way.

      In Pam’s particular situation, I think things are compounded by the fact that this is an old childhood friendship. Dynamics that are established in grade or high school aren’t necessarily the dynamics that are satisfying in adulthood. It’s very difficult to change a long-ingrained pattern, but if you value a friendship of that vintage sometimes it needs a strong “correction” to update the dynamic in a way. But there must be ways to do it with more finesse, and that is perhaps what you are suggesting, Eric.

    • Jerry

      Eric: Please respond. I’m here to help you, but you should read a little more critically. Defensiveness constitutes deflecting criticism as opposed to addressing it. So if one were to respond to the comment “your eyes look really glassy” with the statement “they wouldn’t look so glassy if you picked a non-smoking restaurant! Smoke irritates my eyes,” that, my friend, would be defensive. The comment “did you know you have a huge zit on your nose” standing in isolation could be defensive if offered as the immediate response to “you’re eyes are glassy.” But that’s not what Elizabeth suggested — she suggested responding to an attack with a warning (inter alia, “I would prefer you not comment on my appearance”) and a counter-attack (inter alia, “unless you would like me to comment on yours . . .”) Taking statements out of context is a tool used by political hacks. You’re better than that.

      With respect to your strategies for dealing with bullies, I just disagree. Experience has taught me that the only way to deal with a bully is to make it painful for them. You’re not “being a bully yourself” any more than a porcupine is “being a bully” for raising its spines in self-defense.

      One last comment before I go. Changing the subject is the absolute definition of avoidance. In no way does changing the subject communicate clear boundaries — abruptly changing the subject from apples to automobiles leaves your conversation partner confused and unsure as to what line he may have crossed.

  10. Eric

    Jerry, sorry I’m late in this. I try to check this site once a day. Today has been a busy day.

    I see your point in your explanation of Elizabeth’s reply. When I read it, I saw the closing attack (i.e. the zit on your nose comment) and saw emotional reactivity all over it. I could just see Thea’s friend retort with an attack in kind and watch the attacks unfold round and round, a black swirl of defensiveness.

    Of course, I admit that I am reading into Elizabeth’s reply in this case. There truly is no emotional reactivity in Elizabeth’s reply, but her small script certainly lends itself to the possibility. This does not mean that I am not reading critically enough (even though that might be the case at times); it does suggest the complexity of the transaction between text and reader. When I see “Did you know you have a big zit on your nose?” I see an attack, and attacks are classic defensive measures. The former is my interpretation, the latter a statement of definition.

    My taking Elizabeth out of context was meant merely to show you what portions of her text I was referencing in my reply. Nothing more. Basically, I was seeking to be clear in my reply by doing so. I do not believe I was unfairly twisting Elizabeth’s reply or putting words in her mouth. Now those are the dealings of a political hack.

    I was a little lost as to your comment on changing the subject, but I now see what portion of my response you are addressing. My suggestion that she change the subject from something negative to something positive was meant as a test of the friendship. If you reread my post, you’ll see that the test was meant to set up the worth of the relationship so that Thea could make an informed decision as to the nature of her friendship. If a friend refuses to respect or even acknowledge the boundaries you believe are necessary for the relationship, then you haven’t got a friendship. Testing is how this worth is determined.

    As to bullies, I respect your view on how to handle them. It sounds as though it’s based on experience, and I certainly cannot argue with that. However, much of the recent search on bullying suggests that vigilance, reporting, and accountability are the best means of dealing with a bully. This approach is meant to create a culture where bullying is not acceptable, an easy means of reporting said bullying when it occurs, and clear consequences for handling the incident. It is not an approach I’ve made up, but, as with your approach, I have experience with it and have found it to be effective. Surely, a company would not advocate stopping a bully by physically or verbally confronting them in the workplace. They would certainly want a means of reporting such behavior, though, and the existence of a culture where said reporting is encouraged and can be done securely.

    I appreciate your taking the time to reply to me Jerry, and I enjoy the constructive nature of our dialogue. But, I think we’ve ventured outside the scope of this blog. I look forward to dialoguing more with you in the future.

  11. I have been invited to an adult birthday party of a neighbour I barley know.

    What is the proper etiquette? Do I bring a gift. I have no idea what this person likes.

    Thanks so much for your help.

    • Elizabeth

      If you choose to attend, I would bring something small, like an inexpensive potted plant, a bottle of wine, or a $10 gift card to Starbucks (or something that everyone likes in your town).

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