Simple Etiquette Everyone Should Know
Our expert clues you in.
How many times have you thought to yourself, “Am I still expected to do that?” (Fun fact: Emily Post’s Etiquette guide has been updated 18 times since its initial release in 1922.) If you haven’t refreshed your social conventions from what mom taught you, now might be a good time. Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist Catherine Newman, etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, brings you up to date on seven of the most common questions.
Persons A and B are engaged in conversation. Along comes person C, thrilled to see person B. Person C interrupts to talk solely to person B, ignoring person A completely. What should person A's next move be? To withdraw in abject silence? I have been in the place of A or B many times and would like to have an effective way to deal with this awkward situation. (If I am ever person C, I try to engage both A and B in the conversation.) — M.B.
Under any circumstances, it is rude to interrupt a conversation or to ignore one of the people present. But if that's what C does and you're B? You're the hinge in this interaction, so try to manage it as gracefully as you can. Do A and C need to be introduced? Start there, then include A in the conversation that C wants to have with you: "Hang on, C. Let's catch A up on what we're talking about." Being person A is trickier, though, and how I responded would depend on the circumstances. If C and B are old friends who haven't seen each other in ages, I'd say, "You two have a lot to catch up on. B, let's talk later," then break away. C and B start talking about an unfamiliar topic? "Loop me in," I'd say. "This sounds interesting." And, although it sounds as if you know this, person C should apologize for the intrusion. ("Forgive me for barging in. Maybe you were in the middle of something. B, we can always catch up later.") Then be guided by the conversation that is already underway, rather than launching into something new. As I occasionally remind my kids (and myself), at the end of the day, it's your own behavior that matters. With your dignity, graciousness, and wit intact, you can be sure that you've done the right thing—and modeled it for others—regardless of how anyone else acted.
My supervisor and his wife have invited me and several of my colleagues over for dinner. I am lactose-intolerant, but I do not want them to plan the dinner around my dietary limitations. I feel that this would be a burden on them, and I don't want to draw attention to myself unnecessarily. That being said, I also don't want to upset my hostess by not eating the entire meal. How should I handle this? — K.L.
Being a dinner guest is challenging for anyone with special dietary needs, whether due to a physical condition (like gluten sensitivity, a nut allergy, or lactose intolerance) or a lifestyle choice (such as being a vegetarian). You're right to seek some happy gastronomic ground between demanding a special meal in advance and divulging your restrictions only after you've declined what they're serving.
I would suggest that you simply be honest. Either call or e-mail your hostess with a version of what you've said above: "I wanted you to know that I can't eat dairy—but please don't design the meal around me. I'm just looking forward to being in your company, and I don't want you to be offended if I can't eat everything." Chances are good that they'll decide to accommodate you. And if they're gracious about it, as they should be? You won't even feel as if they've gone to any special trouble.
I am baffled by who is supposed to stand when someone new enters the room. Does it matter whether it's a man or a woman? And does your gender affect whether you stand or stay seated? — J.A.
Etiquette once dictated that a man stood up when a woman entered the room. You won't be surprised to learn that I find this sort of gender-based rule outdated and stale. However, what's still fresh (and in perennially short supply) is old-fashioned enthusiastic courtesy.
Worry less about formal conventions, especially since manners experts today are divided over when and whether to practice them. Instead, endeavor to show people of either gender that they matter to you. This will usually mean rising to be introduced to a new person, to greet someone you haven't encountered in a while, or to acknowledge an older person. But feel free to ad-lib. If you're stuck behind the table at a restaurant, for example, you can substitute a hearty hello for an awkward stumble to your feet. When it comes to greetings—and, really, to all human interaction—attentive kindness is what matters most.
I grew up in a country where it is considered very rude to wear shoes inside the house. As a rule, I don't wear shoes inside my home, and I don't wish others to do so, either. I even keep a shoe rack right by the door.
However, I find that when people visit my house, they often wear their shoes inside and sometimes even ignore their kids jumping on my furniture with their shoes still on. How can I make it clear to people that I want them to take off their shoes without having to tell them directly? — H.K.
This might be hard for you to imagine, but guests who are accustomed to wearing shoes indoors might be oblivious to the visual cues that you're offering. (Why their children are jumping on your furniture—with or without shoes on—we will set aside for now.)
Contrary to your wish, the only way to make anything clear is by communicating directly, and that's what you should do. In this case, it's as simple as saying, "We don't wear shoes in the house. Would you mind taking yours off? Thank you so much." I speak from experience here, as mine is a no-shoe house as well. Every now and then, somebody has a good reason to remain shod—a bad case of plantar fasciitis, for example. But, in general, I find that people are happy to accommodate the request. So assume that your friends would much prefer an opportunity to abide by your wishes than to blunder unknowingly into an offense.
Is it inappropriate to photograph the deceased at a wake or a funeral? — D. G.
Post-mortem photography was a common practice in the Victorian era, when photographs were precious and rare, and it was better to have a portrait of your dead loved one than no portrait at all. Obviously, this is no longer the case. So if you are talking about a casual snapshot—with all due respect, a coffinside selfie—then my answer is unequivocal: It’s inappropriate. This is not the Grand Canyon or a surprise party; it is an occasion of mourning. Keep that phone turned off and out of sight. Be wholly present, and commit to memory the image you wish to preserve, rather than disturbing or distracting the bereaved. If, on the other hand, you have a very good reason to want that photograph—perhaps a person unable to attend the funeral asked you to take one so that he can share the experience—then ask permission of the principal mourners and find a discreet moment to capture the image. Bear in mind, though, that emotions are running high. This is one situation where I wouldn't assume that there’s no harm in asking. Make sure it’s absolutely imperative before bringing it up.
I lead youth-group activities at our church, and there is one teenage girl who often makes incredibly rude comments to me. What makes it more difficult is that her mother is usually standing there and does nothing about it. How can I handle a rude girl in front of her mother? — M. J.
It’s good to model self-respect (instead of turning a deaf ear), but it’s not OK to offer unsolicited parenting advice. So find or make a time to talk to this young woman individually and explain why it is that her comments make you feel bad. (Don’t embarrass her by speaking to her in front of another person, even—or especially—her mother.) Use descriptive, rather than accusatory, language: “I’m sure you don't mean anything by it, but when you say X, that makes me feel Y. We’re trying to set an example here of being civil and respectful, and I'm hoping you’ll help. Please be mindful of how you talk to me, and I promise to do the same.” If the problem continues, then you might want to loop in the mother—again, finding a time to speak privately. Ask for her help in strategizing with you, rather than accusing her of having a rude daughter. She may have good ideas about an intervention or offer crucial behind-the-scenes information. She also may be relieved to brainstorm with an ally, since parenting teenagers can feel as rewarding as being slapped across the face with a dead fish. Whatever you decide to do, muster as much compassion as you can, and remind yourself that you probably don’t know the whole story.
I received an inheritance from my aunt when she passed away. Is it proper to send a thank-you note to my uncle, who is still living? — S.D.
You don't need to thank your uncle for a gift bequeathed by his late wife. Instead, apply that grateful impulse to a different kind of note. Presumably, given the snail's pace of the typical estate closing, you've already sent him your condolences. So perhaps you could take this opportunity to jot down a few fond memories of your aunt and let your uncle know how much her gift means to you: "We're planning the trip of a lifetime," you can say. Or "I wanted you to know that, thanks to her generosity, I'm now freed from my mortgage/debt/children's college tuition."
Of course, if the will was contentious in any way (say, if the surviving spouse expected to acquire the remaining assets), you might want simply to cash the check and take a private moment to reflect on your aunt's life and largesse. But more likely your uncle will relish the opportunity to share your memories and your thankfulness.
Want to ask your own etiquette question? Submit your social conundrums to Catherine at realsimple.com/modernmanners. Selected letters will be featured on the website.