Guide to modern manners: Part II
NAVIGATING your way through life’s social interactions can be a minefield, particularly now that new technology has changed so many aspects of our lives. Manners, it seems, still matter. Last week we focused on smartphone use, public transport, online dating and some of the old-fashioned stuff (yes, you should still hold the door for a woman. But you should hold one for a man, too).
Our experts, etiquette coach William Hanson and columnist and social media commentator Shona Craven, took us through a range of scenarios and offered sage – though sometimes conflicting – advice on how to negotiate them with grace and tact.
This week they talk us through the dos and don’ts of potentially tricky social situations, from how far you should go to accommodate your dinner guest’s dietary requirements to rating your Uber driver. So, get off your smartphone and pay attention; after all, it could save you some serious social embarrassment.
Should you dress up to go to a dinner party? William says: You don’t need a black tie unless it’s a terribly smart party or special occasion with a dress code, but I think it’s always good to look like you’ve made an effort, rather than just crawled out of bed. I’d avoid jeans unless it’s a pizza with your best friend. For men, I’d advise a smarter trouser and collared shirt. But at the very least, brush your hair, shave and look presentable.
Shona says: Everyone likes dressing up now and then, but hosts shouldn’t oblige people to do so. I wouldn’t expect someone to dress up for dinner at mine, mainly because it might suggest a certain standard of food that I probably wouldn’t be able to meet. I prefer more relaxed and informal soirees.
Is it acceptable to ask your guests to take off their shoes in your house?
William says: If you live in a Buddhist temple then it’s fine to make such a request. Most of us don’t, however. Shoes are a part of a person’s outfit and they won’t want to take them off. If you’re that precious about the carpet and floors, don’t have people over. If you are insistent about this, however, then the least you can do is ensure there is a chair in the hall for people to sit on so they don’t have to perform some ritual onelegged dance while taking off their shoes – especially older people, who could be more likely to fall. If I was a guest I might ask my hosts if they’d like me to remove shoes, but unless they are caked in mud, it’s unnecessary.
Shona says: Yes. It can be an awkward thing to broach, but it’s fine. I’d recommend lining up lots of shoes conspicuously in the hallway so they pick up the cue as soon as they come in the door. But you have to get this out of the way at the beginning rather than watch them trail dirt around the house all evening and be unable to say it later. Asking them to take their shoes off halfway through the evening is a no-no.
How far should you accommodate dietary requirements?
William says: Everyone seems to have a dietary requirement these days. In the past, no-one had them and it was much easier because people either said nothing or just died, I suppose. As a guest, the point that someone asks you to dinner is when you tell them about your dietary requirement, in a nice way, perhaps with a “just so you know …”. You don’t text a few days before, and certainly not on the day or even worse, the night. If you do tell them late, you have to be prepared to eat just the bread and vegetables. If you have a legitimate medical dietary requirement, it’s acceptable to say you’ll bring your own meal as that cuts out awkwardness for everyone. Don’t make a vegetarian or vegan meal for all to accommodate one
guest. Perhaps make enough vegetarian food for a few and offer others a choice. Likewise, if you have an alcoholic for dinner, you don’t have to not serve alcohol to others – that’s completely counterproductive. If I’m having friends for dinner, the food isn’t the main thing – it’s about having a nice evening. You can get a takeaway or have it catered, you don’t have to slave over the stove. If someone wants to bring their own meal, that’s fine. I’d panic if I had to cater for a gluten-free, lactose intolerant or vegan guest. I’d worry that there would be traces of something else in the food.
Shona says: You should always cater for the dietary requirements of your guests, although perhaps think about the guest list accordingly and invite all the vegetarians round on the same night. I wouldn’t make separate meals, I’d just make the same thing for everyone and accommodate the diet. It’s surely not a hardship to eat a vegetarian, glutenfree or dairy-free meal for an evening? I suppose if someone is on such a diet as a fad, it might be a bit annoying for the others, but it’s not for me to tell people how they should be eating. I’ll just go looking for a recipe rather than rolling my eyes when someone tells me they are a vegan.
Is it OK to smoke or vape at someone’s house?
William says: Inside is a definite no unless your hosts smoke. And you should always ask if it’s OK to smoke or vape outside their house. If they say no, tough – go for a walk or put a patch on. I won’t have smoking or vaping in my house, but guests can go out to the balcony. The onus is on the smoker to be courteous – don’t throw the stub off the balcony or on the ground. Put it in the bin.
Shona says: Smoking is pretty uncommon these days. I have an ashtray in my flat and if people want to smoke outside I’d give it to them, then they’d know not to drop the butt on the ground. You don’t want people not to come because they won’t be able to have a cigarette.
Should you talk about topics such as Brexit or independence round the table?
William says: I’d avoid such divisive issues as small talk, but it’s inevitable that politics will form part of the conversation round the table. If it gets too heated, change the topic. If someone has strong views on something, you’re unlikely to change their mind in the space of a dinner so don’t waste your energy arguing. Take cues from your host – if they change the topic, follow their lead.
Shona says: It’s fine to talk about these things over dinner. In fact, I’d say we have an obligation to talk about them. It depends how you discuss things, of course. It can be a matter of perception; one person’s argument is another’s robust debate. You can share and hopefully challenge views. If I went to a dinner party full of interesting people and we didn’t talk about anything substantive, I’d go home feeling dissatisfied. Sometimes social events with women in their 20s and 30s can be dominated by dating talk. That can be entertaining and funny, of course. But it’s depressing if a bunch of intelligent women get together and all they can talk about is bad dates or wedding plans.
Driving and Uber etiquette
What are the rules for motorists?
William says: Good manners will always be ageless, timeless, classless and priceless. It’s about consideration for others. Do as you would be done by. If someone lets you in, let someone else in later on. Good manners actually failed me my first driving test because I took my hands off the wheel to thank a lorry driver who let me out and the examiner decided I was not in control of the wheel – this was both harsh and rude on his part.
It’s also important to think about who your passengers are. If you’re driving granny, go a bit more slowly so she feels comfortable.
Shona says: I think again the best approach is good karma, especially when you aren’t in any particular hurry. There are limits, of course – some cheeky drivers push their luck with trying to skip queues, but it’s generally best to give others the benefit of the doubt. I don’t drive a lot, so will fairly frequently find myself in the wrong lane purely by accident and be dependent on the kindness of strangers to let me switch. I am a big fan of acknowledging others, as an antidote to the stresses and frustrations of driving. What kind of monster fails to give a wee wave when someone lets them pass, or fails to flash a thank you with their lights after being allowed to merge in front? And of course, if you ever see someone without their lights on at night you absolutely have a duty to let them know – that’s about safety rather than mere manners.
How should you rate your Uber driver?
William says: I think you should rate every ride. After all, they rate you as a passenger. I give most drivers four stars rather than five – you’d have to be really spectacular to get top marks. If someone gets it wrong, keeps you waiting or if their car is dirty, give them a lower rating. If the car smells of marijuana, or they make you feel intimidated, contact Uber support. Ratings can be a very useful way of improving service.
Shona says: I’ve never ranked an Uber driver. Does every interaction in modern life really have to be rated? Ratings can be manipulated and I don’t generally trust them anyway. I’d maybe be motivated if they crashed, or took me to entirely the wrong place, or were a terrible driver or very offensive. But in that instance I’d report them to Uber. Generally they shouldn’t have to earn five stars – as long as they do the job they’re paid to do, I’m happy.
Should you call out work colleagues who say racist, sexist and/or offensive things?
William says: I’d say tolerance levels have dropped these days and people are more easily offended, so it can be a minefield. If someone says something racist or sexist and it’s out of character, you don’t need to condone it but you might want to let it go. But if they are constantly racist or sexist then take them to one side and tell them how inappropriate it is, and how upsetting it is. Ask them not to say such things. If it goes on, report it to your line manager and let them sort it out.
Shona says: I think it depends what is said. Is it ambiguous? Ask for clarification and if you’re not sure, give the person the benefit of the doubt and let it go. Or ask them if they can see how something they’ve said would be upsetting or offensive to a specific group. It might make them think. It may be that they didn’t mean any harm, but that doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged. If it’s truly bad you should probably report it to your line manager or HR. Being at work doesn’t give someone a pass to be racist or sexist – quite the opposite.
How mindful do you have to be about cultural appropriation? Is it OK to have your hair braided or wear a kimono or a sari?
William says: We all appropriate things from other cultures. The cummerbund, for example [the waist sash worn at black tie events] came from India and no-one calls that cultural appropriation. If you want to wear something from another culture, as long as you are doing it correctly and not doing it in a way that could be considered offensive, or making fun of it, then ultimately it’s a compliment. But do your homework and do it properly.
Shona says: This can be a tricky area, as we saw a few months ago when a young American woman wore a Chinese dress to her prom. I have a similar dress and have worn it many times. In some ways political correctness has gone too far and I think the word “appropriation” demands a bit more interrogation. Seeing an Englishman or Frenchman wearing a kilt at a wedding is a compliment to Scottish culture, rather than appropriation. For me one of the good things about globalisation is the ability to fuse cultures and enjoy different cuisines, fashions, hair and make-up trends. However, things change and it’s important to keep up with what is acceptable. If I had notion for a hairstyle or outfit from another culture, I might ask others on Twitter whether they think it’s OK. But then I’m obliging others to do all the hard work.
Dinner party rules may be more relaxed these days but the polite guest doesn’t leave it to the last minute to inform their host they’re a lactose-intolerant, gluten-free vegan
Continued from page 9