Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wedding Invitations and Replies

An invitation to a wedding is one of the most personal invitations we receive. In most cases a lot of care has gone into the design and wording. In this day and age there are so many endless variations on family structure that it can be very confusing to know exactly how to address certain situations. Take for example a blended family where one or both of the parents of the bride or groom are divorced or widowed. Or what about a child who perhaps is given up for adoption at birth, is reared by an adoptive mother or father, and the birth parent appears on the scene when the child is about to marry. These are highly sensitive situations which must be handled with the utmost discretion and diplomacy. I receive questions almost daily about these difficult and awkward scenarios and prefer to deal with them privately – which I am more than prepared to do for the readers of this column.

Today let’s focus on a ‘traditional’ family where the bride’s parents will host the wedding, the groom’s parents will host the rehearsal dinner, and the Maid of Honor or bridesmaids will host the bridal shower. The groomsmen are off the hook thus far except for the bachelors’ party but in my personal experience, more often than not, proper etiquette and decorum is circumvented at such occasions (including bachelorette parties) so we’ll leave them alone for now.

The formality of the wedding usually dictates what sort of wedding invitation one sends. For large formal weddings of over 100 people, an engraved or specially designed and printed invitation is very suitable. The invitation states the basic information: who the brides parents are, who the bride and groom are, date, time, location and an RSVP contact. There is no mention of gifts on any invitation – ever. Often times, there is a reply card and envelope inserted into the invitation. These can be used for RSVPs. In this case, you generally reply with your name and name of your guest, if one is invited. If no guest is invited do not indicate you will be bringing one. Uninvited guests are never welcome. In the case of a reception following the wedding ceremony, the location is indicated on the card. If there is a dinner, a check off box for choice of entrée may well be included. Here is a good place to indicate any food allergies – not preferences, but real allergies.

Such insert cards come in very handy when not all of the guests from the ceremony will be invited to the reception. The reverse is true as well. Some wedding ceremonies are quite small including only immediate family members, and then a large reception with friends follows. In this instance, the main invitation goes to all the guests of the larger event and the insert card would be for those guests being included at the smaller one. Be sure to respond to any invitations you receive as quickly as possible – preferably within 48 hours. If you are not sure if you’ll attend, you have two choices. One would be to phone the host and explain the situation. Let them know that you will have a firm reply no later than seven days prior to the date of the event. If you are still unsure then, you must regret the invitation. The other choice is to regret the invitation immediately.

Rehearsal dinners are generally hosted by the groom’s parents. These events are a wonderful opportunity to entertain out of town guests and also serves a great time for the families of the bride and groom to get acquainted. For more formal events, the invitation to this is sent out by the host and hostess. Often a reply card is included to select the main course as well as an RSVP. Be prompt in replying to this invitation. The host is customarily charged for the number of dinners ordered and the final head count is often requested by the restaurant or club seven days in advance to insure the proper amount of food is ordered. For informal parties, a telephone call or simple hand written invitation is appropriate.

Bridal showers are generally given by either the Maid of Honor or the bridesmaids. Traditionally this is a party for ladies only. Gifts are of course expected but never mentioned on the invitation. These invitations tend to be less formal and are almost always hand written or delivered by telephone. This is one gathering, either before or during, where gift registries are mentioned.

Today, email seems to be taking over many forms of communication. I receive as many invitations by email as by snail mail. I don’t think wedding invitations should be delivered in this manner, no matter how informal the event. Treat wedding with the respect they deserve.

Many questions abound around the topic of gifts. Brides are sometimes registered at various specialty stores. They have selected specific patterns for their silver and china, both 'everyday' and 'special'. Brides also need certain things. It’s all true. But in no circumstance is it ever okay to include a hint of a gift on or in an invitation. The solution to spreading the word is word of mouth. It takes very little time for word of mouth to spread. Most people invited to a wedding are close friends of either the bride or groom or both and know how to find out what they might like. Call the Best Man or Maid of Honor. Call the mother of the bride or other close family member. Even ask the bride or groom. Just don’t include such information on the invitation. Being invited to anything should not come with a price of admission (unless of course it’s a fund raising event for a non-profit organization). Good manners dictate that a gift is generally in order however, and finding a personal appropriate gift shows not only the deep respect you have for the couple but reflects well on the respect you have for yourself.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Etiquette Guy Live on Rogers Radio

Exciting news that I will be a guest on the Tom Young Afternoon News Show on Rogers Radio 88.9FM next Tuesday, August 3rd from 1pm to 2pm. For those of you outside the region or without a radio handy you can listen live on the Rogers website at:

I'll be answering listener questions so don't hesitate to give the show a call at 1 (866) 411-0889. Please take a moment out of your afternoon to tune in. I'm very much looking forward to it!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Making a Concerted Effort

For me few things in life rival the excitement of live entertainment. Somehow, it has the ability to uplift us and to transport us into another realm of consciousness. I was very pleased this past weekend to attend a piano recital here in St. Andrews at the United Church which I will never forget. One of the most enjoyable aspects of any musical performance for me is actually watching the musicians playing their instruments, and the piano is my favorite. To be sitting a few feet away from Ludmila Knezkova-Hussey, a Rothesay resident and world class pianist who is playing arguably one of the most challenging pieces ever written for piano was a real highlight for me - a magical moment. Anyone who has ever had the rare opportunity to see a live performance of Spanish Rhapsody composed by Franz Liszt knows what I mean. As if that were not enough, Ludmila had also composed, in a few hours no less, a beautiful piano composition in honor of the patron who so generously donated the baby grand piano to the St. Andrews Arts Council. Hence, we were all treated to a world premier.

This backdrop brings me to the discussion for this column, namely concert going etiquette. Different concerts have different codes of dress and conduct appropriate to each. In this particular case, given the fact that the performance was in a church, people dressed smartly. It is usually hot inside churches during the summer, and this was not exception. As a result, light airy clothes were preferred. I noticed people tended to sit in the back of the church until the pews
became filled. They apparently wanted to be able to make a quiet escape if the heat became too overwhelming. However, the concert concluded in an hour and no one suffered from the heat. Even if they had been uncomfortable, the music would have distracted them sufficiently to ease any discomfort. People arrived ahead of the 7:30 start time and everyone was seated when Ludmila appeared. During the concert cell phone are turned off, or at the very most to vibrate. There were thankfully no small fidgety children or crying babies to interrupt the music. It is always best to leave them at home. Before each piece, Ludmila, who is also a music history professor, gave a brief introduction of the composition and the composer of the piece about to be played. This I find extremely interesting as well as educational. Although this audience was filled with a number of people 'in the know', I was not amongst them and benefited from this tidbit of education. Who knew Chopin's heart was buried in Poland?

Applause was held until the conclusion of each piece. The artist made it subtly clear when that moment was and the audience responded appreciatively. It can be very disconcerting (no pun intended) to either hear applause prior to the end of a movement of piece. It is equally awkward if one is not familiar with a piece, to now when to applaud. My advice in that case is to simply wait until others begin. Novices need not be the first to clap or to rise to their feet. Following the lead of others makes this part of any performance more enjoyable to everyone. Standing ovations are also part of most concerts. After all, the main interaction during such an event is between the artist and his or her audience. Showing one's appreciation of the the performance is something few artists tire of. Most relish in that brief moment in time. It also gives the audience a thrill to show their gratitude and respect. Occasionally people are unsure of whether a standing 'O' is appropriate or not. Again, my advice is to follow the lead of others. If people begin to stand up, it should signal others to follow suit. This is, after all, not a political arena, and statements of approval are generally meted out more generously.

Conversation during the playing of the music should be curtailed or at the very least kept to a low whisper. If one is hard of hearing, expecting someone to 'speak up' during the performance is ill advised. Carrying on the tradition of playing classical music, interspersed with contemporary music written in the classical tradition is a wonderful testament to the history of our culture as humankind. Be it western culture or that of a foreign land, there is a thread that binds us to our history as people. In a way, we are honoring and respecting our past, but in so doing being mindful of appropriate social behavior in the moment. Magical moments occur when you least expect them. Treasure them!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Please, Be Seated

Enjoying the camaraderie of one’s friends and family around a dinner table is often considered one of life’s greatest pleasures. Here in St. Andrews we enjoy doing this regularly both at home and at favorite restaurants. And as though I were hearing an echo
from a past gathering, the question invariably arises, “Where shall we sit”. At a private house, this is a question that the host and hostess should figure out ahead of time. After all, they’ve invited the guests and know best how they will interact. This would also be the case if there is a dinner party at a restaurant with a host and hostess. If a group is gathering at a restaurant without a host, and will be paying their own bills, the many of the same seating principles apply but are sorted out just before everyone is about to be seated.

Here are several basic guidelines which will hopefully make the party a great success. Seat people in alternating sexes around the table (man-woman) when possible. The host and hostess or co-host are seated opposite one another with the exception of rectangular tables with multiples of four people. In this case, assuming an equal number of men and women, the hostess would move one seat to the right. If there is an unequal number of the each sex, seating two of the same sex together is unavoidable and no big deal. Do not seat husbands and wives together unless one of them is painfully shy. They see each other all the time and having conversations with other guests is part of having a fun party. Unmarried couples who have just started dating are normally seated next to each other. If there is a guest of honor, a male guest would be seated to the right of the hostess; a female would be seated to the right of the host. At a formal business or state dinner there is a whole order of precedence which comes into play which I will exclude from this discussion.

Be thoughtful about your seating arrangement. Don’t put people next to one another who dislike one another, have little or nothing in common, and are overly shy or overly talkative. Seat people next to those whom they would most enjoy. This will help to ensure a stimulating conversation.

If there is more than one table, be sure there is ‘host’ for each table. Husbands and wives may be seated at different tables, and at formal dinners often times are. I remember one evening several years ago, a group of about 40 people came in for dinner after a long conference at the Algonquin. They had preordered their meals and had given me a seating chart. When they arrived they were ready to have a lively party to say the least. After the first course, the host decided that it was time to change places, with half the people moving from one dining room to the other and vice versa. Sounds like a fun idea, right? Well it is a great concept but not for a seated dinner. The wait staff was really thrown for a loop. But as we always said, “the show must go on.” After the main course, this happened again, much to the horror of the waiters. The guests had a rollicking good time. But my advice to you as guests is to be sure to think about the impact your actions have here. This total disregard for the waiters showed real disrespect. Save these fun and games for a buffet banquet.

If you are hosting a business or social lunch or dinner at a restaurant the following guidelines will be helpful. First of all, be sure to arrive fifteen minutes ahead of the scheduled time. Some people always arrive early. Go directly to the table, sit down and wait for your guest(s). Do not order a drink and do not touch your napkin. Your guest should arrive to a pristine table. As your guests arrive, stand to greet them. Give them the best seat, that being one facing into the room, not facing the kitchen’s swinging door or viewing the restrooms. Know ahead of time exactly where each guest will sit and as they arrive simply let them know. For tables of more than six, I recommend place cards, especially for a social function.

When sitting down, approach your chair from the right. The man on the left would pull out the chair for the lady on his right. Once seated, guests should take their cues from their host or hostess. For example, put your napkin in your lap only after your host has done so. Try to pace your eating so that you finish your meal when the host does. Once he’s finished, the meal is over.

In a business meeting, the host will decide when the business discussions will begin, which is usually after about ten minutes of small talk. Be sure to turn off your cell phone. Not doing so is annoying to other guests and shows bad manners and a desire to draw attention to one’s self. Be sure to quietly excuse yourself from the table and go to the rest room if you have a coughing or sneezing fit, need to apply make-up or have something lodged in your teeth. Place your napkin on your chair seat, exit the chair from the right and slide the chair under the table. I know a number of people questioned placing the napkin on the chair from a previous column. There are two reasons for this. One, other guests don’t want to look at your dirty napkin on the table. Two, putting your napkin on the table indicates to a properly trained waiter that you are finished eating. You may come back to no plate.

Implementing these guidelines at your next luncheon or dinner party, whether as host or guest, will help to make things run smoothly and will reflect well on you as a person with good manners – something that will only enhance your reputation.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

To ‘B’ or not to ‘B’

A reader recently asked me an interesting question. He wants to know if he invites someone to a dinner party at his house and the guest arrives with a bottle of wine, is he obliged to open the bottle and share it with the other guests or can he simply accept it with thanks and put it in his wine rack. At first glance, this seems like a pretty straight forward “yes” or “no” question. However, my experience in New Brunswick allows for several different answers. According to traditional etiquette rules, that bottle would be considered a gift. A gift given by definition has no strings attached. It is up to the host or hostess to share it now or save it for another occasion. This would be appropriate especially when going to someone’s house where one is not a frequent guest.

There are many groups of friends who gather to enjoy a meal together with some frequency, perhaps even weekly. In those situations, exchanging hostess gifts becomes unwieldy. It would also be presumptuous in most cases to expect the host to provide all of the wine and other beverages for his guests on a regular basis. Guests generally bring whatever they are planning to drink, whether it is spirits, wine or diet Pepsi. Beware of the guest who brings cheap (or even worse, homemade) wine and then drinks the host’s good stuff. If it is a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary or major holiday, guests could bring not only what they want to drink. But also a special gift is appropriate to show thanks to the host for all the hard work which goes into preparing for such a party. Some hosts have already selected a wine(s) to go with the meal in which case they expect you to drink their selection(s). Some people, me included, have very specific and/or simple tastes for wine. In many instances I bring what I want to drink and that is perfectly acceptable.

Often times, guests will bring a pot luck dish. In these cases, I find it always beneficial to know what each guest will be bringing to the pot luck. If not, you run the risk of having too many desserts or too many salads, or none at all. As host, I find it makes the most sense to be responsible for the main entrée. That takes the burden off of any of the guests. At the same time, by having them bring side dishes of vegetables and appetizers or salads and desserts, it relieves the host of slaving away in the kitchen all day long.

There are several gifts which are wonderful to give a host from an appreciative guest. A small box of specially selected chocolates, beautiful bath soaps, a beautiful arrangement of flowers, a special bottle of wine, an unusual kitchen gadget or bar accessories are all excellent choices.

Beware, however, that there are a couple of things that your hostess will not want to see coming through the door. Flowers which will require finding a vase interrupt the whole show, no matter how beautiful, because instead of putting coats away, and hosting, you're stuck trying to house the flowers as the person who brought them will want you to show them off and is "anxious" for the reveal. When people show up with little gifts, they can be placed aside and no one will ever question them. The minute someone brings an unwieldy bunch of flowers, they can become the "white elephant in the room" and will quite often upstage other gifts or people who didn't bring any. This is especially true of long stemmed flowers such as roses or lilies. Finding a suitable vase may be impossible and then cutting the stems under water and attractively arranging those takes up valuable kitchen space and time. Either have them arranged at home or by a florist ahead of time or bring them in a vase.

Don’t bring any dishes of food to be served either before or during the meal unless it has been requested by or discussed with the host ahead of time. I remember at one dinner party, a guest arrived with a beautiful casserole. The problem was that the oven was full. As a result, dinner had to be delayed. This seemingly thoughtful gesture actually threw a bit of a monkey wrench into the works.

I recall another time when a guest was excited about being invited to someone’s new home for a party. She arrived with a bottle of champagne wanting to toast the new house. The host accepted the bottle with thanks and happily put it in the fridge for later use. The guest just didn’t realize it wasn’t going to be used until a later date. The lesson here is to let your host know you are bringing a bottle specifically to toast the new house.

And finally, another reader wrote asking what to do when an invitation asks for “best wishes only”. She tells me that she is the only one who shows up ‘empty-handed’. My comment to her is that she is the only one with proper etiquette. People ask for guests to not bring gifts or even cards for a variety of reasons which may be very personal and none of our business. This is especially true when having a party for an elderly person. It is equally true when a real cross section of guests will be invited, many of whom may not be in a financial position to buy a nice gift. It is out of respect to your host and hostess to follow the wishes on the invitation. After all, that’s what good manners and proper etiquette demonstrate – respect for your host, for yourself and for your fellow guests.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Eating Lobster and Other Finger Food

Lobster is as local as any seafood for New Brunswick that you can get. I have been told of the glory days of Katy’s Cove in St. Andrews where lobster salad was served as a delectable lunch. Private cocktail parties for the local swells would boast lovely chunks of lobster tail in overflowing silver bowls with curried mayonnaise for dipping. Elegantly laid dinner tables with fine linens, silver flatware and crystal champagne flutes would herald a special feast of these feisty bottom-feeding crustaceans.

On the other hand, there were the local hard working people and fishermen. To these folks, lobster was considered “poverty food”. A woman told me that, when she was a child, her lunch box would usually have a lobster sandwich in it. She would try to trade it to someone who had a peanut butter sandwich. Lobster was so plentiful that if you had nothing else to eat, you could go right down to the beach and pick some up. My, how times have changed!

When I was a young boy, I was lucky enough to have had lobster from time to time, especially in the summer months. As a family, my mother, father, sister and I would sit around a low Chinese rectangular table on generous cushions. We would each have a lobster, shell crackers, picks, seafood forks and a large wooden “graveyard” bowl for discarding the used shells. At an early age I learned how to pick a lobster, sucking the meat out of the small legs, getting the delectable knuckle meat out of the spiny claws, and of course saving the tail until the end – the real treat! Served with melted lemon butter, the whole affair was quite messy requiring extra paper napkins, but it was one of the most fun dinners I remember as a young boy. It was right up there with beef fondue, which was also a great treat. However, we got to eat the lobster for the most part with our hands, which made it all the more delicious, so I thought.

Then one evening, I saw the dining room table beautifully set for ten people complete with silver candelabra, champagne flutes, etc. I asked my mother what they were having for dinner and she told me ‘lobster’. Wow, I thought, how is this going to work? Well, as luck would have it, one of the dinner guests was a very distinguished highly decorated Air Force General. He had survived a fiery crash and was left with very limited use of his hands. He asked me if I would come to the table with him to pick his lobster for him. I was so honored and thrilled, at the age of 12, to oblige. I even got a $5 tip from him, which in those days would buy me several toy cars. Anyway, during the process of picking his lobster for him, I watched the rest of the guests attack their lobsters, gobbling down the delectable morsels using seafood forks and a dinner fork and knife when it came to the prize tail. There were finger bowls brought out with dessert, which were really needed before dessert (and used, I might add). In the end, the graveyards were filled and whisked off to the kitchen.

In stark contrast, when I arrived in St. Andrews, one of the first dinners I had was a real lobster feast. There were a number of people I had never met before and as I watched them eat their lobsters, I could not believe when one of them reached into the graveyard and pulled the body of the lobster I had recently discarded as finished. Well, this body was opened up and an amazing amount of tender morsels were picked out. And don’t forget the red roe and green ‘tamale’. By the time they were finished, all of the bodies had been picked clean, save the lungs of the creature. I was amazed, and still am to this day, at how people up here really go to town on lobster – and it is eaten with their hands, which as I said before, makes it all the more delicious. And copious amount of paper towels – no finger bowls.

Which brings me to today’s etiquette question. What foods can you eat with your hands in a more formal dining situation? As a general rule, if you are out and there is no cutlery put out, such as a picnic of fried chicken or crabs, burgers, fries and hot dogs, then everything is fair game to be eaten with your hands. In some countries, forks and knives are never used. However, in most cases you will have cutlery. So what’s ok to eat with your fingers? Asparagus is one for sure. Although the most fastidious people will use a fork and knife, I love using my fingers.

I had a friend who used to grow 1000 acres of asparagus for Jolly Green Giant. During the short harvesting season, we would go down to his farm and at dinner we would be served an enormous platter of asparagus a foot high right in the middle of the dining room table. Additionally there were bowls of delicious lemony hollandaise sauce and we all delighted in dipping the freshly steamed spears into the sauce and then dropping them into our mouths. Other foods, in short, which are perfectly ok to eat with your fingers are Artichokes (impossible to eat otherwise), crisp bacon, shrimp cocktail, French fries (if served with a steak, use a fork), olives, pastries (breakfast), and raw veggies with dip. Otherwise, use cutlery as provided and you will not be in fear of making a faux pas.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You're Welcome

You Are Welcome!

There are a number of basic phrases which are part of any good arsenal of etiquette words. I have discussed the virtues of please and thank you in previous columns. Here I would like to share my thoughts on the phrase 'you're welcome'. This phrase usually follows 'thank you'. But more times than not, we forget to complete this communication.

What exactly do we mean when we say you're welcome? For one thing, we indicate that we have heard and accepted the thanks conveyed. For another, it shows that we are happy that whatever effort we have made or whatever gift we may have given was appreciated. It actually gives us a feeling of satisfaction.

I have noticed however that some people have a tough time with this phrase though. That is probably because some of those same people have a tough time receiving thanks to begin with. Giving and receiving thanks are two very different acts and they are so very important to learn to do gracefully.

Take for example a graduation ceremony when the diplomas are handed to the graduates. The principal or dean will hand the diploma to the graduate and say, "Congratulations". The new graduate will respond with "Thank you". The Dean would then appropriately say, "You're welcome". That remark gives a sense of deserving, an acknowledgement of accomplishment, and an exclamation mark to accompany the congratulations. The transaction of the giving and receiving of the diploma is this completed.

In another instance, someone holds a door open for another person to leave or enter a car, a room or a building. 'Thank you' is quickly and logically followed by 'you're welcome'. Now that seemingly simple phrase means something akin to 'it is my pleasure', 'no thanks necessary', or 'be my guest, please'.

In yet a third example, when an applicant for a job position is hired, a similar series of 'congratulations', 'thank you' and 'you're welcome' ensues. In this scenario, it implies 'welcome to the company', 'this process is finally concluded' and even 'thank you' in return. This use illustrates what a win-win result looks like in business.

In these three examples the phrase takes on slightly different meanings, and it does complete a transaction, a long term scholarly pursuit, or a difficult protracted interview process. In each example, without using a clear and sincere 'you're welcome', something would be missing.

Using these two words regularly is a skill we need to begin developing at an early age. We often hear parents teaching children to say 'please' and 'thank you', but often times 'you're welcome' is left out. Learning to incorporate this expression of understanding into one's communication style is important because it demonstrates that we 'get it'.

The fact that this phrase takes on several different meanings depending on the situation leads me to the conclusion that its use is in some ways similar to the often insincere answer 'I'm fine', when asked "How are you?". Knee jerk and automatic responses are quite commonplace today, yet when delivered with sincerity can take on a real significance.

It is routine for children to actually be taught that the various meanings of this phrase can be used almost interchangeably. This is certainly better than not teaching anything at all or reinforcing that no answer is acceptable. I would caution however that as we mature and conversations and situations become more complex, learning the distinctions between the various alternatives is important and each should be delivered with purpose. After all, this is one way that we can show respect for one another. It solidifies relationships and ties up any loose ends of an exchange.

Like all key phrases, you're welcome will become routine when practiced with regularity. It makes one feel that the 'thank you' they have just delivered is appreciated. The exchange of these polite and genuine phrases also means that there is an acknowledgement and recognition of one human being to another. A healthy society thrives on these niceties. And this is one that does make a difference.