Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reader Question: Invitation Debacles

Whose responsibility is good manners?

I am often asked questions which revolve around guilt and blame. Good manners and civility, even though based on common sense, tend to bear their fair share of this topic. I received this letter recently which is a textbook example illustrating the lengths people will go to in order to blame others and avoid feeling guilt as a result of their own basic lack of respect for others, in this case their own family.

Question: Dear Jay,

I was hoping you would lend your impartial ear to this debate between my brother and I. This Saturday was my son's 5th birthday and, earlier in the week, my wife and I decided we would invite the grandparents and uncles (my two brothers) over to celebrate. My son had his own party with his friends in the morning, but we were hoping family could stop in Saturday evening just to socialize a bit. I called my brother on Thursday evening and left a cell phone message asking him to call me, and then I left a Facebook message with his girlfriend also saying we wanted to get together over the weekend. He called me back and left a message, but due to some cell phone problems, I never received his message. On Saturday, he called me to tell me he had plans Saturday and would not be able to come over. He also informed me that it was rude to ask him to Saturday's birthday get together on Thursday evening. He had plans with his girlfriend and felt that this was not enough advance notice. It should be mentioned that my brother lives in town and does not work on the weekends. I thought a Thursday notification was not unreasonable, given that he knew his nephew's birthday was coming up and that we have had the family over for every birthday in the past. Again, this was a get together of just the immediate family and I left my initial message vague because I was willing to negotiate the time of the "party". He attempted to reach me a few times by my faulty cell phone, but never spoke with me directly about the matter until Saturday. He could have e-mailed me at any point and he could have called my house phone. I would greatly appreciate your opinion on how this situation unfolded and whether or not I should feel guilty for not informing of him of the get together before Thursday.

THANKS! - Confused

P.S. I would like to add that my wife and I did not even formulate the plan ourselves until Tuesday or Wednesday. We are both full time teachers with two young things sometimes get rather busy and thwart advanced planning.

Dear Confused,

Thanks for asking this important question. You are a master of making excuses. Unfortunately none of them are any good. You and your wife are not the first people on the planet to hold down two full time jobs and have two young children. If this is your son's fifth birthday and you and your wife can't arrange a party until three days prior to the date, why would you assume your brother would have his schedule open for you, - simply because you've had such a party in the past? If your cell phone doesn't work, you need to tell people and get it fixed. No one is a mind reader. Clearly your system of communicating using facebook, emails and cell phones doesn't work. I suggest picking up the telephone. Even consider enlisting the help of your collective parents to track down the errant sibling. But don't blame your brother for your negligence. Let's face it, the birthday party for a five year old child, which is in fact not even the real birthday party with the cake, etc. will not trump previously made plans with a girl friend. Such a gathering barely made it onto your own books. Finally, in life woulda, coulda, shoulda does not count. Hindsight works all the time and is an unfair argument. What you must practice is foresight, and try not to create so much ado about nothing.

You must remember that as the host of a party, it is your sole responsibility to make sure everything runs smoothly. That includes extending invitations in a timely manner. As far as feeling guilty about all of this, my advice to you is to let it go. Guilt is a huge negative energy drain on all of us who find the need to carry it. You did nothing illegal. You did not harm anyone. Your intentions were good. Learn from this experience and don't do it again. I hope this helps.


Let this be a gentle reminder that good manners begin at home. By practicing them consistently, you will instill in your children healthy social behavior. Respecting one another will always stand us in good stead for the challenges life provides us.

Monday, October 25, 2010

CHCT Etiquette Guy Episode 3

Another episode from the my local show on CHCT:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Etiquette Guy on CHCT TV

Those of you from outside my home region of St. Andrews, New Brunswick might not realize I have my own TV show on the local station CHCT that discusses different etiquette subject each week. Check it out:

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Etiquette of Thoughtfulness

Recently I had the honor of teaching a short dining etiquette class to a group of 50 senior high school students from across the province. They are participating in a leadership program designed to give them helpful tools in either continuing their educations or entering the competitive world of employment. This potentially daunting exercise turned out to be one the most exciting of my career. Dining skills in and of themselves are important to learn. They build self confidence, help you to make a good impression during a meeting or job interview, and they make the entire dining experience more pleasurable and successful.

I decided to focus on one of the most important of all dining skills during this workshop, namely conversation. How we speak to one another and what topic we choose to speak about play a significant role in determining the overall mood of the meal and even influence how well be digest the food and utilize its nutrients. One of the arts of conversation which are slipping away is that of speaking to the person seated on one side of you during the first course, and to the person on seated on your other side during the second course. I find this guideline quite restrictive if followed to the letter; however it is a very useful way to break the silence around the table and to avoid general mayhem. This can be extremely helpful with a group of people who are meeting
for the first time.

I helped the students along with this exercise by choosing a variety of inspirational words to use as topics. Each of the words was numbered from one to nine, copied onto bits of paper, folded and put into a paper bag. Everyone picked a word randomly from the bag and proceeded to the table with the number corresponding to the word, not knowing with whom they would be sitting. Each table was asked to discuss their word, albeit briefly, to help to set the mood for the meal and to help to make learning the rest of the steps of dining etiquette more enjoyable. The words included compassion, respect, self respect, harmony, and so forth. Although this exercise caught both the students and their teachers a bit by surprise, for the most part everyone participated in
and enjoyed it.

I asked each table to then have a short round table discussion during the third (dessert) course about the particular topic and to choose a leader to deliver a one minute summary of the discussion surrounding it. Clearly there had been some real thought given to the discussions and the words seemed to really come to life. Each speaker communicated what the significance of the words meant to them as a group. It is heartwarming to watch people speak about these topics cheerfully, clearly and from the heart. This was of course the point of the exercise. The best conversations to have around the dinner table are those which are uplifting and which reinforce the principles of a healthy and civil society.

The more mundane skills such as how to butter and eat a dinner roll, which water glass is yours, and how to properly hold and use a knife and fork all became easier to understand and execute. Everyone was at ease despite the fact that they were sitting with people whom they had never met and were being taught skills which they wished they should already have known.

Several days later I was discussing this process with some of my friends and one of them suggested that these kinds of discussions should take place on a regular basis, not only in schools but at home as well. Naturally I concurred. Discussing principles which guide us through our busy lives in a healthy productive way are good topics of conversation around any dinner table. Being well grounded in such topics as respect, civility and compassion is what makes a strong foundation for tomorrow's leaders. I applaud the schools for recognizing and promoting this and thank them for the honor of assisting them in their efforts.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reader Questions: Funerals and Etiquette

I have recently received a number of unrelated questions concerning the subject of funerals. Funerals and memorial services are somber occasions for many, but the celebration of life is what is important to me. Here is a sample of some of the queries.

Hello Jay,

I am a regular reader of your column. Would you please address sometime, funeral parlor visitation etiquette? It has been my experience that "visitors" often spend too much time reminiscing with the bereaved, especially when there is a lengthy line of people waiting to pay their respects. I feel that it would be more appropriate after expressing condolences to say "lets get together in a few weeks and catch up" instead of talking and talking as others wait their turn. It may be a sensitive issue and I don't suppose the parlor staff would be comfortable in "moving things along". What are your thoughts? Keep the columns coming!


Dear J.H.,

I recently spent a couple of hours at a local funeral parlor speaking with the funeral director and his staff. We discussed, among other things, receiving lines and how long it can take to navigate them. There are a couple of considerations. First of all, a long receiving line can take a long time to go through. This is not comfortable for anyone involved, be it the bereaved or their guests. If there are several family members present at the funeral home, consider not having a line. Family members can be given the task of circulating amongst the guests and accept their condolences on behalf of the family. This avoids unnecessarily long conversations with only one person in a line where it is important to move along as quickly as possible.

As far as receiving lines are concerned you will have to practice patience. The family in mourning is certainly not in a hurry to go anywhere nor is the deceased. Out of respect, it is your turn to wait. If you are not prepared for a lengthy line return at a different time; it is utterly disrespectful to think that things ought to at these moments accommodate your needs.

At a Catholic wake, it is traditional to have a receiving line and/or have elderly relatives seated near the family greeting people paying their respects. Wakes take place over a number of hours. Sometimes the family divides the time between several days or two 3 hour periods for receiving persons. This makes a lot of sense to me. But the number of persons who attend a wake is very variable and there is very little way to predict numbers and length of lines. Be prepared to be respectful and spend the time needed if it is your intention to pay your respects to the family who has suffered the loss.

If you feel that it is applicable, keep your condolence remarks brief and move along through the receiving line.


Dear Jay,

Close friends of ours recently lost their young son very unexpectedly. While attending the services I noticed people handing over envelopes to the family. My parents told me that people donate money to the family to help with funeral costs. Should I do the same and how much is appropriate?

Thank you.


Dear Phyllis,

Thanks for asking this good question. What a very sad situation. There are many ways people can help at such times. Helping with the costs of a funeral is completely appropriate. Other envelopes might simply be condolence cards or in the case of a Catholic death, Mass cards. If the family has asked for donations to a charity in lieu of flowers, that is another option and appreciated by the bereaved. Naturally, what you can afford to give is contingent on your own personal financial situation. There is no specific amount which is correct. You could also donate to the charity if you are so inclined and able. Whatever you are able to do will not go unnoticed or taken for granted. I hope this helps.


Dear Jay,
Is it customary, necessary or expected that a widow write thank you cards in response to sympathy cards. I have received over 50 and to reply would be a very daunting task.


Dear Pat,

Thanks for asking this good question. A notice in the local newspaper is sometimes published for the family. In most instances it is polite to at some point acknowledge the cards and letters which have been received. This is a daunting task and might takes months. Printed thank you cards are usually supplied by the funeral home and are the way for the family to acknowledge the kindness of people at a horrendously difficult time. Further if a charity is named in lieu of flowers, the charity will supply you with a list of those who made donations (not the amount of the donation). It is appropriate to acknowledge these people with a hand written note. I hope this helps.


Remember that if you go to a funeral or a memorial service that respect is the order of the day. Dress appropriately. You do not have to wear black. Men ought to remove their hats and caps upon entering the house of worship. Children should be dressed appropriately and should be well exercised, fed and been to the bathroom before the service so as to create the least disturbance. This is another opportunity for one’s parenting skills to be employed. Teaching young people about respect at such occasions is important. It also is a time for us to reflect on the many blessings we have in our own lives and how fragile life is.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Ready or not, it's that time of year again when we pop that oversized turkey into the oven and hope for the best and that it's moist and delicious! Perhaps it's time to shine the silver and polish the wine glasses reserved for special occasions. It is most certainly a time for families to get together and give thanks for the bounty provided by the good earth and for the many blessings of our lives. Although gratitude is an expression of thanks which we hopefully develop as a habit, even in our busy lives, Thanksgiving Day has rituals and customs which are special. For one thing, it is a time when families and close friends gather to share in a feast. In many cases, guests are asked to help out by either providing a part of the meal, such as a vegetable dish, a dessert, an hors d'oeuvres or even by performing a task such as carving the turkey.

I am often asked to carve the bird or roast wherever I go for reasons, which still elude me. I imagine if a host is not acquainted with carving it will be left to someone like me or another guest. And there are those times when speed and precision do come in handy if the host is not adept at carving. Perhaps the art of carving which is an intricate part of the Thanksgiving holiday and a tradition ought to be part of an etiquette lesson. As with any skill, if it is taught properly and practiced it will make a perfect addition to any holiday. Whoever is carving, be sure that there is a sharp knife available and all the other tools necessary to make carving and serving the all-important bird on Thanksgiving. There are many ways of carving just as there are many recipes for cooking the perfect turkey. All methods work when executed properly.

This celebration comes at the end of the fall harvest. This year's bounty was especially plentiful and therefore there is a lot for which to be thankful. Expressing our thanks is an important tradition to pass on to our children and grandchildren. Instilling the virtues of feeling thanks and giving thanks are customs which permeate human societies everywhere. It is what makes societies healthy and able to thrive.

In the seemingly busy lives which we lead, sometimes we not only forget to give thanks but we also are guilty of not feeling gratitude in the first place. Such occasions as Thanksgiving afford us the opportunity to take the time to both feel and express our gratitude for the lives with which we are blessed. Perhaps focusing on only that for which are grateful gives us a chance to see some of our hardships and challenges as opportunities. Even family squabbles can be put into perspective and viewed in a different light if we were to stop and count our blessings of even having a family with whom to celebrate in the first place.

As I have discussed in previous columns, I am not a fan of putting people on the spot at the dinner table. However, there is no better place for people to be given the opportunity to express what they are feeling thankful for than at the table. If offered as a voluntary chance to speak, those who are in the mood and feel so moved can show others how easy it is, and by their example encourage more shy people to at least consider giving it a try. Who knows, with any luck, one day everyone sitting around the table will feel not only grateful but moved to express their feelings.

Of all meals, the Thanksgiving dinner is one where almost all of us stop to give thanks to the source of all of our bounty, no matter what that source may be. We give thanks for the food, our shelter, our health, the many opportunities set before us and our friendships and love for our families, friends, neighbors and others who make our lives complete.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I hope the gratitude we feel at this time of year is expressed freely and continues throughout this and every year!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Say Thank-You, Often

A couple years have come and gone since my first column on etiquette was published. I am very grateful for all the positive feedback I’ve received as well as ideas for additional columns. So I am taking this opportunity to say thank-you and to discuss the whole etiquette behind saying thank-you. The very first thank-you notes I wrote were for Christmas presents. My mother, sister and I would sit down the day after Christmas with our boxes of note cards and lists of gifts and who had given them to us. Everyone who had given us a gift received a hand written thank-you note. This at first seemed like a daunting task for an eight year old, but as the years rolled by it became a routine which we looked forward to. Learning to compose a note that had some personality was the challenge. Penmanship was also important. Cards with mistakes had to be discarded and begun anew. In this day and age where actual hand writing has unfortunately taken a backseat to the computer, penmanship is atrocious. Teachers take note! Even students in high school can barely write their names in a legible way. Nonetheless, I have received numerous heartfelt notes from students which meant a great deal to me. And because they were so personal, I know the gratitude that the students felt was sincere.

There are many times when writing a note of thanks is important. There also is a certain feeling of warmth that one gets from writing them. You should send a thank-you note when you are given a gift, sent flowers, asked to lunch or dinner, invited for a weekend, asked to a concert or performance of some kind or when someone does something nice or helpful in a business or social situation such as an introduction or letter of reference. I write far too few thank-you notes. However, I do make a point of phoning whenever I am invited to dinner. People appreciate knowing that the effort that went into cooking dinner and the camaraderie of the time spent together with friends was genuinely enjoyed.

There is an excellent book which was recently published by a colleague of mine entitled 101 Ways to Say Thank You. In it Kelly Browne gives excellent examples of what to actually say in such notes. It has great tips on buying stationary, superlative words to use in a note and many helpful suggestions.

Imagine the delight in receiving a thank-you note. I find that it strengthens friendships and relationships, especially in business situations which are just budding. Whenever someone extends themselves to celebrate a happy occasion, lend a helping hand, make an introduction for you or acknowledge a difficult time you may be experiencing, take the time to write a note. It takes only a few minutes. In some cases notes with “Thank-you” can be purchased at a stationary store or in the case of St. Andrews, at some of the local gift shops. Some of the highest quality stationary is sold by Crane & Company in the US. They have an excellent website and have a wide variety of cards and stationary which can be personally engraved if required. You can buy note cards at the Dollar Store as well, so there’s not a lot of expense required to accomplish this mission.

In business situations, thank-you notes can be sent via email. It is a matter of discretion however and a hand written or typed note may serve your purposes better. Whatever you decide, be sure that the note is sincere and includes a reference to the purpose of your meeting. If you are sending a note to an interviewer from whom you want a job, be sure not to send a gift. In most companies as well as in government, there are policies against accepting gifts.

In the case of weddings and the tremendous joy and love and support you receive from friends and family, thank-you notes are essential and absolutely must be hand written. And there is no reason why the bride needs to be the sole writer. The groom should share in that responsibility. Be sure that as you open your presents at showers that someone records the gift and the sender. For wedding presents which arrive in the post, one trick which comes in handy is to cut off the return address from the package and attach it to the gift or gift card. Again be sure you have a list and as each thank-you note is written, check it off the list.

The most important thing to remember is to say thank-you often. There are so many more occasions to verbally express your gratitude to another person than there will be reasons for a hand written note. Use the phone if you want to. Speak directly to the person to whom you are grateful. I know of no one who says thank-you too often. Say it with a smile on your face and make direct eye contact. This will go a long way to show the respect you have for others and for yourself.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tipping with Comfort

Curious readers appear to be occupied with the subject of tipping as I look at the questions which readers have sent in lately. Not to confuse this with the cutting of hemlock boughs to fashion Christmas wreaths, here I am referring to gratuities. How do we graciously go about handing out tips, both in restaurants and other public establishments and also during the upcoming holiday season to individuals in various service industries who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to make our lives just that much more pleasant. Establishments might also include hotels, salons, taxi services and couriers. Individuals might include household staff - gardeners, housekeepers, pet sitters, trash collectors and newspaper carriers.

What comes across in the questions is the confusion over who should be tipped, how much they should be tipped and when and how the tip should be delivered. There is a general lack of surety surrounding this simple yet important act. In general, if you are wondering if you should tip, you most likely should. Remember that almost everyone in the service industry relies in a large part on gratuities to round out their incomes. This is especially true in North America. As an aside, when traveling overseas it is important to find out what the policies are in the countries in which you will be visiting as customs can vary dramatically and faux pas can and should be avoided.

For public establishments, a 15 to 20 percent tip is expected. This standard has risen slightly over the years, but not significantly. And if you frequent a restaurant or hotel and you treat the staff appropriately, they will remember you, and at times when a you want a special table or other favor, having shown respect in the past will pay you dividends. This is not to be confused with kickbacks and bribes although there are obvious similarities. The key difference is that tipping is a form of respect; bribery is a form of control and involves gain of an illicit nature. Discerning the difference is an important skill to have.

The question of tipping shopkeepers continues to surface and the answer continues to be yes. Shopkeepers should not be overlooked as having some special exempt status from receiving tips. They are after all the people who create the stage on which you are being treated to services supplied by someone other than yourself. If they are providing the service, they deserve the tip - it's just that simple!

In certain instances, giving money may seem inappropriate or awkward. For example if you have a favorite store where you buy exotic foods, have clothes tailored, cars repaired and so on, a gift during the holiday season may feel more comfortable to you. Be sure to put some thought into the gift. The days of handing out cases of scotch whiskey and boxes of candy wholesale are over. Many people don't drink scotch whiskey nor does everyone automatically like candy. Be as generous as you can afford and feel comfortable with. Remember that it is indeed the thought that counts more than the actual gift. Be sure to include a hand written note of thanks for the good services provided throughout the year. Such sentiments carry huge meaning.

The great bonus to giving gratuities is not as much in thanking people for services rendered and to hopefully insure good service in the future. The real bonus comes from the feeling tipping gives you. If tipping doesn't feel good to you, give yourself a shake. It is one of the most time honored traditional ways of showing respect in the western world and dates back centuries if not millennia. The connection between gratuity and gratitude are clear. If you don't feel gratitude when someone does something nice for you, life is a lonely place. Especially during these stressful economic times, where tipping is more important than ever to the service provider, so is it all the more important to be grateful and to demonstrate that gratitude.

Tipping is not a substitute for saying thank you either. It is a supplement. Look at it as the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. What tip you leave will either resemble a period, and exclamation point or a question mark. Remember that the next time you leave the dining table, check out of your hotel room (yes, chamber maids still get tips), or head out of the coffee shop with with your morning cup of 'oh be joyful'. I'd rather be an exclamation point than a question mark any day. You will carry the feeling of gratitude with you throughout the entire day. It's well worth it!