Monday, February 28, 2011

A Mixed Bag of Etiquette

There seem to be an endless number of questions which come across my desk asking quite a wide range of etiquette questions every week. This week there were questions inquiring about the wearing of hats, eating with long gloves on, and the use of annoying words.

I have a real thing about wearing hats. I love wearing hats. Although I don’t actually wear baseball caps, I do remember when this modern day fad was born. I was so surprised when this fashion statement swept over golf courses and tennis courts and has remained firmly planted unlike so many other passing fancies like ‘tennis whites’ or ‘knickers’. In the summer time some hats can be quite sporting, others protect you from the sun’s harmful rays and others keep your hair from blinding you as you sail or ride. In the winter, hats are great protectors against the cold and wind. There are rules of etiquette about wearing hats. These are some of the most ignored of all etiquette rules, but at some point in time we are all generally glad we learned them.

For women, traditionally hats were worn indoors only at luncheons or in a church. Today, women do not wear hats indoors at lunch, but do continue to wear them in church. Men remove their hats when entering any building – any building, that is, except a sports stadium. Hats are otherwise relegated to the great outdoors. People, particularly the male of the species who do not remove their hats indoors are ill mannered and are only expressing disrespect for themselves and others. I’ve never really understood the whole ‘hat thing’ as indoor apparel. It’s sloppy and falls in line with ‘grunge wear’, those baggy low slung jeans whose popularity will hopefully be short lived.

The question of wearing long gloves while dining sent me through a mass of etiquette books and telephone calls to friends whose memories might stretch back far enough to recall what one does and doesn’t do. After some very funny exchanges, the final word is that long gloves are not to be worn while eating. They would have been removed in the old days and stashed away with your specs and fan in your handbag. Today they can be stashed or simply laid across your lap beneath your napkin. If the truth be told, it is a rare party indeed where long gloves are worn.

I find the subject of annoying words to be an important one, perhaps even more important than long gloves and hats. Speech coaches are constantly battling the ums, ohs, uhs, throat clearings and the like which can be distracting. These are habits which people who have a life of speaking in public need to overcome. Some do so and some unfortunately carry these with them throughout their whole careers.

Then there is a family of words such as ‘like’, ya know, like um, well and so’ and any number of expletives which make up fully half of some people’s spoken vocabularies. These words are what I call ‘nervous’ words. They just come out; they are used for space fillers while other words, words which actually convey thoughts, are found; or they are used as words of emphasis. They are generally harmless, yet distracting, and are gainfully employed without malice.

And then there is the kind of word which I want to focus on briefly here - the incredibly rude word ‘whatever’. This word is used as a total dismissal of anything and everything the other party is saying. It is in fact a cop out. It is a way of saying, “I can’t be bothered responding intelligently, so I’ll just end this conversation now.” It translates, among other things into ‘fine’, ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘who cares anyway’, ‘don’t waste my time’ and any number of other intentionally hurtful remarks. This is where the rub comes for me – intent. It is the expressed intention of the speaker to belittle the other person, be it your friend, your mother or sadly even yourself. It is the kind of word which evokes anger in other people and justifiably so. No one likes to be, as they say today, dissed, an apt shortened verb meaning dismissed. How one receives such a word can often have far more power than the actual intention with which it was spoken. For this reason, it is a word and a form of communication which can be easily changed. Parents, teachers, colleagues, siblings and friends need to call people on this one. Not doing so perpetuates
what will never be a complimentary remark. Can you imagine saying that to your boss? You’d be looking for another job in no time flat. My friends, it’s not okay to say it to anyone! Showing respect for others will not let you down. By avoiding hurtful words and expressions, you reinforce the respect I hope you have for yourselves and others.

Friday, February 25, 2011

People with Disabilities

I recently made the acquaintance of a writer who asked if I had ever discussed the dynamics of interacting with persons with disability. This person has a debilitating disease which requires a wheelchair or crutches to get around. Being an advocate for people with disabilities, she had some interesting observations which I'd like to share.

The most important thing to remember about people with any disability is that they are far more aware of their situation and how to adjust to it than we realize. Guessing if a person needs our help or even how to help is probably not a good idea. If they need our help, they will ask for it in most cases. Interfering with their navigational skills may actually impede their abilities further rather than be of help. Therefore, don't make assumptions based on your perspective as a person about another person's particular challenge.

One observation is that just because someone is in a wheelchair does not mean they are hard of hearing or unable to understand a normal conversation. This woman observed that people tend to both raise their voices and speak more slowly and deliberately to people with obvious mobility issues. This is insulting and embarrassing and results in an awkward situation. She shares, "Depending on my mood, I may respond in kind. On occasion my companion may seek out the nearest hole to crawl into. Invariably they come away from the situation with a heightened awareness of just what it's like to be me on a day to day basis."

Another behavior which this woman observed at several restaurants is the decision by wait staff to inquire of the companion of the person with a disability what the disabled individual would like to eat, drink,etc. He or she is perfectly capable of speaking for themselves as well as making any other decisions as they arise. This illustrates how unsure we are of how to relate to people who appear needy.

She went to on to tell me a story. She and a friend had managed to get two seats in a crowded bar. There were only two vacant seats next to them available when two men approached and asked if they could join them. They were delighted for the company and welcomed them. Little did the gentlemen know that the two had decided to conduct a social experiment and for the evening decided to swap roles. A pair of crutches was leaning against the wall. When the men asked who the crutches belonged to, the women explained that Jane, who was seated closest to the walking aids lived with a particular neurological disease which presents some balance issues. The men almost immediately shifted their attention to Sarah who appeared not to have a disability, virtually ignoring Jane. To me this illustrates how little we are taught about people with different abilities than our own. Jane and Sarah did eventually explain their little experiment to disclose that it was, in fact, Sarah and not Jane who used the crutches. From there a fascinating and enlightening discussion ensued.

She goes on to explain, "What's lost on society at large is one critical thing - all of us are "dis'abled; it's simply a matter of degree, and how visible that disability is and how those who are not visibility disabled respond to it. Slowly architectural barriers are being broken down though many still exist - it's well and good to have a wheelchair user parking space, but what's the point if the interior of the building is not accessible (a restaurant with no wheelchair seating - a common problem in fast food establishments) or the bathroom has no properly accessible wheelchair stall (grab bars, etc). I laugh when I visit bathrooms that fail the wheelchair friendly designation - sure, they have the the toilet with grab bar, but toilet paper is out of reach, the cut away sink gets a pass, but the soap dispenser and the hand dryer are out of reach, or the mirror is positioned for a standing person."

As with any other social skill we develop, learning how to appropriately relate to people who have any disabilities or other challenges is a matter of practice. Taking the time to learn these skills raises our awareness of a variety of difficulties many of us face. Showing compassion to those who have such challenges is important and a polite and civil way to behave. Having compassion for ourselves when faced with new challenges is usually more difficult for us. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some are more visible than others; however, they should all be handled with respect.It is up to us to recognize each human being as an individual and to treat each person with dignity and kindness.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Artichokes, Asparagus and French Fries

The mind is a curious place; well my mind is to me anyway. I awoke one bright clear morning and thought, ‘artichokes’! I must write about these mysterious culinary delights which are challenging, to say the least, to many people. This instigated a discussion in my head about another finger food column. This is a time of year when we do tend to eat more with our hands than usual, at least here in the Western world. I make that distinction because I just watched an episode where Chef Michael Smith was in Jordan, where a good bit of food is eaten with one’s hands, as it is in other parts of the world as well. Why not explore a few of the foods that can certainly be enjoyed using our fingers rather than the knife and fork?

Artichokes, whose use as a food originated most likely in Northern Africa, is a cousin of the Thistle, a trait easy to surmise once you discover the ‘choke’. This vegetable must be eaten by hand. The leaves are peeled gently from the main bulb gently but firmly and then the flesh is scraped off with your teeth. This is one food that requires either one on one training or a detailed ‘how to’ video to be able to eat it successfully. I maintain that it is well worth the trouble though. It has a wonderful sweet earthy flavor which is great with Hollandaise sauce or melted lemon butter when served hot; it also tastes delicious with mayonnaise laced with curry or garlic or a fragrant vinaigrette when served cold. The heart, which is identical in taste to the leaves is the real meat of the flower bud and the ultimate reward after the attenuated time required to reach it. Some less than patient diners dive right into the heart bypassing the delectable petals altogether. This is akin to only eating the tail of a lobster. Each to his own. No matter what your decision, artichokes are very versatile and are a great addition to many meals as either a main
vegetable or served as a starter.

Asparagus, a wonderful vegetable from the Lily family, comes to us from Eurasia and is grown all over the world. This is another food which according to proper etiquette is correctly eaten by hand, whether it is served hot or cold. The same accompaniments used for artichokes work very nicely with asparagus too. The spears are best when steamed or grilled. They can be boiled, but then so can anything. Much of the flavor and nutrients are lost in that process. Although not often served at formal dinners, eating this vegetable with your hands is proper at any occasion anywhere in the world.

French fried potatoes are an all time finger food favorite. These tuberous vegetables have their origins in Peru. What we eat today descends from a subspecies from Chile. The Sweet Potato and the Yam are also immensely popular additions to this finger food family. While the Sweet Potato originated in equatorial South America, it is distantly related to the potato. However, the Yam comes to us from Africa and is no relation to either plant at all, even though similar looking and tasting. Cut into long rectangular spears, these nutritious vegetables are usually denatured by deep fat frying, rendering them less wholesome but addictively delicious. No matter how they are cooked or served, they are customarily eaten with a fork and knife; however, I think they somehow seem to taste better when eaten by hand.

The rule of thumb for eating certain foods with your hands is usually dictated by a lack of cutlery with which to eat a particular item. No knife, fork or spoon is a good indication that using your fingers is positively appropriate. No one is expected to eat a sandwich or a Burrito with utensils, nor olives, nor nuts nor most picnic foods. After all, fried chicken and barbecued ribs simply taste better when eaten by hand. I’m not exactly sure how the various lists were assembled as to what is eaten by hand and what with a fork. Suffice it to say, that when in doubt, begin with a fork and knife and then follow your host’s lead. At picnics, my vote is forks for salads only. At formal dinners, don’t taunt your guests with questionable foods - do I or don’t I eat this with a fork?

This brings me back to artichokes. Of course, here’s a food you start eating with your hands and finish up using a fork and knife. It may in fact be unique in that regard. Don’t let them scare you off though. Find a pal who enjoys them and ask them for a lesson. They’re fun, delicious and nutritious. And, oh yes, they’re a food that deserves some respect. Making the mistake of eating the choke itself will teach you that lesson in a big hurry. In my book, finger food often as possible!

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Community Supports Junior Hockey

Last Friday evening an event took place here in St. Andrews which illustrated just what a supportive community we live in. I was asked several weeks ago to assist in orchestrating a fund raising dinner for the local junior hockey team - The St. Andrews Whalers. I quite happily agreed to help. The event was designed to be an auction and dinner for 120 people. The evening was regaled as a huge success both financially and socially and I hope has injected much needed renewed energy into supporting this fine team. There were several points of etiquette which emerged as noteworthy from my perspective.

First of all, generosity of spirit and time prevailed. Over twenty individuals took time out of their busy schedules to ensure that this fund raising event was fun and successful. An additional 100+ people bought tickets to the turkey dinner banquet and participated in both the silent and live auctions. Many people traveled from Saint John to be a part of this evening - a example of true dedication and commitment to The Whalers.

Secondly, almost half of the team participated in this dinner as waiters, bid runners, and dish washers. I don't think the guys knew what they were in for, but they chipped in whenever asked (for the most part) and made sure everyone's food was delivered hot and in a timely manner. With very little coaching from me and with no previous experience as waiters, they did themselves proud and should be able to feel good about the efforts they made. The team captain helped with the bulk of the washing up afterwards. Many hands made light work!

Thirdly, the community as a whole realized how important this dinner would be for the financial health of the team. Hockey is after all a major sport in Canada. Despite the fact that almost none of the players are from St. Andrews, the games the junior league plays on home ice here provides great sporting events for people from all over Charlotte County and beyond. Many folks donated items personally and from their businesses. By pulling together and with some pressure from their friends, about eighty items were collected for the auction. This outpouring of generosity was impressive!

Finally, this event was an opportunity for a very diverse group of leaders in our community to roll up their sleeves and get involved. These folks chose to show by example how a community can unite to assist a group in need. This action demonstrates precisely how we pass important values from one generation to the next one. For many on the team this dinner, and the resultant financial assistance to the team as a whole, was the first time they could actually see a cause and effect dynamic transpire. Since playing junior hockey does not come with a price of admission (in other words, players pay no dues or entry fee), these young men can tend to take things for
granted. Over the past few years income from the "gate" has decreased substantially. This has brought some harsh realities into focus for them for the first time.

The Whalers hope that more people will come out to watch the games and to support their efforts. They are a good team of dedicated hockey players. The team's coach and management are also to be commended and encouraged. These are the men who instill leadership qualities and a sense of responsibility in their players. I'm sure they teach them plenty about the sport and how to play the game as skillfully as possible. Most importantly however, they are teaching life lessons, the most valuable lessons a sport can teach. These are the lessons which these young men will carry with them throughout their lives. The fact that the players themselves took some ownership of and responsibility for this wonderful community event indicates that they are no longer taking things so much for granted. I wish the team well in the future. There will be many obstacles to challenge them. Strong community support and the team efforts will hopefully insure many seasons of hockey for The Whalers.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

St. Valentine's Day Revisited

Traditions are important threads in the cloth of life. Many are celebrated annually as is our old friend St. Valentine's Day. Although the day's significance has evolved from its pagan roots, most of us take the time to send a card, make a phone call, or send flowers or chocolates to loved ones. Thoughts of romantic candlelit dinners with champagne and truffles, bubble baths and rose petals, and the undivided attention of someone very special occupy the minds of many of us. The commercialization of this special day sees the price of roses skyrocket, the sales of boxed chocolates soaring, and the sending of cards with sentiments of love flying off the shelves and crowding the mailboxes.

I was discussing my thoughts about this week's column with a dear friend and telling him how I want to write about Valentine's Day from a different angle this year. This column after all marks my 150th essay on a variety of etiquette driven topics in this paper and some fresh ideas are in order. Two thoughts emerged during our conversation. One thought was that for those of us who are truly single, Valentine's Day might be a day where we do something for ourselves to reinforce the love we have for "me". At first this idea was somewhat startling, but as I began to think about it, this makes perfect sense. After all, no matter what the situation, we must love ourselves before we can truly love someone else. In that case, treat yourself to a spa treatment. Buy yourself some fresh flowers to brighten up your home. Indulge a little by doing something special for yourself.

The second thought that surfaced was the idea that the real celebration is about the union of two hearts, two souls, and two people with a special inseparable bond. My experience is that we shower special gifts on those we love as a way of expressing our love for another person. What about celebrating the bond itself? Here is a chance to recognize the magic that you have created. Let that special dinner or gift giving moment be a time where gratitude is shown for the results of your love for one another. Let's face it, life is not always a bed of roses or a box of chocolates. Today we make an effort to change all that. After all, this 'magic' that we share is what gives meaning to our lives; it provides us with our greatest accomplishments - our children; and it fills our hearts with gratitude, compassion, respect, and love.

Every year at this time; however, my mind is transported back to grade school. Here we first learned about the concept of sharing on an emotional level with our classmates. We were atwitter with excitement when the cards we had all signed were passed around. I am not suggesting that any of us really understood the significance of the day, but we were becoming aware that something was 'up'. It was in the second grade school room for me when I first remember caring who sent me a card. Almost everyone did, but I would pour over my cards seeing if there was some special word or hint that a secret admirer would have divulged. As I recall I did convince myself then, as I still do today, that a certain unsigned card was sent to me from a certain someone special. When we stop and think about it, there are many people whom we have sent Valentine wishes to in one form or another over the years. Men give cards to their daughters, mothers, and even grandmothers or favorite aunts; chocolates and roses and even jewelry to their wives; and the odd unsigned card to someone they admire from a distance. Women, who tend to remember the date more consistently, love 'surprising' their husbands or boyfriends, fathers and sons, and other special people in their lives with romantic cards as well as a full range of other fun things.

Whatever you decide to do, speak from the heart. And remember that the sentiments that you care to convey on this special day can be carried throughout the year!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Power of Words

Most of us grew up with the nursery rhyme "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me". At the young age when we would parrot such expressions when being verbally bullied, it seemed quite effective. There we would be, two kids face-to-face, finding our way through our worlds - the playground or the classroom, deciding who would have the upper hand. Usually once this exchange was completed, order was established and we went on about our business. Whatever was said by the bully didn't seem to matter once the familiar retort was spoken. However, today we communicate in many more ways than we once did. We have a variety of hand held gadgets and the internet. We can hide behind these as walls of defense and as a result we are far more likely to say things we would not say face-to-face.

One of the main reasons for this kind of talk lies in not thinking about what we are going to say before we actually speak. We are in too big of a hurry, or so we think to express what we are thinking. It's important to take the time to think through what we are about to say. What is our intention and what tone do we want to use? Words are very powerful and once spoken, they cannot be retracted.

Despite the fact that apologies are sometimes made in the aftermath, the cruel intentions behind derogatory comments linger, as do the hurt feelings and sometimes indefinitely.

There also are the benefits of hearing positive messages. So many times we may say something to someone in passing which strikes a chord with them and brighten their lives. I know in working with at risk youth here how an understanding ear and a few kind words can have a major impact on they feel at the moment. All of us have times in our lives when we feel lonely or even isolated. We can be experiencing some sadness or we can be feeling shame about something. Often it is hard to think that anyone else could understand what we are experiencing. At just such moments, someone can say something to us which makes us suddenly feel connected again. The weight of the world is lifted from our shoulders and we actually feel good about ourselves.

Many of us spend time on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Depending on whom we choose to 'friend', 'follow', or 'like' sets the tone for the messages we receive. I find inspiring thoughts and quotations to be particularly welcome. In fact I share such quotes and insights daily on my own pages. Because I receive a lot of positive feedback, I know that other people like the energy of upbeat expressions from time to time.

Early in the morning I arise and with tea in hand head to my laptop in search of some daily inspiration. A word crosses my mind. I 'google' it followed by the word 'quotes'. This takes me to a series of pages with loads of quotations from famous authors, statesmen, philosophers and others. As I read through the quotes, certain ones resonate with me. Those are the ones I share. This starts me off in a good mood and sharing these thoughts with others benefits us both. These messages carry very strong meaning and have a great impact on how I choose to feel about my life and the world around me throughout the day.

As we spend more time thinking about how words impact us, we realize just what an impact our words have on others. We recognize harsh hurtful words and how they make us feel. We recognize kind and inspiring words too and begin to see the vast difference in the feelings that those words have on us.

The words we choose reflect how we feel about ourselves and our place in the world. By making some mental notes about the words we use, we can begin to appreciate them even more and then begin to change them if necessary. We develop more compassion for our friends and for ourselves. These are skills which we will hone over our entire lives. What better place to practice speaking and writing with more awareness than at home, with those we love and trust. We
are then in a stronger position to take this with us to our schools and our jobs and make better choices about the words we decide to use.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Coughing and sneezing, hugs and hand shakes

With the fluctuations in temperature, we once again must face the cold and flu season. There are many questions which arise every year about how we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of this year's strain, whether it be upping vitamin supplements, receiving vaccines or even strengthening our natural immune systems by making a few simple changes in our life styles. No proper discussion about the spread of colds and the flu would be complete without addressing the importance of personal hygiene and respecting one another's space.

There has been a lot written about this topic recently and there are many things which medical professionals and Moms agree on. Let's refer to this as practicing respiratory etiquette. The main way that the flu spreads is from person to person in the droplets produced by coughs and sneezes, so it’s important to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or shoulder, not into your hands. Most important of all is wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. If soap and water are not available use a hand sanitizer. Adults and children must follow these good practices.

If you are at a business meeting and you find your self shaking hands with many people, take the time to sanitize or wash your hands. Keep them away from your face, especially your nose, because the influenza virus is passed on most successfully through breathing. The life of a virus is very fragile and must have specific environments in which to survive. The human skin, specifically the nasal passages are ideal. As well, there are many close blood vessels through which the virus can travel with lightening speed throughout the entire body. The sleeve of your jacket and the most other surfaces are not good hosts for virus. They are however havens for many bacteria. For this reason it is important to keep kitchen counters, door knobs and telephones clean. Food borne bacteria are very serious and weaken your natural defenses at the very least. If you have people coming over for dinner, whether they be family or other guests, make every effort to be sure food is not subject to contamination, anything that will allow bacteria to grow. Information on this important precaution is carefully taught as part of the basics of cooking and is readily available on line or from any health care facility.

Pay great attention to using bacterial dish soap when washing everything from your hands, your pots and pans, dishes and counter tops. Pay attention to freshness dates on all food you are using to prepare food at any time. This time of year is a wonderful time for friends and family to come together for a variety of festive occasions. Because air circulation is limited due to closed doors and windows, which would normally be open during warmer weather, diligence in hygiene is really critical. Most of us have experienced food poisoning, stomach flu, and indigestion. None of us want to carelessly be the source of such illness.

The H1N1 virus is not something to sneeze at. This is an unusually virulent virus which is from a different family of viruses than those against which the traditional influenza vaccines are effective. Therefore a new vaccine has been developed. Most doctors recommend that people who are at risk should not fail to receive this vaccine. This is an important decision which should be made with your physician. If you are not in a high risk category, your natural immune system may well be fully capable of defending you against this virus. Your health care professional can supply you with the facts. If you have personal reasons for not wanting the vaccine, and there are lots of legitimate ones, you must take extra precautions to avoid exposure to the virus. More importantly, you must be especially carefully not to put others at risk. This may mean limiting physical contact with other people. If this cannot be avoided, your health care professional's advice will be helpful.

To avoid hugging and shaking hands during the social and business situations where this is normally commonplace, my advice is to be careful but not obsessive. Use your head and employ your common sense. Mind you, fist pumping is not a substitute for a hand shake. Carry hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket. Men need to consider using handkerchiefs and everyone needs to have plenty of tissues with them. The use of handkerchiefs is not a sanitary idea unless they are washed and changed often. In practicing germ spread prevention, use tissues which you dispose of as soon as they are used. Tissues even come lotion infused to stop chafing or irritation.

Some people have chronic coughing and sneezing, especially during illness. If you find yourself in a coughing or sneezing jag, you must excuse yourself an move away from people, preferably going to a washroom until the episode passes. We are all more aware of the dangers of the flu during this season. Let's make changing our relaxed hygienic habits a high priority. This is respect in its most raw form. It is a golden opportunity to make the extra effort to show respect
to loved ones and everyone around you including yourself.