Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Etiquette of Friendship

One of life's greatest pleasures for me is traveling. I am really in my element when I see new places and meet new people. I have recently returned from a wonderful trip to England as many of you know. And now, as I type this, I am on Air Canada winging my way south to the magical island of Mustique for a ten day vacation. I admit, I am one very lucky guy. Given the fact that twelve years has passed since my last overseas trip however, I am not feeling even a twinge of guilt. And as it turns out, not so surprisingly, that one of the common denominators which ties these two delightful getaways together is friendship.

On my trip to England I was hosted by one of my most trusted colleagues and closest friends, Britain's youngest etiquette expert, William Hanson. Although we had developed a friendship over the years through correspondence, the opportunity to actually meet face to face can only be chalked up to serendipity. Friends are like that though. We meet some people with whom we form lifetime friendships quite by chance. In fact, most close relationships more than likely form that way.

On my current trip, in contrast, I am be being hosted by a friend of 40 years, but someone whom I haven't seen in over a dozen years. But somehow over the years though, we have remained as close as many brothers and sisters might have done. We have kept up with most, although not all of the major events in one another's lives; and we have acknowledged most birthdays and Christmases, important family milestones, such as births, marriages and deaths. But more importantly we have held each other in our hearts. We have thought of each other often, occasionally picking up the phone or firing off an email just to stay in touch and to say I love you.

Our lives all take paths which veer off in directions which we could never have imagined. Our interests change. Our significant relationships change. We raise families, deal with health issues, both our own and those of loved ones. Yet somehow through the tangled web we weave and call our life, we somehow magically maintain a few very special friendships. We all know who these people are. We know how much they mean to us. Sometimes we might even know how much we mean to them. But without them we both know our lives would simply not be the same.

Personally, I am blessed with a number of great friends. Those whom I am fortunate enough to see only once every few years, if I'm lucky, hold a different place in my mind than those with whom I spend most of my time. There is something different about seeing people everyday. We get used to them and sometimes we might even take our friendships for granted. This shocking thought came to mind recently and I began wondering what is going on here? Do I really not appreciate my everyday friends as much as I might were I not so fortunate to see them all the time? There is the old expression "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Is this what is really happening to me?

The answer for me and for many of you will more than likely be a resounding yes. This sudden awareness sort of woke me up to the whole notion of friendship and how grateful I am to have my friends.

As I began thinking about who my friends really are, where they are, and what they are doing with their busy lives, I realized that that list is really, really important to me. I am not revealing some hidden secret here. We all know exactly what I'm talking about. But like the sudden reminder I just received quite unexpectedly, I hope you are reminded of this in the same way.

Get out that old address book. With any luck, you've jotted down most people in it in pencil, so you can keep current with their addresses and telephone numbers, cell phones, and so forth. As you go through the dog-eared pages, you too will be flooded with a whole host of memories. I hope most of them are great ones. Some will be sad. People inevitably move out of our lives for a variety of reasons. Some even die. But for those who bring a smile to your face and a warm feeling into your heart, experience the real sense of gratitude for having these people in your lives. This is your happiness well. Drink from it often. Never let them go. Reconnect with them, even if it's a quick note or a phone call. And for heaven's sake, tell them you love them and that you are thinking about them. Happiness is a two way street. I hope my friends know who they are. But just in case, I'm going to make sure they do. I encourage you to do the same.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Invitations to Singles

During my recent trip to London, I was speaking with a colleague while taking afternoon tea at The Wolseley. One question which came up was one of sending invitations for weddings to single (unmarried or otherwise unattached) people. My friend, a social commentator and etiquette expert from Toronto (now living in London) was very clear that she felt that any single guest should be given the opportunity to bring along a guest of her choice to a wedding and that the invitation should always include "and guest".

After mulling this idea over in my head for a while, I decided that I have to disagree with this idea as I feel that this request is not usually a reasonable one. There are any number of factors to consider when constructing a guest list for any event, a wedding being no exception. For one thing, there can be space constraints; there can be budgetary restraints; and there can be legitimate personal preferences, such as not wanting total strangers at what is usually a very private affair. Although I can understand that attending parties and events such as weddings as a single person can feel awkward, it is not the responsibility of the host to accommodate unknown guests as a rule. If the host decides that single guests can bring a friend along, then it will be indicated on the invitation. It would be considered rude to ask to bring a friend to any event where invitations are issued and it would be unacceptable to simply show up with an uninvited guest in tow.

There will occasionally be instances where the host may be unaware of recently established relationships, which would actually make a single invitation awkward or even inappropriate. Generally speaking if a couple sees themselves as "an item", they should receive a joint invitation. If there has been a real oversight made, which can happen quite inadvertently, then it would be acceptable to phone the host and explain the situation immediately upon receiving the invitation. If a relationship emerges after the invitations are sent, but before the event takes place, it is still incorrect to call and ask if you may bring a guest. It's important to remember that weddings can be very expensive affairs, often costing the host well in excess of $100 per guest. If you feel too uncomfortable going out by yourself, you are obliged to regret the invitation or steel your nerves and soldier on.

I have also been asked if it is acceptable to invite one person of an unmarried couple to an event such as a wedding if the other person is unknown or even disliked by the host. Unfortunately this is not acceptable. I'm afraid you have to take the good with the bad.Once a couple becomes a couple, they should be treated as such. It is insulting to do otherwise. My experience has been that most people can pull themselves together and not ruffle too may feathers when attending private functions. If you know that unpleasantness is likely, it is best not to invite them if you are unwilling to cope with whatever may come your way civilly. I am a firm believer of editing guest lists as necessary when friend's lives change and negative energy overtakes them. As host, not only do you have complete control over the guest list, you also have the responsibility of assuring all of your guests have an enjoyable time. Unless you have an agenda which includes potential surprises, my advice is to "avoid the avoidable".

Whenever I am putting together a guest list for myself or for a client, I try to consider single people carefully, being sure to seat them with people they know. I also like for them to have friends at the party with whom they will feel comfortable. Not everyone is an extrovert and for anyone who is somewhat shy or withdrawn, I make a special effort to ensure that they will not feel stranded. It takes special thought and a good deal of time to construct a good guest list. When you receive an invitation, remember that the host has likely given a lot of thought to this matter. If you have not been invited to bring a guest, or your children for that matter, don't assume it's an oversight.

For informal picnics or last minute get togethers where no invitations are actually sent, the rules are totally different and very much more relaxed. Let common sense be your guide. When it's your turn to throw the bash, you'll appreciate the cooperation from your guests as well.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Agree to Disagree

As a professional etiquette expert, I find myself engaging in a lot of discussions both in person and on line about various topics related to my field. In fact some of the more interesting conversations relate to the different ways people from different countries get
through the day whether it be conducting themselves in business or socially while dining with friends and family. Even among so-called experts there seem to be opinions which conflict. This unfortunately leads to a lot of confusion when such simple questions such as what to do with your napkin while leaving the table or where to place dessert cutlery when setting the table arise. These discussions seem to go round and round endlessly with all parties involved terribly concerned about defending their theory as being the truth, and unwilling to stop until proven right.

This same pattern of behavior occurs in many aspects of our lives. Sometimes the differing points of view are very subtle and of little if any real consequence anyway. In the minds of those holding the differing points of view though, they become as large as life and worth defending to the point of incivility. How many of these "critically important" matters are even remembered a week later? There may be some merit in reminding ourselves of this point when we begin to feel our blood pressure rise as we ready our defenses.

What is interesting about being human is our need for acceptance. In order to form a healthy sustainable society, we need to be friends with, or at the very least, trust one another. We rely on other people in our community for many important reasons. There are modern day hunters and gathers, warriors and guardians, and teachers and sages. They are the people who grow our crops, prepare, process, package and purvey our sustenance. They are the protectors of our borders and help preserve our chosen way of life. They allow one generation to follow another with the knowledge and wisdom needed to maintain the very society in which we live. The more accepting and understanding we are of the people whose lives intersect ours, the happier life is for everyone.

Today, there seems to be a growing need to be right. As we zoom through our busy schedules, we seem to find time to stop and make sure that those around us not only accept us, but agree with us as well. The idea that what we believe and the principles by which we live our lives is the right way, the truth if you will, leads to a separation of sorts and ironically leads us on a path towards rejection - an unhealthy ingredient in any attempt to be a part of society and certainly not what we really want and need.

To strike a balance which we can all live with, we eventually come to the realization that we need to compromise on certain of our strongly held beliefs and principles. This does not mean that we have to change our value systems by altering our principles. It means that we must develop the ability to agree to disagree. Herein lies a fundamental human value - compassion. This means having compassion for friends and family, but more importantly, to have compassion for ourselves. We need to give ourselves a break, to take a time out, or simply to chill. As we develop this ability, we realize that what we have found is a deep respect for one another. By understanding that a healthy society can be homogeneous as long as we are respectful of one another, our lives can become more relaxed and we can become more accepting of those around us without necessarily agreeing with everything they think, say or do.

Because needing to be right is usually expressed as a form of bullying, whether it be in the office or at home, we would do well to be more aware of when we adopt these behaviors ourselves. By noticing when and why we take certain actions or make some statements, we can then begin to change them. We can begin to set examples for our children and our friends by being more tolerant and compassionate. One of the benefits of not always being right is that we don't have the burden of responsibility which comes with upholding, even defending our principles. Let the other person be 'right' for a change. Take a time out every now and again. It's amazing how, by putting other people ahead of ourselves, our own lives change for the better and our self esteem improves. Agreeing to disagree can make for a kinder gentler world.