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Party etiquette

               So much can be said about party etiquette, I could not cover it all. Being the time of year in the northern hemisphere for outdoor entertaining, weddings, dinners, and other gatherings, I’ve had several thoughts swirling in my head about manners. Here they are in no particular order.

As a hostess:
               Clean the house and tidy the party area. The guest bathroom should not have personal items sitting out.
               For the duration of the party, all pets should be confined to areas of the house away from the guests.
               Provide at least one raw fruit or vegetable when serving food.
               Start and end the event at the stated times.
               Greet each guest personally and direct them to a place to sit or mingle. Introduce guests unfamiliar with each other.
               If a guest is invited to a bridal shower, they should be invited to the wedding as well. Typically one invites fewer, closer friends to the shower and more people to the wedding.
               It is considered best form that the bridal or baby shower be given by a friend, not a relative, of the recipient.

As a guest:
               Respond promptly to invitations, letting your hostess know if you must arrive late or leave early.
               If you are uncertain whether or not children are included in the invitation, find out ahead of time.
               Always bring a gift and card to events such as birthday or anniversary celebrations, showers, and weddings.
               Bring a thank you note written beforehand to give to your hostess after a dinner party or luncheon.
               Do not feel obligated to attend functions given by distant relatives or acquaintances around whom you don’t feel comfortable.
               Never invite others to an event that you received an invitation for. If you are invited to an event by another guest and not the hostess, do not accept.
               If you are invited to a dinner, do not offer to bring any food. A bottle of wine is acceptable if you wish to bring a hostess gift, but be sure you know the preferences of the hosting family.
               If your hostess asks you for your family’s eating preferences or allergy information, answer honestly. It is crushing to be told that a family “eats anything” and then watch them pick apart and eventually throw away the dinner one prepared.

               That’s all I can think of for now, based on my interesting and mostly enjoyable experiences the past few weeks. What are your thoughts on proper party manners? How do you go out of your way to be a gracious, considerate hostess or guest?

               Thank you for reading The Well Bred Woman in Progress!

Email etiquette

               One of my favorite school lessons as a girl was learning how to write a letter.   Softly patterned stationery, flowing manuscript, and a smart little envelope with the address, return label, and stamp positioned evenly had an irresistible appeal to me, a lover of words and writing! Much has been written today on the continued place of the handwritten letter in a well bred woman’s lifestyle.    Certainly, the physical letter isn’t going away, but emailing is on the rise and is often the best option for many circumstances.    I email many times a day, including receiving direct marketing or newsletter emails, contacting people or websites online, and doing business with the companies I patronize.    Once a month or so I send an email newsletter to my family and close friends as an alternative to using Facebook.    Over the years I have developed a set of email standards to practice good etiquette in this common, yet important area of communication.

Proper spelling / grammar

               The first area must be obvious, but it amazes me how many people disregard these areas when writing online.    It doesn’t seem to be such an issue in planned writing, such as in articles or on personal websites, but quickly dashed off replies to posts and articles more often than not contain many errors.    It’s hard to take someone’s viewpoint seriously when the packaging is so ugly!    Likewise, no matter how brief an email is, proper spelling and grammar use to the best of one’s knowledge and ability will go a long way toward enhancing one’s point and ensuring a smooth dialog.

Greetings

               When beginning any email conversation, I mirror the form of a friendly letter and begin with greetings.    For most people, even businesses and strangers, I begin with “Dear So-and-so.”    I don’t feel that this is overly mushy or out of place but rather that it is a conventional method of greeting that has lost its intimate intonation but maintained a professional tone.    Many of the formal emails I receive from businesses and companies begin with “Dear,” as well.    If I do not feel comfortable writing “Dear,” such as to a man I am acquainted with (e.g. real estate agent) or a man I email regularly (e. g. insurance agent) I write a different greeting such as “Good morning” or “Hello.”    Since all of the email clients I use today have the conversation mode enabled, I do not always put a greeting on subsequent replies within the same message.    I try to play it by ear and sense whether or not the greeting is appropriate.    Using a greeting must be done with care because it can easily become pretentious if one loses sight of the reason for beginning in such a way.    I use greetings to show respect to the recipient, to open the message in a pleasant fashion, and to gain the recipient’s attention positively.

Brevity

               Contrary to a personal letter that is less often received and longer enjoyed, succinct is best when emailing.    I am preaching to the choir as a loquacious person, myself.    Prior experience has taught me, though, that a multitude of words can either diminish an email’s point or lose it altogether.    Not to mention, businesses and companies take a person more seriously when her email is brief and on point.

Tone

               This is a tricky one.    Remember the days of instant messaging?    It seemed most of my friends and I spent more time sending each other emoticons than sending words. After all, an emoticon’s tone was more easily understood than words were. Although emoticons are still an option in Gmail, at least, they generally do not have a place in personal emails where the words really do matter more than the pixels (a cutting remark followed by a winky face still cuts) and they absolutely do not belong in formal email communication. Because I write the way I would talk, I don’t worry too much about the tone as I write. Before sending, I usually read the email over in a disinterested manner to check for sarcasm, unintended emphasis, and any other confusing tone. However, I think people everywhere are starting to realize that communication via internet is one dimensional and that tone can only be so varied in this context. In other words, an email may sound boring or monotone, but it’s just an email. If it’s not burning a bridge, you’re probably fine!

Decluttering

               Raise your hand if you returned from vacation (or work the previous day) and found 1,000 unread emails in your inbox! We all have limited time and most don’t want to spend it sorting through endless piles of mail, virtual paper notwithstanding. Thus, when writing an email, the well bred woman will make sure to include all her points in the first email instead of constantly sending P.S.’s over the course of the day (I am really preaching to the choir again here; this is not a point I’ve mastered). Although I’m not sure if anyone still forwards emails, another way to declutter the inboxes is to refrain from sending forwarded and chain emails. I have witnessed painful episodes of people’s cutting off communications with others simply due to their refusal to stop forwarding chain emails. The privilege of contacting one another instantly and freely should not be abused by overuse.

Privacy

               Finally, a note on those forwarded and group emails. Sometimes forwarding is necessary or requested; many people do not mind “form” emails where the whole family gets updated at once. But unless she has obtained specific permission from all the recipients to share their email addresses, one should always use blind carbon copy and send the email to herself so that the recipients do not gain each other’s email addresses without their consent. It’s just common courtesy, and it shields people from those who do indiscriminately forward emails. Email address mining and selling is a real concern; I even found a job on a job board one time that basically offered to pay a person for every legitimate email address they could provide the company! So the well bred woman will always respect the privacy of others by not sharing email addresses inadvertently or otherwise.

Greetings and interpersonal skills

                Suppose a male acquaintance you are not close to summons you loudly across a room and stretches his arms wide for a hug.   What should you do?   In order not to embarrass him needlessly, I would give a brief sideways hug and wrap up the interaction as quickly as possible.   However, in a relationship it is best to wait until both parties are comfortable enough with each other to engage in hugging;   when in doubt, ask.   It is inconsiderate to maintain a one sided view that “I am just a hugger, so if I want to I will hug people.”   If you do not know for sure, stick to an arm or shoulder pat or a handsqueeze (more intimate than a handshake, but not as invading as a hug).   Remember, the epitome of being well mannered is to seamlessly move through life leaving everyone feeling as pleasant as possible under the circumstances while portraying your best character.

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                Someone pressures you to become an ambassador for her particular MLM (multilevel management) company.   You are not interested, but she keeps asking.   You do not want to give detailed reasons for your refusal, nor should you have to.   If she asks again, decline politely but make it clear that you are not refusing out of ignorance or a wish to be convinced.   Over this past week I dealt with such a situation by letting my friend know that I had thoroughly researched the company and concluded that the types of products they sell are just not for me in terms of using or selling.   Though I have great reservations not only about MLMs in general but particularly the product my friend was peddling, I did not list any specific reasons because many MLM salespeople have been trained to combat such statements and I did not wish to debate.   (Something I have slowly been realizing over the past few years is that the goal is not to walk away from every encounter leaving the other person in full ownership of my personal opinion.   The well bred woman pursues the life best suited to her goals and style without trying to change others forcibly.)   The bitter pill at the bottom of the sweet glass of the “Join my MLM as my ambassador” rhetoric is that the person who draws you into the company makes money off every sale you make.   That is, in part, what fuels their persistence but knowing this can help a person look objectively at the situation when deciding.   With MLMs taking the States by storm, I know by past experience that it is easy to get in and hard to get out, and the more money you put into it the worse you feel about quitting.   So unless that type of sales experience and those particular business ethics suit you, and it does work for many people, declining an MLM invitation is something that needs to be done politely but firmly and preferably as soon as possible.

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                A stranger randomly starts talking to your child, beyond a mere hello.   Expecting a cute reaction or a response, they just keep talking to your child even though you as a parent can tell the child is uncomfortable (compounded in children who have been taught not to talk to strangers).   What do you do?   Usually I gently pull the child to my side (to make him feel safe) and while keeping a hand on the child explain, “We teach our children not to talk to strangers.”   That might sound cold but every time I have said it, no one has become visibly upset;   usually they either apologize or laugh and agree that it is a good policy.   Even now I remember incidences as a child where I had to deal with unwanted attention from a strange adult and I still remember how empty and scared I felt not to have a trusted adult step up and say something to make them stop bothering me.   Yes, children need to learn communication skills, but these are best learned within the safety of the family, friends and community acquaintances that the parents place in their child’s life.   The only thing that a child should have to say to a stranger asking them things like where they go to school and what their favorite color is “None of your business.”   There are far too many bad people in the world nowadays for parents to have to endure a stranger interrogating their child.   For me, if I see a child staring at me I sometimes smile or make eye contact but that is all.   I usually just let them stare and go about my business;   it is child’s job to observe adults and learn from them, and it is a bit presumptuous for me to take a child’s notice as an invitation to go and speak to them.   If anything needs to be said to or about the child, the proper channel is to address her parent or caregiver.

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                Speaking of addressing others properly, when meeting and greeting at a function, if a person you know is present with their spouse or another guest, remember to address both your friend or acquaintance and their spouse or guest.   After making eye contact and hand shaking the person who is known, you should briefly turn to their partner and at least smile.   That gives your friend an opportunity to make introductions, and it is the least a person can do to acknowledge everyone within the same space.   I am flabbergasted by how many times an acquaintance of my husband has addressed him, yet never even made eye contact with me as I stood right next to him!   Another thing to remember is not to assume that you know who the other person is or how they are related;   if I had voiced my assumption a few months back, I would have referred to my church pianist’s daughter as his wife!

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                And on that note, less said is better.   Countless needless things, sometimes hurtful but often simply unnecessary, have been said because too much was said.   Less said is always better and you do not have to take back what was not said.   Smiling at and making eye contact with those around you is a good way to stay on top of your surroundings while learning more about the situation through observation and listening.   One need not begin every interaction with her tongue.   This is wisdom that I hope to find.

Tea party etiquette

I had a little tea party
This afternoon at three
‘Twas very small, three guests in all,
Just I, myself, and me.

Myself ate all the sandwiches
While I drank up the tea
‘Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.

-Author unknown

               Ever since receiving a copy of this poem as a child, I have dreamed of the day that I would host my own tea party, though perhaps a less lonely one! Though I held a few during my teen years, it was not until last week that I hosted my very first ladies’ tea. I felt that January would be a good month because of the warmth and coziness associated with a tea and because I wanted to have something to look forward to after the highly anticipated holiday season had wound down.

               Anne Oliver’s book Finishing Touches gives specific guidelines for every type of tea from informal to formal and afternoon tea to high tea or the evening meal variety. I combined aspects from the dainty afternoon tea and the hearty peasant meal formerly known as high tea in giving my casual event.

               The following are some tips and hints I utilized in preparing for and providing my tea party.

Pick the guests:
-Decide on a guest list and send the invitations. I sent mine via email a few weeks in advance because my friends’ calendars tend to fill up so quickly; a reminder email went out a few days before the RSVP deadline.

Choose which foods and beverages will be served. My menu:
-ham
-mixed nuts
-a vegetable tray and hummus
-cucumber sandwiches (link)
-homemade ginger snaps
-homemade blueberry scones (link)
-petit fours
-lemonade
-water
-a variety of black and herbal teas.
-sugar
-cream
It turned out to be way too much food but at least there was something for everyone. For future reference, I noted that the ham, scones, petit fours, and cucumber sandwiches were the most popular items. No one drank any beverage other than tea.

Decorate the party room. I hosted in my living room to have adequate space for my eight guests.
-Pay attention to details. I used candles in hurricane jars, a wood fire, a vase of fresh flowers, cloth table covers and napkins, and hand painted mismatched tea cups and saucers.
-Make sure the room is uncluttered and clean; move items that do not contribute to the ambiance of the event.

Deodorize:
-One’s house may need deodorizing if one has pets, uses a wood-burning fireplace, cooks with strong-smelling foods, or opts for natural cleaning methods instead of harsh chemicals.
-A Himalayan salt lamp lit for several hours will neutralize most odors, and a sprinkling of baking soda with some essential oils left to sit on the carpet, then vacuumed, will also help greatly.
-A scented candle or two does not hurt, but the best way to deal with odors is to eliminate them not cover them up.
-To further minimize any unpleasant background smells, make sure the trash is empty before the guests arrive.
-The best way to tell if a room has an unpleasant smell that one may have grown accustomed to from being exposed to it is to go outside for a few minutes and breathe deeply. Upon re-entering the room one should be able to tell if further deodorizing efforts are necessary.

Prepare for people:
-Have enough seats for each person and a place to set dishes and food
-Leave enough room between the chairs, tables, and food area for everyone to move comfortably
-Designate a place for coats to hang
-Sequester any pets in their own room with the necessary provisions. Guests come to see their hostess, not her pets.
-For an adults-only event, the hostess’s children should be cared for out of home so that the hostess can focus her attention on her guests.
-Boil the water for the tea and keep the kettle on a warming burner right up until the first guests arrive for fresh hot water.

Be the perfect hostess:
-Greet guests at the door. In severe or harsh weather, one should check often at the door and window to see if someone is approaching so that she can open the door immediately upon their arrival and they do not have to linger in the cold.
-Sit in a spot from which you can see all of your guests
-When speaking, make sure to make eye contact with each woman present
-Guide the guests through the process of obtaining food and drink; do not leave them to figure things out for themselves. In my case, the food was served buffet-style with each person filling her own plate and choosing her own tea bag, while I chose their tea cups and poured the water for them.
-Perceive their needs and meet them without waiting to be asked.
-Do not dominate the conversation; let the guests talk about what interests them. If the conversation becomes stale, sad, or otherwise unpleasant, find a creative way to move things forward to a more congenial topic.
-Stay on point. If the event includes a sharing of poetry, as did mine, make sure everyone has her turn and express appreciation for each person’s participation.
-Wrap things up when the guests are ready to leave, or around your stated ending time. No one wants to feel obligated to stay and entertain a chatty hostess who overstays her own welcome.
-Walk the departing guests to the door, make eye contact, and with a hug or a squeeze, thank each guest for having taken the time to come.

               To sum up: a hostess ought to focus on beautiful surroundings, delectable nourishment, and empathetic interaction for an enjoyable evening of entertaining. Breathe and be confident. My stomach was in knots before it started but by the time it was over I was having so much fun I wanted to overstay my welcome! Here’s to many more evenings of elegant entertaining.

Touch up on holiday manners

               Ah, the holiday season! As November and December go by, so many of us engage in holiday celebrations with our friends and loved ones. Of all the year’s occasions, the year-end festivities tend to bring about the most contact between family members and close friends, those dearest to our hearts. Perhaps contributed to by the excitement of the season or the familiarity that comes with long-term relationships, one’s manners can tend to slip during intimate holiday gatherings. Following are some tips to touch up one’s holiday manners.

               With so much visiting, appropriate limits on meeting and greeting should always be observed. For a drop in visit, 15-30 minutes is an acceptable time. For a visit including a meal, one should linger no longer than an hour past the serving of dessert or coffee. Watch the host for clues that the night is winding down, and never be the last to leave a party. With today’s plethora of available technology, drop in visits should never be a surprise. If one is going to go to the trouble of purchasing holiday gifts for the young children of a friend from church, she ought to have known well in advance that she was planning to drop them off at her friend’s house and should have called ahead to alert them to her impending arrival. Calling before coming unexpectedly is always appropriate, no matter how post-modern the world has become.

               Another area I have observed that tends to go by the wayside is the proper entering of another’s home. No matter if one’s hosts are one’s parents, children, siblings, or best friends, it is polite to knock or ring the bell upon arriving at their doorstep. A particularly festive hostess may have left her front door open with the storm door closed, to let the warmth and merriment of her house spill outside. That is not, however, an excuse to enter without knocking. By knocking, one allows the hostess time to answer the door graciously and greet her guests properly. It gives her the pleasure of welcoming her guests into her home, which is impossible to do if she walks into her living room and finds her guests already standing there, shoes and coats amok. The comfort of a familiar place can induce one to set one’s coat wherever, and leave on muddy shoes, but an empathetic guest will observe her hostess’s wishes regarding where to place coats and shoes, even if that hostess is her daughter or sister. It is especially important during this time of year for parents to treat their grown children, especially those new to the scene of holiday entertaining, with respect, courtesy, and good humor. No matter how closely people are related, it sours the holiday spirit for an overbearing older relative to openly criticize the entertaining efforts of the younger relatives.

               While the polite guest is restrained from criticizing, sometimes she may find herself in an atmosphere that seems to need improvement. Thus, she will ease the hostess’s burden and boost the festive spirit by smoothing over awkward comments, changing the subject from negative topics, complimenting sincerely, and making everyone around her feel included by greeting and speaking with them all. Often a gathering of relatives who have not seen each other for awhile tends to become a sort of one-upping contest, where everything from children to trucks to recipes gets compared and outdone. But the proper guest will not return an opening line of, “My child plans to compete in the National Spelling Bee next spring” with “MY child—&tc”. Instead, she will ask one or two pertinent questions and take interest in the conversation of others. She will avoid conversing about potentially offensive subjects, such as the health of those present, and especially the subjects of politics or religion. Even though most of the holiday events this time of year center around religious traditions, personal views and interpretations of religious topics can vary greatly amongst family members, and it is inappropriate to argue the finer points of religion during a holiday gathering. If everyone has agreed to join together, then it is safe to assume they all agree on a casual level on the reason for gathering, and just because it is one’s familiar family does not make it any less hurtful to criticize or argue various religious views.

               Many etiquette manuals stress the importance of bringing a hostess gift each time one is invited to another’s home for a meal. Around my area, if one has been asked to contribute a dish to a meal, the hostess gift is generally waived, although I am sure it would still be appreciated. It need not be anything large, but is rather a token of appreciation, and should be both useful and pretty. The most important thing to remember when giving any gift is that the gift ought to suit the receiver’s personality and reflect the giver’s personality. The art of finding such a precise item, then, encompasses a skill much finer than the fineness of an expensive, flashy item. It is an invaluable tool that any well-bred woman should seek to cultivate in her priceless treasury of abilities.

               Another area emphasized in etiquette is the sending of handwritten, postage-stamped thank-you notes. I admit this is an area that I am not keen on doing. I believe that in an ideal world, it would be for the best, but the cost of stamps inhibits my ability to send as much post as I used to. However, not affording stamps is no excuse for being ungrateful. Upon taking one’s leave from a visit, party, or other event, one should always speak directly to one’s host and / or hostess. With either a handshake or a hug, one ought to thank them directly for the invitation and assure them that she had a wonderful time. In my opinion, this is just as appropriate as a written note, and may even come across as more genuine.

               The December calendar tends to fill up quickly. As invitations are sent out and accepted, it becomes inevitable that any given woman, especially a socially active one, may not be able to attend everything. Whatever one’s reasons are for not attending, a simple RSVP in accordance with the hostess’s instructions (i.e., online, in person, or on paper) is all that is necessary. No explanations or apologies are needed, as one never need feel sorry for making the best decision confidently. If a woman accepts an invitation but later receives an alternate invitation for the same time, she should not cancel her initial plans to attend the invitation just received. If she wishes to cancel her plans for any reason, she should stay in and not attend any other event out of consideration to the hostess with whom she originally accepted and canceled.

               Last, I have a few thoughts on greeting cards and authenticity during the holidays. Many etiquette blogs and books have written that sending cards is an absolutely essential holiday activity, and the many reasons for why it is good and polite to do so can create the opposite impression that it is bad and impolite not to do so. I have sent Christmas cards in the past and I always receive a few each year. I have had relatives inform me that each Christmas that they send cards, they keep track of who they receive them from, and whoever does not send them a card does not get one the next year. I have had quite a few relatives cease sending me cards as a result of my own dropping this practice a few years ago. As mentioned above, in an ideal world where postage stamps and greeting cards grew on trees and I had much more time on my hands, I would love to send Christmas cards. Someday I may begin the practice again. But to be honest, when I was doing it, it was solely out of obligation. It was to keep those manipulating relatives on my list of people to send me cards each year. And I experienced no joy at all. It was not genuine. These days, I pay monthly for internet and phone service. I always include gasoline in the budget and am very blessed to have a fine vehicle in good condition. And around the holidays, I try to make an extra effort to either call, email, or visit the relatives I hold dear using the items I already own and pay for. Some of them probably understand and appreciate my efforts, and some (the ones who no longer send me cards) probably still hold that against me. But I believe that a truly well-bred woman, no matter her income level, will practice authenticity in all her ways and will not attempt to win the approval of others through her efforts to spread holiday cheer. Instead, her heartfelt efforts will bring all the cheer needed to make the season special.

               Happy Holidays and warmest wishes to all my readers and their family and friends!

Formality when addressing others

               For many, the word “formality” probably conjures up images of high-society gatherings, stiffness, or rigidity. To me it means doing the right thing at the right time, and one of the definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines formality as “an established form or procedure that is required or conventional.”1

               An everyday need to display formality occurs when a person addresses another. When someone’s title is unknown, the well-mannered woman will always address him or her as “Sir” or “Madam” or “Ma’am.” If someone’s title is known, such as “Doctor” or “Reverend,” she will use it unless asked not to. A judge ought to be referred to as “Your Honor” or “Judge (Last Name).”2 When speaking with an unacquainted man who may feign all kinds of umbrage at being referred to as “Sir,” she need not feel obligated to refer to him by his first name even if he insists. Better to smile briefly, brush it off, and move on to the business at hand (I am thinking of several different occasions when I waited tables as a young woman). Using proper titles is as much for the woman’s benefit as it is for those she addresses, and she ought not feel forced to cozy up to men who insist on being referred to improperly by their first names. (Besides, who expects a waitress to remember her diners’ names?)

               Even though the practice of formal address may appear to be falling out of use, proper manners do not allow for any other titles and especially not for endearments. I am astonished by how common it is in my region for a person to be referred to as “Sweetheart”; for a mother to be referred to as “Mom” (one of my personal least favorites!); and for “Mister” and “Miss” or “Miz” to be used instead of “Sir” and “Ma’am.” “Hon,” “Dear,” and “Sweetie” are equally informal and will not be heard in the vocabulary of a well-bred woman addressing others formally. Of course, within her own private circle she may use terms of endearment, particularly for spouses or small children, but care should be taken not to overdo the use of pet names, which may sound or eventually become insincere.

               This reminds me of the tendency in American society to be unique, special, or different, and most certainly to go against the flow. I suppose society is going through an anti-establishment age, or at least part of it is (see this article for an in-depth discussion of generational trademarks, as well as to see which generation you fit into!). I have encountered many people who “own” their manners and etiquette faux pas,3 claiming it is what makes them unique and special. However, I believe that one should cultivate and display other ways of being different and noteworthy rather than making others uncomfortable by breaking standard etiquette rules. A hallmark of good breeding is treating others with the utmost respect, love, and kindness. Even something as common as addressing another person should be done in the standard way, out of respect to him and as a sign of good manners.

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Definition of “formality,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/formality.
2. wikiHow, How to Address a Judge in Court, http://www.wikihow.com/Address-a-Judge-in-Court.
3. Social blunder