Social Grace

The Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Dinner Party

Dear Social Grace,
I read the letter you printed from a person who didn't know how to respond to a "How are you?" greeting [Aug. 9]. It reminded me of an in-law of mine who insists on addressing me with the most inane greeting in the English language: "Jon, what do you say?"

When I'm asked this, my mind is engulfed with a never-ending void of possible responses so vast I cannot fathom even a glimmer of an answer. In future I will try to say "How do you do" (as you seem to prefer) -- but I feel that this doesn't match either. Can you help?
Painfully Nonplussed in Oakland

Dear Nonplussed Sir,
Of course I can help. I know exactly what your problem is: You're burdened with the same excess of literalism as the person who wrote the "How are you?" letter. The phrase "What do you say?" is not, perhaps, the sort of urbane small talk that you and I strive for -- but it's no worse than "What's up?" or "How's it going?" or the marginally objectionable "How's it hanging?" with which I am occasionally confronted.

These phrases are not to be taken word for word in most cases. They are simply examples of meaningless social blather used to express goodwill and friendly intentions (depending on how they're said, of course), and as such, they should be responded to with more of the same. Just as you'd answer "How do you do?" with a repeat of that question (defying any literal interpretation of the phrase), you might reply to "Jon, what do you say?" with "Hey, Mr. McCoy, what's the good word?" It's not exactly Dorothy Parker, but it'll have to do.

Dear Social Grace,
What is the best way to tell a friend that she has the table manners of a junkyard dog? I'm not exaggerating. She has disgusting manners, and I don't know how to bring it up.
Concerned Friend

Dear Concerned Madam,
Correcting table manners is the purview of parents and spouses/spouse equivalents. Even highly respected etiquette columnists should never even think of correcting someone's table manners -- unless asked to, of course. There is just no polite way to tell a friend that she has the table manners (or any characteristic) of a junkyard dog, my dear. What a polite person does in your situation is turn her attention away from the disturbing spectacle, pay attention to her own meal, and think charitable thoughts about her friend's more admirable, non-junkyard qualities.

Dear Social Grace,
Does the rule of wearing white shoes only between Memorial Day and Labor Day apply to drag queens?
Filet Mignon

Dear Filleted Madam or Sir,
If you would like to make comments about the appropriateness of a drag queen's choice of footwear, you go right ahead. Don't come crying to me when you get smacked. I'm staying the heck out of it.

Clothing rules and rituals serve several purposes. They can show respect for an occasion, person, or place (formal wear at a White House dinner, say, or our culture's elaborate wedding attire), or membership in a community or group. Most people use clothes to tell others who they are (or who they want to be). Clothing's original purpose -- protection from the elements -- has become a very minor concern.

When the Grace family women put away their white shoes in September, they do so as members of a certain community to which they enjoy belonging. When younger members of the Grace family move to San Francisco, dye their hair pink, and pierce their lips and navels, they are doing the same thing (and although a much different community is involved, the clothing rules can be just as rigid).

When people don't follow clothing conventions (consciously or unconsciously), they're making a statement about who they are and whether they belong to a certain group. Drag is definitely such a statement -- wouldn't you agree? Drag is meant to startle, amaze, or delight. I might even argue that drag comes under the category of artistic expression. In such a case, I think rules are made to be broken.

Dear Social Grace,
Recently, my girlfriend and I attended a dinner party at the home of a couple we just met; all in all, there were three couples at the table, including the host and hostess. During our meal, the host and hostess got into a fight. It started small, with a disagreement about whether the pasta sauce the hostess had made was typical of northern or southern Italian cuisine. But the fight soon escalated to silverware-slamming, foulmouthed accusations, and shouts of "You never loved me!"

What does a guest do in such a situation? Intervene? Stop eating and wait for the fight to stop? Just keep eating as though the yelling and screaming wasn't happening? All our options seemed wrong somehow, and it was highly awkward. I defer to your excellent judgment.
Just Trying to Eat My Spaghetti

Dear Trying Sir,
I hope my advice on this situation is completely unnecessary -- because I hope you never again face such a situation; it should be a very rare one. If a personal apology from this couple does not fall into your mailbox or upon your ears very soon, you might consider declining any further invitations to dine with the badly behaved pair.

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