Calculating Kindness

How to pay off good Samaritans, party during Ramadan, and play footsie during dinner

Dear Social Grace,

Last summer, my girlfriend and I were driving through the Navajo Nation (in what we call Arizona), viewing all the amazing mesas and terrible poverty, when my car got stuck in some sand. I flagged down a passing pickup truck, and the driver quickly pulled over. A Navajo couple helped me without saying a word, the rich white man's (my) new Volkswagen spraying them with sand as they pushed my car.

I thanked them profusely for freeing my car, and I immediately reached in my pocket and pulled out a $10 bill. I said, "Would you like something for your trouble?" and held it out. The man looked at me for a moment and then took the money, and then the couple drove off. I suddenly felt a lot of guilt for this, my throwing money at the poor people, even though they helped just to be nice, because people still do that some places. On the other hand, I didn't force them to take the money; I only offered, and they could have refused. Did I do the right thing, or a rude thing, by offering them money for their kindness?

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White Guilt

Dear Guilty Sir,

You and I agree that your $10 cheapened this couple's act of kindness -- one doesn't generally tip good Samaritans. That your payment was inappropriate becomes even clearer when we edit out this situation's incidental information, such as the (presumed) financial situation of the people involved. An interaction that could've left you with that delightful "Gosh, people are sure nice" feeling and the helpful couple with that delicious "I did an unselfish good deed" feeling was rendered awkward by the introduction of a little bit of money. But don't be too hard on yourself -- you were properly, profusely grateful, and the payment may even have been welcome.

It's unfortunate that heartfelt thanks are often seen as less valuable than a few bucks. But there is some smudgy gray around the edges of your question, and I can imagine situations in which a payment for help might be acceptable. If your plight had required that the couple give you something with a cash value (like a gas can or a rope), for example, or if someone obviously destitute (carrying a "Will Work for Food" sign) had come to your aid, a handout would've been appropriate. In such cases, though, the subject of payment should be broached before you reach for your wallet; money thrust upon someone is potentially insulting, but the suggestion of payment is easier to rebuff and disregard. Next time, try this: "I'm in your debt; can I repay your kindness in some way? May I perhaps pay you for your time?"

Dear Social Grace,

I'm having a birthday party, and I have invited about 20 people. I didn't realize that it was Ramadan until one of my guests told me she would try to come but would be fasting for the holiday. It is too late to reschedule, but I feel bad that I invited guests to celebrate at a time when they can't eat. I believe it's a water-only fast until sundown. I called the one woman back and apologized for the mistake, but I know other guests who RSVP'd are Muslim. What should I do for the guests who come and are fasting?


Dear Mary,

I commend you for your sensitivity, but you have nothing to feel bad about, and there was no reason to reschedule your birthday party. Ramadan is a rather solemn, reflective time, so some of your friends may prefer, understandably, to decline your invitation; others will participate in your party as they feel they can. (The friend you mention has already given you a sensible heads-up that her refusal of your cheese log won't be a comment on your cooking.) As far as providing for your fasting guests -- well, they shouldn't be that much trouble. You certainly won't have to make any last-minute trips to the supermarket. What you need to keep in mind is a good rule for any party: Don't make a fuss about who is eating what and who is not eating at all, and don't press food on guests who don't want it.

Dear Social Grace,

Two boy-girl couples go out to dine. They sit at a rectangular table that has two chairs on either side. Who sits where? Do the girls sit on one side, do the couples sit next to each other, or is it mixed doubles?

Still Standing and Wondering

Dear Standing Sir or Madam,

Unfortunately, the answer is more complicated than you might think. One way to determine who sits where is atmosphere: If you're trying to create a "ladies first" feeling, the women should have the better seats -- for example, the two that offer a good view of the restaurant. Or if one pair are the guests of the other, you may choose to put the guests in the better seats.

If, however, neither of these scenarios applies, ladies sit next to their gentlemen (in a booth, ladies enter first), a setup that makes conversation easier. (Each diner can make direct eye contact with everyone but his or her significant other -- with whom, presumably, he or she can communicate easily without that aid.) At a four-person table with a chair on each side, ladies sit across from their gentlemen. It makes playing footsie under the table more interesting.

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