Office Surprise

Tired of your co-workers stealing your milk? Here's how to stop it

Dear Social Grace,

I was hoping you could help me with an etiquette question. My work does not provide milk, so I purchase my own for coffee, etc. I have caught a person taking my milk for their cereal and coffee more than once. How would I say it nicely that she should purchase her own milk and keep away from other people's food? Please advise.


Dear Joan,

After twice catching this refrigerator bandit in the very act of siphoning your (explicitly labeled, I assume) dairy products, the level of niceness required is only the bare minimum -- the same level with which you must treat all your co-workers. However, it's best to assume that minor misdeeds are innocent mistakes. Here's one example of how your exchange could play out: "Ms. Jenkins, I notice that there's been some confusion about whose milk is whose in the office refrigerator. Just so that doesn't happen again, I'm going to keep my milk carton in this lavender wine bag." Or you could ask your co-worker whether she'd like to organize a group of colleagues to pool resources and buy some all-office coffee additives. That way, you could shareyour milk -- and perhaps, thereby, bring about some of the "working together" feelings that make a day at the office more enjoyable.

Dear Social Grace,

I frequently dine out with friends, and on numerous occasions have been put off when a member of our party takes out a handkerchief during the meal and blows their nose at the table. Isn't this a social faux pas, and if so, how do I get the message across, without hurting any feelings, that this is an activity best conducted in private away from the dining table?

Blown Away

Dear Blown-Away Madam or Sir,

I don't know whether I should be delighted to hear that there are still people carrying handkerchiefs or dismayed that they're misusing these valuable little pieces of cloth. But as much as I share your pain -- honestly, now, anyone with enough good sense to carry a handkerchief should know that using it may have a negative effect on others' appetites -- there's little I can recommend that you do. You can't give your friends unsolicited manners instruction at the table (your children and your significant others are a different story, of course). With friends, your best recourse is to teach by example: The next time you're out to dinner, excuse yourself to blow your nose. Although such explanations usually fall into the "too much information" category, you'd be sharing considerably less than your congested friends, and it just might do them some good.

Dear Social Grace,

We are planning a housewarming party, mainly for my co-workers. I would prefer that no gifts be brought, but I'm not sure how to phrase it on the invites without sounding rude. Somehow it ends up sounding as if I do not want their gifts (part true -- if everyone could pick out a kick-@*& bottle of red wine, I wouldn't be asking). Part of my motivation in having a party is to thank my co-workers for being so patient as I "met with the (insert appropriate contractor here) guy." Is there a proper way to put it, or should I just shut up and let them do what they please?

House of NoDear Homeowning Madam or Sir,

I'd let my guests do as they please with gifts. But if I really didn't want anything, I'd leave the word "housewarming" off the invitation. "Housewarming" says, to many people, "Bring a gift." You could just call it a party, and in the invites to the people you're thanking, say something like, "As thanks for all your patience while Evelyn and I got our house together, we'd love to have you over for drinks."

Asking for "no gifts" isn't nearly as horrendous as asking for "cash gifts" (yes, people really do this); however, the sentiment seems to suggest that gifts would otherwise be forthcoming. There areparties for which gifts are a must: showers (bridal and baby) and weddings, for example. In such cases, the discussion of gifts should come up when a guest RSVPs or otherwise speaks to the host or a relative. At that point, the party-thrower can say either "She's registered at Pottery Barn Kids" or "They say they don't want any gifts, but just between you and me, I know they'd love a nice bottle of wine." If you are asked about a present, that is the time to say that you want only the pleasure of your co-workers' company.

A housewarming party is an odd bird. Guests do traditionally bring gifts (a token present, though -- nothing fancy), but people throw these parties for themselves, which makes gift-giving unusual. I would love to be able to say that no one throws a party for himself because he wants people to bring him gifts -- but I would be lying. If, for example, a friend throws herself a birthday party, the fact that she's hosting shouldn't have too much bearing on your decision to buy her a gift -- although a little something extra might be nice as a "thanks for entertaining me."

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