Our Foreign Friends

If you can't speak calmly to people you disagree with, don't have political discussions at all

Dear Social Grace,

My roommate and very good friend is British, and we socialize with many people who are European or Asian. Needless to say, political talk has been especially touchy lately. Everyone I know, including myself, is totally against what our government is doing in Iraq. However, the conversations have been volatile lately, and I've been faced with the situation of being the only American in a crowd of people who are saying things like, "Americans are so stupid!" How can I express that although I agree with the point of their discussion, they are being highly insulting and I don't want to stand for it? I would never say anything like that about another person's country.

American Peace Lover

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Dear Pacifist Madam or Sir,

Well, what about this: "While I agree with your point and understand that this is a volatile subject, I won't stand for having my country and all of its people insulted." Indeed, it would be rather shameful not to stand up for one's country (or any country, really) after hearing it so broadly defamed.

You may want to follow such a statement with an opportunity for your foreign friend to redeem himself. You could say, for example, "But I'd like to continue our discussion. What specifically do you think is 'stupid' about what's going on?" This gambit may even get the conversation headed in a more appropriate direction -- i.e., a levelheaded sharing of viewpoints. I'll just add, for the benefit of everyone, that if you can't speak calmly to, listen to, and ask questions of people with whom you disagree on political matters, you really shouldn't go in for political discussions at all. This option can be difficult, I know. Here's a tip: Instead of yelling insults during what should be pleasant (or at least educational) conversations, take advantage of the evening news as an occasion to express your angrier feelings, in the privacy of your own home, by yelling at people who can't hear you.

Dear Social Grace,

At the gym I go to, there are a few people who I see quite often because we seem to be on the same workout schedule. I am a friendly person, and so when I see someone regularly, I smile or say hello when I see them. A couple of these people, especially one guy, have obviously taken my friendly smile to mean something a lot more. He never speaks to me after hello, but he looks at me all the time and takes the machines next to the ones I'm using, and he has pointed me out to his friends, etc. I don't want to be rude, but how can I tell him that I'm not interested in him that way?

Via Internet

Dear Uninterested Madam or Sir,

Broadly speaking, it's difficult to pre-emptively tell a person that you don't like him "that way." In fact, it's almost impossible to do so without seeming quite conceited. So this gentleman works out at the same time as you and seems to find you lovely to look at. Everything else is conjecture. Do you see how explaining that you're not romantically inclined toward him would be a mistake? It's not easy being attractive (don't I know it), and being friendly in a world where simple friendliness is increasingly unfamiliar can be even more difficult. But please persevere.

To solve your problem, turn your friendliness up a notch. The next time your shy Romeo climbs onto the StairMaster next to yours, initiate a conversation about the weather -- and what you and your partner/girlfriend/husband did to enjoy or avoid it. Then wish him a good workout and put your headphones back on. If you don't have a significant someone and don't feel like fibbing (though "partner" could be used to indicate just about any relationship), your neighborliness might at least give him the courage to ask you out. And then you can let him know that his affections are misplaced, with a "No, thank you."

Dear Social Grace,

I know that it is proper etiquette for the man to escort the lady down the street on the side closest to the street. But why? I had always assumed it was to protect her from possible mud/water splashing on her from cars, or possible injury from automobiles. But someone recently told me they heard it was due to times in the past when sewage was frequently thrown from balconies to the street. The woman walked on the inside because she would still be covered by the balcony and not accidentally be soiled. Who is right?

Thank you,

The Lady on the Inside

Dear Interior Madam,

The "throwing human waste out of windows" is sort of an etiquette urban legend: City dwellers never habitually flung the contents of their chamber pots into busy streets. Can you imagine? Our great-great-great-grandfathers would have been just as annoyed as our great-great-great-grandmothers to find themselves doused in sewage, and I imagine that they would've raised, well, quite a stink. There have been sewers and privy holes in large cities since the days of the Roman Empire. The real reason men began escorting women on the inside was to protect them from splattering mud and the like, and sometimes to protect their privacy (in some circles, hundreds of years ago, women just didn't go walking about, willy-nilly, as they do today). Nowadays, this practice is hardly a requirement of good manners, though it's good for a gentleman to be aware of, in case he goes for a stroll with someone who expects that rarefied "ladies first" atmosphere.

 
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