Awkward Moments

Sometimes a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is best for family gatherings

Dear Social Grace,

My question is about introducing a gay family member's partner. My younger brother "Mike" is gay, which has never been an issue in our family. For five years, he has been with "Joe," who is part of our family, too, no question. The problem arose at a recent family occasion. My longtime boyfriend, "Tom," is as open-minded as they come, but he comes from a more conservative family who lives far away from the Bay Area. So it was the first time Mike and Joe were meeting some of Tom's siblings, along with their spouses and young children ... and I felt awkward about introducing Joe as Mike's boyfriend. I ended up saying something like, "This is my little brother Mike. And this is, um ... Joe!" My goal was mostly to avoid making Mike, Joe, and Tom's family uncomfortable by bringing up a touchy subject or something the kids might not understand ... but it seemed so awkward, and I think I actually made people more uncomfortable. And then the obvious question was unanswered: "Who is Joe and why is he at a family party?" In this situation, what would have been the right way to proceed? Joe and Mike will certainly be meeting Tom's parents soon enough, and I want to do the right thing by everyone.

Loving But Confused Big Sister

Dear Loving Madam,

Unless Tom's siblings have just arrived from Venus -- or somewhere else beyond the reach of TV, radio, the Internet, print publishing, popular music, and any form of modern advertising -- they have figured out what Mike and Joe's relationship is. And if it's a matter of concern, Tom's parents will likely hear a report before the next family gathering. So you can relax on that account.

To ease your mind a bit further, I'll add that it is not an insult to introduce someone only by his name. The mere fact that Joe is present at a family celebration is really the only thing another guest needs to know in order to interact with him properly. That is, I hope I can trust everyone to be respectful of all other guests at the family celebrations he attends. How we feel about those guests' political views, their right to marry, or their taste in accessories should have no visible effect on our demeanor.

Luckily, Tom's siblings, and yours, obviously understand this. Sometimes, keeping the familial peace (and being pleasant at a family celebration) takes precedence over making a social statement.

In the future, if you are truly concerned that a party guest will begin frothing at the mouth when he learns that he has met a gay person, you might do your brother a favor and warn him that he'll be encountering said sociopath. You could also adopt a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (such policies have proved to be deeply flawed but temporarily functional). Truly, the word "partner" should work wonderfully here -- its meaning is just broad enough that people who want to gloss over the subject could do so (and it should go over the heads of any Venusian children present). Here's an introduction that treats everyone with respect and offers some neutral topics to talk about: "This is my brother Mike, and this is Joe Smith. They live in Santa Cruz -- Joe is a marine biologist. Mike and Joe, this is Tom's brother Dan. Dan is an avid fisherman."

And you have a great reference close at hand: your younger brother. Why not explain the situation to him as you have to me, offer an apology if he feels that one is needed, and ask him how he'd like similar situations handled in the future?

Dear Social Grace,

Many times when dining out at a fine restaurant, after my wife and I have been seated, our server will come to the table and pick up my wife's napkin, unfold it, and place it on her lap for her. While I watch this, er, unfolding, I always wonder if I should take my own napkin and put it on my lap, or if I should sit, seemingly paralyzed, waiting for the server to come over and put my napkin on my lap. I usually take matters into my own hands and open my own napkin, because I'm embarrassed to sit and wait for someone to do something so basic for me. But what is the true etiquette for this situation?

To Fold or Not to Fold?

Dear Sir,

You may place your own napkin in your lap while your server unfolds your wife's. Or you could wait -- he'd probably get to yours, too. This placing of the napkin is the sort of extra dining drama you get to enjoy in nicer establishments, but one unfolding usually serves as a cue to others. (It's like a server's chair-holding: He'll hold one, but while he's doing so, other diners will often get themselves settled.)

Dear Social Grace,

We had the good fortune to win a celebrity chef's dinner and cocktail party at a benefit auction, and paid more than $10K for the privilege. The party is for 20 people, with three top chefs preparing the meal. The cocktail party will be held in one of the chefs' restaurants and then will move to the other chef's restaurant for the dinner. We assume that some of the chefs' staff will be involved as well, to serve the multicourse meal. Our question involves tipping. How should we go about tipping, whom should we tip, and how much?

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