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Not Too Nice 

Of lunchtime invitations, flip-flop flaps, and shortened first names

Wednesday, Aug 3 2005
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Dear Social Grace,

We have a co-worker in our department who never goes out to lunch unless the company pays for it, but manages to ask one of the people in our lunch group to bring something back for her almost every time we go out. (Which is almost every day.) We are starting to keep it quiet about going out ... but she manages to find out and then just plops her money down and proceeds to tell us what she wants.

Is there a nice way to say we are tired of ordering and bringing her lunch back, when we always eat our lunch at the place we go to?

Rita Valasek

Dear Ms. Valasek,

Your question is, fundamentally, about how to deal with a social bully -- someone who takes advantage (either wittingly or unwittingly) of another person's desire to be nice. We nice people make things easy for such bullies in two ways: First, we often believe that niceness won't permit standing up for ourselves when necessary; second, we want other people to like us -- crazily enough, we sometimes even want bullies to like us.

Of course, being polite does sometimes require simply putting up with a fair bit of irritation -- I can't emphasize that strongly enough. But you needn't let yourself be a doormat. It is not necessarily impolite to refuse a favor you can't or won't do. (In fact, saying no is much nicer than letting resentment build up until you're so upset that you have to write to an advice columnist.)

In your place, I would say with a smile, "I'm sorry, but I can't," or, "Oh, dear; we'll have to come straight back after lunch, so I'm afraid not" -- or something along those lines. Then I'd repeat as necessary.

I'll warn you that this co-worker may be bewildered, perturbed, or downright infuriated by your refusals. She may even decide that she doesn't like you. Perhaps you will be comforted to know that even I have my detractors -- and I am very nice.

Dear Social Grace,

Catch up -- we have an idiot in the White House, our kids are being killed and maimed for life, all sorts of atrocities are being committed around the world in the name of whatever cause, and all you can think of is open-toed shoes. [This letter is in response to several recent interviews I've done about a group of Northwestern University students who wore flip-flops while meeting President Bush at the White House.]

What kind of education did you get?

Via the Internet

Dear Anonymous Madam or Sir,

Commenting on matters of etiquette and protocol is part of what I do for a living -- and this aspect of human behavior is important and interesting to me. But the suggestion that these things are "all I think of" isn't really fair. I mean, when your e-mail arrived, I was thinking about which Jane Austen novel I'd take to a desert island if I could take only one. (Probably Persuasion -- now I'll have to think more about this later.)

I can only assume from your note that everything you do is part of a noble effort to put an end to the world's atrocities (that is, aside from the time you spent reading about the flip-flop flap, locating my Web site, and composing your note to me -- not that I begrudge you these moments of leisure). So I shall ignore the implied insult to my education, and offer to agree to disagree with you about the fittingness of discussing White House protocol in a public forum such as a newspaper.

I think the rather large controversy that these shoes caused is, in fact, evidence of the importance of etiquette rules in our society. Here are my final thoughts: I acknowledge that times, and fashions, change. And I'll allow that some flip-flops are very fancy. However, I'm on the side of the "fuddy-duddies" who insist that some occasions -- such as a visit to the White House -- require that we display respect by dressing formally or conservatively. Flip-flops are neither formal nor conservative -- not yet, anyway. If you wear them to meet the president at the White House, you risk offending people. Do with this knowledge what you will. But as I often say, if you're going to offend people, you shouldn't do so by accident (say, with casual footwear) -- you should do so knowingly and with stern determination (say, with a vituperative e-mail message).

Dear Social Grace,

In social and work situations, people often shorten my name, "Jennifer," to "Jen," without being invited to do so. I'd like to know if there is any appropriate way to ask them to use my full given name. Students with whom I work often reply to my e-mails, which I sign with my full name, and call me "Jen." Are there polite ways I can reply to people who take liberties with my name, in writing or in person and in social or work situations?

Thank you.
Jennifer Vorih

Dear Ms. Vorih,

When a person gets your name wrong in a professional situation, it is not impolite to gently correct him or her -- in fact, doing so is helpful. People who've erred will be grateful, and people who make up nicknames for new acquaintances may even benefit from your graciously forgiving correction.

Here's an instructive dialogue to practice at home:

Student: "Should I call you tomorrow about this, Jen?"

You: "Oh, I'm sorry -- actually, my name is Jennifer." [Friendly smile.] "Yes, let me give you my card; it has my phone number on it."

The difficult thing about correcting someone in an e-mail is that it's hardly easy to get that gentle, gracious tone across (emoticons, or "smileys," can't really get the expression right -- in fact, I usually register them only as stray punctuation marks). So I suggest that any e-mail name correction be done only by example -- for instance, you could change the subject heading to "A Reply From Jennifer" and sign your name, again, as "Jennifer."

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Social Grace

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