Americans, the Beautiful

The etiquette of being a guest, flying the flag, and addressing the president

Dear Social Grace,

This summer, I went to Italy with two close friends whom I've known for years. We stayed with one friend's parents for two weeks. My other friend and I took a couple of overnight trips to other cities, but the bulk of our time was spent at the parents' home. We had a great time and they were wonderful hosts, and we took them out to dinner a couple of times. When I was back in the States, I sent them a thank-you card detailing how much I enjoyed myself. Was this enough? I know my friend has sent them a gift after staying with them on previous occasions (I hadn't seen them since our high school graduation). She didn't say anything about sending them something this time; however, I recently got the impression that she was planning to or had done so already. Should I have done something more? I don't want to appear ungrateful, because that's certainly not how I feel! I'm just not sure what etiquette calls for.

Thanks for your advice.
Via the Internet

Dear Grateful Madam or Sir,

First off, I'll congratulate you for sending the necessary thank-you note. With that and buying your hosts dinner, you've earned a Social Grace Good Houseguest lapel pin, which you can wear proudly on your next trip overseas.

Generally, a small “host gift” is customary, especially for stays of more than a couple of days — and in parts of Europe, it's expected. Presenting a gift to hosts upon your arrival (or selecting one during your stay) is an often- recommended way of handling it. If you know your hosts well enough, an appropriate household item or specialty food might make a good present; otherwise, gifts from your hometown are nice. A San Franciscan, for instance, might bring a coffee-table picture book of the city. And though you wouldn't bring California wine to Italy, it might be a fine choice if you were going somewhere else.

I'd suggest that you send some sort of a token thank-you gift. It doesn't have to be expensive or grand, but pleasant hospitality makes us feel so grateful (as you point out) that a small present in return is a pleasant gesture. The fact that your friend has already sent one should have no bearing on your decision to do so: Gift-giving should never be a contest.

Dear Social Grace,

You recently talked about the etiquette of burning the flag [“Chars and Stripes,” Oct. 17], which I think most people find “repellent,” as you do; however, I'm just as disgusted by all the people who are attempting to show respect to the flag but are actually insulting it and our country. I was a Boy Scout, so I learned how to treat the flag, but that was many years ago, so the flag procedures I had drilled into me may no longer be correct. Have rules changed regarding flying the flag at night, hanging flags, etc.? It irritates me, as an American, to see a big American flag tied to a tailgate or thrown over a porch railing and dangling in the rose bushes (both of which I've seen today).

Via the Internet

Dear American Sir,

A nation's flag is a potent symbol, and as such it should be treated with care. If one decides to express dissatisfaction by willfully abusing that symbol, well, that's an individual choice. Accidental mistreatment, however, is something everyone should avoid. If you're going to offend people, at least do so intentionally.

What you learned as a Boy Scout is still in effect, though you wouldn't know it from the abuse and disrepair of many American flags flying today. As you were instructed, Old Glory should not be flown at night, unless it's part of a special patriotic display (as in honor of war casualties), in which case it must be lit. A flag should not be flown in rainy or inclement weather that might damage it, unless it is made of all-weather fabric. According to the U.S. government, flags should not be draped on vehicles; rather, they should be affixed to a small staff attached to the front bumper. The flag should never touch anything beneath it — ground, floor, or rosebush.

The most common abuse of the Stars and Stripes I've seen lately is its use as a curtain. It should never be gathered or folded, but should fly free or hang flat unless it is draped over a coffin (and the blue field should always be on the viewer's left). Finally, since it's a symbol of our country, the flag shouldn't be used in an advertising display or as an article of clothing. We don't have to look far to see the flag thus abused, most likely by people whose intent is an expression of patriotic pride. For more information on flag etiquette, readers can look to any number of government Web sites — or just ask a favorite Boy Scout.

Dear Social Grace,

All too often, I hear newscasters address the president as “Mr. Bush.” I was taught that it should be “Mr. President” at all times. Thoughts?


Dear Media-Minded Madam or Sir,

We can't always rely on newscasters as examples of proper behavior. The current president should be addressed as “Mr. President” in conversation, though employing “Sir” during further chats is correct. “Mr. Bush” is G.W.'s father, though in formal situations and letters he, having held the office previously, would be addressed as “President Bush.” “Mr. President” is reserved for the current commander in chief.

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