Dear Social Grace,
The man I love has some facial piercings, which I think look great on him, but I think he should remove them when we go somewhere that is a “dress-up” place or to a wedding. I say that a nose ring is “informal.” Do you agree?
Though your question may be in jest, it's a subject that Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post never touched, and I'm delighted to explore new etiquette territory. It's been my experience that some people with nose rings aren't all that concerned about dressing too informally, while others come from cultures in which such a piercing is common — even “formal.” If I were the nose-ring type, I might remove mine for a “dress-up” evening, even if I did so only because a person professing love for me thought it necessary. You might have more luck presenting your request that way: “You'll be doing it for me, sweetheart, not for society and its stupid rules.”
The formality of a nose ring depends on who's wearing it, why he's wearing it, and where he's wearing it. Increasingly, people dress informally, and if your gentleman can remember to remove his baseball cap at the theater and otherwise show respect for others, I can't find fault with his attire. Look at the liberties taken with “black-tie” dress at Hollywood award shows, or at the ubiquity of track suits (ironic and otherwise) and sneakers. Clothing conventions are always changing — faster and faster. You have to pay attention to context as well as to local customs: There are still plenty of places in the world where a nose ring would cause a commotion. (When you two attend that family wedding in rural Tennessee, say, he should consider removing the facial piercings, if only to avoid upstaging the bride.)
When a subject like this comes up, someone (often wearing a silver stud in her eyebrow) will pipe up with concerns about “compromising principles.” But jewelry isn't always representative of true principles, and the ability to compromise (and to recognize when to do so) is a hallmark of courtesy. In fact, that ability is a better indicator of a broad-minded, free-thinking person than a facial piercing.
Dear Social Grace,
I do work for various Bay Area nonprofits, staffed by steadfast liberals, and I therefore have to be hypersensitive to political correctness. Recently I've wondered if it's incorrect to describe someone by his or her ethnicity. If I have to describe someone I spoke to but didn't get a name from, can I say, “She was Asian-American, about 30, with long hair and round glasses”? I recently did something like this and felt a chill from the people I was speaking to. I am white.
Via the Internet
Dear Correct Madam or Sir,
The disinclination to describe people this way has roots in recent massive changes in our culture's structure. Not so very long ago, a speaker newly sensitive to issues such as skin color might have hesitated before using these descriptors because doing so could imply that he was the type of person who noticed those things. Saying “The lawyer I spoke to was an Asian-American woman” might indicate that he found the idea of an Asian-American woman practicing law unusual.
But if you have a reason for describing a person's appearance — if, say, you're sending someone to find a particular long-haired lawyer with round glasses in a room full of them — you'd be gracious to offer that bit of extra information. Although I heartily prefer too much sensitivity to too little, you needn't delete descriptions of physical characteristics from your conversation if they are necessary.
I can't tell you what caused the chill in your situation. Was describing the woman's appearance necessary? If so, perhaps it had nothing to do with you — maybe she had been caught cheating at bridge, or perhaps round glasses have fallen out of fashion with the steadfastly liberal set. But wholesale disapproval of using “Asian-American” to describe a person — if appearance is pertinent to the conversation — seems to indicate that being Asian-American is somehow disreputable. Our culture's sensitivity to discrimination is so important, and in some places so tenuous, that there is a danger of overapplication. One example: pretending that people of different ethnicities do not have noticeably different appearances.
Dear Social Grace,
At my office, we generally throw a baby shower for co-workers who are new mothers. Should we do the same for a new father in our midst? We don't know his wife, but it seems almost unfair not to baby-shower him as we would a female, though it's never come up before.
Office Social Committee
Dear OSC Madams,
The baby shower is not a very old tradition, nor is it steeped in special symbolism (for example, religious meaning), so there's little danger of causing offense with variations on its form. Such a party is about giving presents to a new family, and it's as recent a development as the “social workplace,” in which co-workers are encouraged to fete one another as if they were intimate buddies. Traditionally (and I use the word loosely) a baby shower is thrown for a woman by her friends, but there's no danger of rudeness in doing something nice for a male colleague and his growing family. That said, do it only if you are moved to do so, not because you feel forced to do it in the name of “fairness.”