Social Grace

The Art of the Swift Subject Change

Dear Social Grace,
I was having dinner with some co-workers at a restaurant. The restaurant was packed, and tables were right next to each other. One man from our table started to tell a story about bodily functions in gory detail. His voice was so loud that every table around us could hear him. I turned red with embarrassment for him, but I didn't know him well enough to tell him to shut up. He was oblivious to everyone's discomfort. What should I have done?

Red Lobster

Dear Red Madam or Sir,
Yes, you have to know someone very well before you can tell him to “shut up” — but you should be able to change a subject confidently with even casual acquaintances. This is a skill that modern people must have, unfortunately, as there are so many people who have never learned to speak appropriately and well. (On that note, I'll just mention that explicit tales of the human body and its wonders are upsetting to many and should therefore be avoided at the dinner table.) Here are three steps to a dinnertime subject change.

Step 1: intercept. When the speaker pauses in his story about that unfortunate trip to the emergency room — at a point that, for decency's sake, should be the tale's end — jump in and finish it for him. “Oh,” you say with a note of finality and a look of dismay/shock/horror, “how unfortunate/bizarre/terrible.”

Step 2: run with the ball. There are a few topics readily at hand if you're dining in a restaurant, and you should be able to spin any of them for a few minutes — long enough for a speaker to reconsider his topic (and, it is hoped, to realize that he's blundered). “Well,” you could say with a smile, “how's your gnocchi/sushi/taco? Mine is just delicious. Have you eaten at that new Italian/Japanese/Mexican place over on 24th/ Balboa/Divisadero? The one by the dry-cleaning place? Well, it's fabulous. I like that neighborhood, don't you?”

Step 3: pass. Someone else at the table is sure to feel the same level of discomfort that you do. He or she is your ally, and together you can get any number of conversations going from your simple opener (although your indecorous speaker has almost certainly come to his senses by now). You might choose to chat about restaurants, international food trends, the merits of particular San Francisco neighborhoods, or even dry cleaners (but be careful — “difficult stains” is a topic that could lead you right back into the dangerous area you've just left).

Dear Social Grace,
I recently had my hair colored — a $140 process. I tipped my usual 20 percent. However, the color wasn't quite right, and the colorist invited me to come back for a free “retouch.” Must I tip him for the second, free visit? How much? This was the first time I'd visited this salon.


Dear Madam or Sir,
I polled some beauty professionals I'm fortunate to know, and they agree that the tip should depend on the situation. Did the colorist do his job as agreed upon? If so — if you've decided that honey-blond highlights just aren't “you” after all — and your colorist is retouching you as a professional courtesy, then of course a tip (based on his approximate hourly rate, say) is appropriate. If, however, you are returning to the salon to have a mistake corrected, you could consider the second visit an extension of the first, which you've already paid (and tipped) for. I'd tip, no matter what, if I felt that my colorist had gone above and beyond the call of duty in making my hair as beautiful as it could be. Being nice to the people in charge of your hair is always a good idea, and tipping, as we've learned in recent columns, is not always a reward for extra service but often an assumed part of many people's salaries.

Dear Social Grace,
What do you do when you're eating with someone who talks with his mouth full, and all of a sudden, a chunk of food comes flying out at you and lands on your hand? This happened last night. I ignored it, and the perpetrator acted like he did not notice it. I'm not going to eat with this person again until you give me a solution.

The Red Lobster

Dear Red Madam or Sir,
You've certainly had a trying week of dining out, my crustacean friend. Perhaps you should eat alone tonight — you're starting to sound just a little bit testy.

Regular readers will remember a column in which an accidental food spitter asked how to handle this problem (“How to Handle a Big Goopy Wad of Pâté,” Aug. 16). Now we have a letter from an innocent bystander, a spittee. I'm compelled to ask that we all try to have more swallowing of our food and less spitting of it.

When a food particle happens to land on your hand, you discreetly remove it (in the restroom or with a napkin). I'm sure this was an accident — and I'm afraid that your apparent anger may be a bit of an overreaction. If the perpetrator acts as though he didn't notice, it's best to be charitable and believe that he truly didn't see it. (If he had, he would've correctly apologized and attempted to supply a napkin, right?) I hope you'll give him another chance. If he did notice that food chunk hitting your hand, I'm certain the event has embarrassed him enough that he'll be very careful when speaking to you in the future.

Dear Social Grace,
I am a woman; however, I wasn't always. I'm quite happy, but I have a problem with talking about my past: I know lying is wrong, but I also don't like to tell people that I was once biologically a male (or even to talk about it, if they already know) — for many obvious and many very private reasons. But it comes up a lot. For example, what do I do when I'm asked about my childhood? Is it rude of me to lie and talk about “when I was just a little girl”?


Dear Madam,
I can set your mind at ease about these “lies.” The way I understand it, you were a little girl — you just needed the courage, the patience, and the medical help to become the woman you were meant to be. If you want to withhold certain aspects of your life — such as the fact that you underwent a major medical procedure (exactly the type of revelation that many people quite correctly reserve for their closest intimates) — you have every right to do so, and etiquette is solidly on your side. When asked about aspects of your life you'd rather not explain, you might gracefully change the subject (we've outlined some pointers in this very column). If pressed, you should simply say that you prefer not to discuss your childhood.

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