Social Grace

Are you unsure how to behave? Social Grace answers all your toughest etiquette questions

Dear Social Grace,
Your column is a godsend, offering some basic guidelines to San Franciscans who, for whatever unfortunate reasons, were raised without (or have forgotten) good manners. I'm writing in response to your recent column about San Francisco's new reputation as a rude city and our home's low score in the Chronicle's “politeness test” [July 5], and I believe I have a partial explanation for the low score.

The amazing things about our town — the array of cuisine, architecture, arts, and culture — come at some cost. We happily are home to people from around the world (like me) who've brought customs from their previous homes along with them. But sometimes certain customs don't match up with others from across the globe. For example, I learned today over lunch that in my co-worker's native tongue there isn't really a word for “please.” And a woman I work with has said that there isn't really an equivalent for “hello” in her first language. I believed a friend to be just plain rude — until he explained he was raised at a dinner table at which those seated about the table simply shouted their requests for various things to be passed.

I believe that since many here are from different places, we're trying (maybe not hard enough) to find a middle ground. As the Chronicle's test results show, that middle ground doesn't mesh with the sort of manners one would expect in a town with less diversity. I will continue holding doors (etc.) regardless of this. (It's just not that hard to do.)
Thank you for your column.
Jason B.

Dear Jason,
And thank you for your kind, thoughtful letter. I applaud you for continuing to hold doors for others, and I agree completely that being home to people from all over the world is San Francisco's great good fortune. You've brought up an excellent point and a common explanation of poor behavior in large cities. But you and I won't allow multiculturalism to be an excuse for impoliteness, will we? If anything, diversity should be our city's strength: We have our established U.S. good manners (and they are established if not always practiced) and layers upon layers of good manners from other cultures and places working to our benefit.

Everyone comes from a place with a unique culture. Even a person born in San Francisco is certain to have special traditions (part of a larger group's traditions and individual familial ones) not practiced or observed by San Francisco as a whole. Why, the Graces' celebration of Christmas involves at least one singular tradition: hiding — and finding — a Santa Claus doll that has no trousers, and we're from right here in the Bay Area. But unique cultures shouldn't prevent us from behaving well publicly. To use one example given in the Chronicle test, they shouldn't prevent us from giving Muni seats to those in need of them.

Searching for a pantsless Santa Claus doll — and Christmas itself, for that matter — is not something I should or will inflict upon my entire community, because I know that it's not of my community. San Francisco already has a “middle ground,” and my Christmas game is not part of it. San Franciscans already have access to serviceable ways of interacting with other people, and they need to use them if they are to communicate and get along with one another, just as they need to use a common language.

Of course, it's understood that knowing and using the common language doesn't mean that we must forsake other languages. While respecting everyone's way of living, we recognize that participating in a civilized society requires us to learn the conventions of that society, for the benefit of everyone. If shouting at the dinner table is your family's preference, then that is how you will behave when dining with your family, with Social Grace's blessing; you ought to learn, though, that this behavior will alienate others and greatly disadvantage you when you move into larger circles. Because “please” is such an important word to us English-speaking folks, it's one of the first words taught in English classes. Any attempt to force a seminude Santa into my neighbors' Hanukkah observance would result in confusion and animosity. You see, civilized people behave differently in different situations. (How I behave at work is not how I behave at home, and how I behave at the grocery store is not how I behave while traveling in China.) If we're not sure how to behave in a situation, we can easily find out. We can write a letter to an etiquette columnist, for example, or we can just pay attention to other people: an often overlooked etiquette tool.

Membership in a subculture or foreign birth does not excuse us from treating others in a recognizably respectful way — there's nothing too terribly mysterious about the basics of etiquette in the United States. Just for starters: We say please, we don't shout at one another at the table, we share Muni seats, and no one is required to play Find No-Pants Santa.

Dear Social Grace,
I am a fairly healthy HIV-positive man; however, I do have to take a large number of pills each day. My question to you is this: If I am in a public place, such as a restaurant or a nightclub, when the time for my medications arrives, is it appropriate to take them in front of people? Or do I need to excuse myself and take them in private? I must tell you that I believe there is already too much shame associated with this terrible disease, and I feel that having to hide the fact that I am on medication will only serve to perpetuate the shame. Your advice on this matter is greatly appreciated.
Robert D.

Dear Robert,
I can think of no reason to remove oneself to a private place to take a pill or other oral medicine unless one prefers to. If a person must give himself injections, however, he might want to repair to a secluded place, for his safety and the comfort of those around him.

The etiquette concerns attached to HIV medication are no different than those attached to other medicines: aspirin, vitamins … or pieces of hard candy, even. (I fail to see how taking a pill could be seen as more offensive than eating a piece of chewing gum.) I completely agree with you that there should be no “shame” attached to having a virus, taking medicine, or caring for one's health. The very idea is, to my mind, ridiculous in the extreme. The nature of your medicine is your concern.

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