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Make sure you’re minding your manners

Is it rude to say “bless you” to a sneezing atheist? Should you talk about money with acquaintances? “Miss Conduct” tackles the tough etiquette issues in her new book. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

The Boston Globe Magazine’s popular “Miss Conduct” columnist tackles sticky situations involving food, money, religion and more in her new book, “Mind Over Manners.” An excerpt.

Introduction: Welcome to the real world of etiquette
Admit it: you’re not sure what the rules are anymore.

Oh, not the rules about not doing unto others as that which would be hateful unto you, or loving thy neighbor as thyself. You know the big rules. And all the little ones about which fork to use when and the proper order of a wedding processional? Maybe you even know those, or at least you have a dusty book in which you can look them up as necessary.

No, nowadays, the problems that flummox people are the dilemmas that live in the gray area between ethics (the big rules) and protocol (the small ones), and reflect the modern explosion of social complexity. Problems like:

  • Is it polite to say “Bless you” to a sneezing atheist?
  • Is there a good way to request “No Barbies or Disney princesses, please” for a four-year-old’s birthday party?
  • What, if anything, should be said to an otherwise health-conscious friend who is tanning himself into jerky?
  • Can a group of women properly be addressed as “you guys”?

And my personal favorite—

  • What’s a nice vegetarian girl to do if Gypsies give her bread smeared with lard?

The first thing you should understand: it’s not just you who is confused. (You can calm down about that.) The second thing: there are no rules yet devised for these slippery questions— but there are principles of conduct that will gracefully guide your way through the world. Seductively simple as rules are, they’re no longer adequate for the modern world.

In the three generations since Emily Post debuted her bible of propriety, unprecedented diversity has marked our lives — not just diversity of race, ethnicity, and religion, but of priorities, values, and experiences. Every culture has its ideologies, its traditions, its folklore — about what we can and cannot eat; how to share and display our material resources; how to make sense of the world around us and create rituals for the transitions of our lives; how men and women should interact; and how to treat children, the sick and disabled, and domestic animals. Food, money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets — these are the topics people ask “Miss Conduct” about, and so these are the chapters of my book. Figuring out the answers to those questions is a large part of what culture is for.

In twenty-first-century America, finding these answers is exceedingly complicated. People who choose not to have children maintain that their decision is as positive — and their time as valuable — as that of parents. Vegetarians and people who follow religious or health-related dietary rules are less willing to “eat a little just to be polite.” And let’s not even get into the whole business of who wants to be cheered with a “Merry Christmas” and who does not (at least not until chapter 3, anyway). Throughout history, new technology — from the printing press to the BlackBerry — and new ideas — from Manifest Destiny to multiculturalism — have driven changes in social behavior. But people don’t all react to change in a coordinated fashion, like a school of fish suddenly veering away from a shark. Everyone processes change at different rates. This means that for any situation there are probably quite a few versions of “correct” behavior to choose from — and quite a few people willing to say that you didn’t choose the “right” one.

Food, money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets — there’s a reason these are the things people wonder about; this stuff has been important to us humans for a very, very long time. Without all those things, and our ability to think about them, we wouldn’t even be human. So in each chapter, I start by explaining a bit about the evolutionary roots of each issue and then try to describe, as best I can, the different cultural values bumping together in the twenty-first century. I offer advice on how to live with your own values and how to live with those who have chosen different ones.

Being a good host to the food ruled So your peanut-allergic kid’s new playdate partner has celiac disease, or your South Beach–devoted best friend is dating a fruitarian, or your roommate develops high blood pressure, or the new guy in your cube farm is a devout garlic-free Buddhist — or you’re an up-and-coming, meat-loving chef hosting all five of them at once on the wacky new sitcom Vegan Zombies Eat Your Graaaaaaains. What courtesies does the carnivorous host owe her vegan guests (besides not eating them)?

• Ask questions! Not nosy questions aimed at satisfying your morbid curiosity, but practical ones that will tell you what you need to know to figure out what to have for dinner, how to share refrigerator space, or what ever. If the food rules are serious and complex, and you’re going to be sharing food space and time with this person, take notes.* Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions if you don’t understand the rules. Even if you do understand them, ask a confirming follow-up question, such as “Okay, so you can’t eat wheat. No pasta and no bread, but what else has wheat gluten that I wouldn’t necessarily think of?”

• Reveal mistakes. If you mix ’n’ mess up while you’re cooking for, or sharing food space with, someone who has food rules, tell her — even if she’d never know otherwise. It won’t be the first mistake she’s ever encountered, and she’ll be glad you treated her with respect instead of keeping silent and that you put her comfort and autonomy above your desire to save face.

• Don’t judge. If your food-ruled friend, relative, or colleague falls off the wagon now and then, keep your mouth shut about it. People vary in how strictly they observe their food rules. I’ve known good vegetarians who, once or twice a year, sneak out for a big blowout of barbecued pork ribs, and I bet those ribs taste a whole lot better to them than they would to us carnivores. Some people with allergies occasionally decide that the deliciousness of the mango is worth the rash. And some folks who keep mostly kosher maintain a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about dim sum. Don’t tease or even comment when someone sneaks a forbidden treat, as long as you’re sure they’re doing it on purpose and not because they’ve made a mistake about the ingredients.

• Ask more questions! It’s okay, once you get to know someone, to ask about his food rules for curiosity-satisfying purposes. But since food rules are usually based on health, religion, or ethics — extraordinarily personal topics — first ask if you may ask. (You’ll find more detailed guidelines for how to ask thoughtful and appropriate questions about health and religion in their respective chapters.) Don’t ask if the person misses the food he can’t eat, or praise his discipline, or treat him as exotic. Don’t try to argue him out of his food rules, or insist that he “just try” something. This is the case no matter how old or young the person is, or whether you yourself “believe in” peanut allergies or the Koran or not. You don’t have to believe in the Koran: you only have to believe in people’s right to decide for themselves what they will put in their own bodies.

Treating people’s food rules with respect also doesn’t require that you follow the rules yourself. (Not usually, anyway. If allergies are bad enough that a person might not be able to be in the same room as the allergen, you might have to restrain yourself — but that’s pretty rare.) Don’t feel self-conscious about eating something that another person can’t have. Ask him if he minds, and believe him if he says he doesn’t. Nature is kind that way; if you don’t eat something for a long time, you eventually lose the taste for it. The one exception is McDonald’s french fries.

* If your roommate also happens to be your romantic partner, nosy questions that satisfy your morbid (and loving) curiosity are always fair game.

Money talks
My husband and I make modest salaries and lead an unassuming middle-class life. Our three children, however, are the beneficiaries of a generous trust fund established by their grandparents. Recently, we have decided to tap into the fund to send our youngest to a private school known for its staggering tuition. Friends and acquaintances cannot help but ask how we can afford it. How can I respond without revealing the trust fund, which my own children do not yet know about?

One thing you can do when you feel weird about money is not talk about it and hope that it goes away — the weird feeling, that is, not the money itself. Another thing is to ask around to see if you’re the only one who’s feeling that way.

During much of the twentieth century, the official rule about discussing money was simple: nice people didn’t. In 1942, Emily Post commanded, in no uncertain terms, “A very well-bred man intensely dislikes the mention of money and never speaks of it (outside of business hours) if he can help it.” Nondisclosure on money, sex, and religion was de rigueur. For two out of the three topics, the rule was completely unsustainable. Money and sex are incredibly interesting, and nearly everyone is anxious because they suspect they’re not getting quite as much as everyone else. So people have started talking numbers again.

This free and frank money talk may, however, signal a return to the older folkways rather than a bold new direction. For instance, a 2007 New York Times article notes, “I’ve often wondered how it was that the characters in Jane Austen’s novels always seemed to know everyone else’s income. By the time you’re on the second page of Pride and Prejudice, you hear that a young man named Mr. Bingley is about to move into the neighborhood and that his income is £5,000 a year. Later when Mr. Darcy, the romantic lead of the book, makes his entrance, you quickly learn that his income is £10,000 a year.” Because of this evidence, some literature and history professors maintain that people knew darned well what everyone else worth back in the day. All they had to do was look up their neighbors’ net worth in the land register and find the husband of their daughters’ dreams.

The once-inviolable rule of “no money talk” — like that earlier tradition of predatory matchmaking — has been abandoned. Today, nice people do talk about money and, as with sex, the talk can get quite graphic. So it’s important to learn how to mindfully conduct your money talk.

• Learn your own comfort level. When someone asks you a financial question you’d rather not answer, just say, “Oh, I don’t discuss money.” You’re not judging them; you’re just stating your own boundaries.

• Listen for the question behind the question. Perhaps your friend doesn’t really want to know about you and your finances per se but instead is wondering about a reasonable rent for a house in your neighborhood, whether the salaries at your company are competitive because he’s applying for a job there, or if you feel you’re getting your money’s worth out of your kid’s college. If that is the case, recommend resources: “I don’t like to talk about my own finances, but I can say that this is generally a pretty reasonable neighborhood, rentwise — I can send you the contact information for the rental agent I used, if you want.”

• Don’t act offended or disgusted if someone shares tales of financial adventures. Money talk is just numbers; it doesn’t have the squirm-and squeam-inducing property of unwanted medical or sexual information. Still, you needn’t feel obliged to reciprocate with a revelation of your own. (Reciprocation is a conversational norm, but “norm” means “most of the time,” not “always,” conveniently enough.) Instead, ask a question that will take the numbers out of the conversation: “And do you also get good vacation time at the new job? Planning any trips?” or “It’s a beautiful house. Have you met any of your new neighbors yet?”

• Avoid pronouncing that an amount is a lot or a little (unless it’s obvious). “I got this dress for $125!” doesn’t tell you if $125 is a lot for your coworker to spend on a dress or a terrific bargain. If you value financial discretion, then don’t give your own spending standards away with your reaction: “That’s a great find” works in either situation. (In some cases, people will seek you out because you are knowledgeable about the market. But just because your coworker wants to confess buyer’s remorse doesn’t mean she wants you to confirm that she made a foolish purchase.) Of course, there will be times when the person tells you if it’s a lot or a little, or when it’s incredibly obvious: “I bargained the guy down to $5,000 for the Lexus, and he even threw in a free GPS!” In that case, follow her lead.

• If you’re deeply private about money, it’s time to realize that the Internet has made things a lot tougher. Just as anyone can look up how much you paid for your house, they can also uncover your political campaign contributions and the average salaries for your profession. You don’t have control over much of that information, and if information is out there for the getting, people will go out and get it. You’ll simply have to relax about it.

• If you like to talk openly about money, recognize that not everyone does. Maybe you think they should, but you’re not going to get adherents by making people uncomfortable. Mention your own information first and see how the conversation progresses. If the other person responds in vague hand wavings rather than hard numbers, then clearly she has different feelings about financial disclosure. Move the conversation from the quantitative to the qualitative, pronto.

Bless who?
What is the proper response when a stranger, coworker, or acquaintance near me sneezes? Is it okay to say “Bless you” even if I don’t know that person’s religious preference? What if I offend an atheist by trying to be polite?

The first thing that both religious and nonreligious people owe one another is to be good advertisements for their beliefs. Jewish tradition has a term — chillul Hashem — which means “desecration of God’s name.” This refers to anything that a Jew does that brings disgrace upon God, the Torah, or Jewish law. More liberal Jews also use it to refer to actions that disgrace the Jewish people and our values. The opposite of chillul Hashem is kiddush Hashem — to sanctify or bring glory to God.

This is a good concept for people of any religion or nonreligion to keep in mind — don’t be the kind of person who gives members of your group a bad name. It’s hard not to feel sorry for atheists these days. Atheism is a respectable and logical philosophical stance, and atheists deserve better than that misogynist lout Christopher Hitchens as their public face.* All of us should aim to avoid becoming the Hitch of our worldview.

Whether you’re a believer or not

• Be human, not divine. For believers, this doesn’t mean you have to act superbly pious every living minute. It’s just not possible to be terribly, terribly joyful about your relationship with Jesus or Allah or the Eightfold Path all the time — believe me, people outside your religion, and quite possibly some of the more astute ones within it, see right through that act and pity you for it. For both believers and nonbelievers, admit your doubts when you have them — it makes your faith, or your lack thereof, all the more impressive.

• Be a good neighbor. The great nineteenth-century rabbi Yisrael Salantner once noted, “It is usual for a people to express concern for their own body and for their neighbor’s soul. They seldom worry about their own soul and the other’s body.” He urged a reversal of these priorities, suggesting that a more appropriate state of mind would be concern with our own spiritual well-being and our neighbor’s physical health and welfare. Not a bad way of looking at things.

* Mindful manners don’t require checking your opinions at the door.

How to be a believer around nonbelievers

• Don’t act as though your religion is an allergen. When it comes to allergic atheists, it’s gracious to be concerned about their feelings, especially since many people these days seem to assume atheists don’t have feelings at all, but you’re on safe ground saying “Bless you” when a person sneezes. The phrase doesn’t state whose (or Whose) blessing is being invoked, after all. The sneezer is at perfect liberty to imagine that they are being blessed by Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or, for that matter, by you, since you’re the one who said it. Avoiding “God bless you” is generally wise, even when you’re blessing someone you know believes in God. That phrase can just as easily prick the conscience of believers, who might feel you are taking the Lord’s name in vain. If all these theological subtleties are enough to make you stick with “Gesundheit,” I can’t blame you a bit.

Contrary to myth, most atheists, agnostics, and plain old apathists are not horribly offended by religious language or imagery. (Some are, but the “mind over manners” credo says that we don’t worry about folks who freak out over other people quietly doing their own thing.) In general, most nonbelievers aren’t going to have a conniption over your crucifix, Sikh turban, bindi dot, or occasional reference to your spiritual practice. After all, they handle money every day with “In God We Trust” printed on it and don’t break out in a rash. So don’t censor yourself or become rabidly self-conscious.

• Don’t act as though your religion is an addiction. Believers needn’t bring their religious preferences into every single interaction. I mean, fine, if you think that’s what God wants you to do, you’re going to do it anyway, regardless of what I say. But the most likely effect it will have on your fellow humans is to irritate them and make them consider you predictable beyond all measure — a judgment that quickly leads to people tuning you out entirely.* Chronic God-talk will also make them wonder if, deep down, you’re really trying to convince yourself (which, I assume, is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve). Not only do people who engage in such an extensive level of God-talk risk alienating nonbelieving friends, but even the more spiritually minded can be offended by what seems like a trivialization of the divine. If you must pray to find a parking space in a crowded mall and truly believe that finding one is a “miracle” provided by God, for heaven’s sake keep it to yourself.

In fact, most nonreligious folks aren’t offended by normal manifestations of faith, nor by the more over-the-top religiosity. (Bored, irritated, disgusted, or amused, but rarely offended.) What does get their unbelieving goats? It’s this: when you assume that, because they do not believe in God, or practice a religion, or practice a religion as often as you do, their lives are devoid of morality, spirituality, community, or a sense of beauty and wonder. They’re right to be offended by this, because it’s insulting and untrue. It is entirely possible to be an ethical person without believing that one’s ethics are handed down from a divine source.

Nontheists can meditate, contemplate the awesome grandeur of nature, or dwell on the infinite — and they do so just as much as religious folks. Fundamentalists find the randomness of evolution terrifying; nontheists find it a source of joy and wonder and a profound invitation to humility in the face of the awesome unlikeliness of us being here at all. If you are a believer, this may be difficult to understand, but shouldn’t you also know, in your gut, that simply because something is difficult to understand, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real?

* If you’re Christian, reread the Gospels: one of the reasons people were so eager to follow Jesus around and listen to what he said is that he was a deeply surprising person. You could never predict what he would say or do. There’s a good lesson in that.

How to be a nonbeliever around believers

• Treat believers with respect. While religious people shouldn’t treat atheists and agnostics as if they had no hearts, atheists and agnostics shouldn’t treat religious people as if they had no brains. Just because someone says they believe in God doesn’t mean they believe in an old man in the sky handing out favors and punishments. Most believers are far more nuanced than that; most are aware, too, that their religious teachings can be interpreted in many valid ways.

• Don’t assume all believers are trying to convert you. Don’t leap to the conclusion that every religious person is a zealot longing to bring you into the fold. Be gracious when someone says he’ll pray for you if you are sick or mourning. Seeing another person suffer without being able to do anything about it is a terrible experience; whether you believe in prayer or not, why deny someone the comfort of feeling that they can at least do something on your behalf?

• Don’t hide your own nonbeliefs. By the same token, you need never be in the closet as a nonbeliever— in fact, you do believe, just not in a religion. If you feel you must, for tactical reasons, keep your atheism (or other nonreligious identity) to yourself because you would face discrimination, that’s one thing, but in terms of morals and politeness, there’s no reason to do so: there’s nothing inherently rude or confrontational about stating that you don’t believe in God or religion.

Excerpted from “Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners” by Robin Abrahams. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Times Books.