13 of Your Most Pressing Questions on Modern Etiquette—Answered!
Need advice on the newest etiquette rules? We’d like to cordially offer you answers.
Are you unsure about what constitutes good manners these days? I don’t blame you—the times, they are a bit fraught, no? If you’re a man and you hold the door for a woman, will you be thanked or called patronizing? Will someone shut you down if you use a phrase that has suddenly become offensive? And don’t get me started about when it’s OK to use cell phones.
Good manners used to mean simple courtesy and being kind. Today it seems we are haunted by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, and for good reason. Given the power of the Internet, a faux pas can mean losing a friend—or your job.
Covering the ins and outs of civil behaviour for the past 20-plus years, I have learned that, fortunately, good intentions never go out of style. Even better, science tells us that acts of kindness are contagious: If I treat you right, you’re more likely to treat the next person better. And from there, the ripples flow.
To hold or not to hold—the door
Q: My husband always opens doors for women (he’s 80). But the younger women cast him a look of pure contempt and brusquely rush past him without a thank-you. So sad. Why has such a basic kindness gone out of style? —Jo Garcia (Macon, Georgia)
A: Let me uncomplicate things: If I’m first to the door, I’m going to pull it open and let you go first, whether you’re a man or a woman. A push door can be awkward, but I’ll usually go through first (with my most charming “Allow me!”) and then hold it for you. I give the same advice to my sister (and all women): First one there opens the door and holds it. No racing to be the door opener, no lingering in hopes of finding a knight in shining armour. How hard is that?
The one time to break the rule: If the person ahead of you needs assistance or is much older, step up and open the door. And for those of us on the receiving end of a door kindness, I hope we all say “Thank you” as we glide by.
As for your husband, what can I say? He’s a charmer—and a keeper.
Take a look at more etiquette rules that changed in the last decade.
Not all handicaps are obvious
Q: I often hear people disparage those who use handicapped-only parking spots, as if they are cheating. My mother injured her neck in a car accident and has permanent damage in her feet, legs, knees, and hips that makes walking difficult. To a stranger, she looks fine, but parking at a distance is a challenge. Does she need to carry a doctor’s note to show busybodies? —Bonnie Elmore (El Paso, Texas)
A: No! It can’t be said often enough: Not all disabilities are visible. I recently read about a college student who was undergoing radiation for cancer, entitling her to use the placard for handicapped parking. She returned to her car to find multiple notes that read “SHAME ON YOU” and “NOT REALLY HANDICAPPED JUST LAZY.” She posted them on Twitter, adding, “Reminder that you have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives.” If your mom has a disability that entitles her to a placard, she has a right to use it, no doctor’s note required.
If you’re a wannabe enforcer who suspects a fake, please leave the job to parking officials and go about your business without shaming anyone—which is my advice for most situations.
These dining etiquette rules are officially outdated.
Q: What is the protocol on elevators? Do you exit and hold the doors for others, or just exit and leave? Do you let women get off first, even if they’re in the back? —Vicki Jones (Fairview, Tennessee)
A: My first rule: Hurry up! Your fellow riders must not be held captive while we debate who leaves first. Second rule: The one closest to the doors gets off first, regardless of gender. Third: You know how on planes they allow “those needing extra assistance” to board first? Ditto for elevators. If you see anyone with packages, kids in tow, or a visible injury, make sure those folks get off safely ahead of you and hold the “doors open” button so they don’t close.
Check out the things polite people always say.
The dreaded office holiday party
Q: Do I really have to go to my office holiday party? I hate pretending I’m friends with people I wouldn’t invite to my own house. —Anonymous
A: Ugh. I used to hate office parties too. Forced frivolity. Frozen smiles. Too much eggnog. But now that I’ve mellowed with age, I try to “make every moment matter,” as any minister or meditation teacher urges. So yes, go. You might even enjoy yourself.
The main rule is to keep it professional, which will guide you in many ways: when to arrive (on time); what to wear (festive but still appropriate); how much to drink (minimal); how to behave (engage with others, get away from your clique, don’t look bored, don’t flirt); and when to leave (don’t be a hanger-on).
Struggling to make small talk? Try these interesting conversation starters.
Don’t call me “honey” or “young’ un”
Q: At doctors’ offices or local restaurants, the clerk or cashier—always younger than me—often calls me “honey” or “sweetheart.” This burns me up! I don’t think it’s acceptable for someone younger to speak to me in this manner. What can I say to these people that won’t make them feel bad? —L. Mills (Clayton, North Carolina)
A: Hello, generation gap! Believe me, I wasn’t happy when millennials started calling me “sir” as soon as the salt exceeded the pepper in my hair, but I didn’t take umbrage. I figured it was better than, “Hey, you! Old man!” Yes, try to give a young person a break.
But I do get my knickers in a twist when I hear someone use a term of endearment to a client or guest, such as when my own doctor repeatedly called me “muffin” (which was not only unprofessional but also a little bit creepy). I finally got a different doctor, although I wish I’d just said, “Please, call me Steven.” And that’s my advice to you: Introduce yourself and ask folks to call you by your name (first or last). Learn theirs too. We all need to feel more connected.
One exception: In my adopted home state of North Carolina, just about everyone is “sweetheart.” It took some getting used to, but I’ve come to find it endearing. When in Rome (or the South), take localisms for the kind and friendly gestures they are meant to be.
Faced with an uncomfortable situation? These funny jokes can defuse awkward moments.
No thank-you notes = no more gifts?
Q: How can I teach my young grandchildren manners without coming off as meddling? It especially bothers me when I give a child a gift and there is no acknowledgment from the parent or the child. What are my options? —Sharon Taft (Grand Ledge, Michigan)
A: I’m the quick-witted uncle to three nieces, which means I rely on humour and sarcasm to make a point. One time, several weeks after the holidays had gone by, I emailed one of the girls: “I can’t thank you enough for your thank-you note.” That prompted a quick, and guilty, thank-you from her. Then there was the year I boycotted them: no gifts. You bet they noticed, and they did a fine job with their thank-you emails once I resumed gift giving. (Yes, email is just fine, especially when compared with the alternative—no response.)
But I learned a lesson, too: I try my best to thank those who express kindness to me, whether it’s a flight attendant helping me with a bag or these same nieces—now young adults—who recently made an amazing dinner for our family. There’s a theory that gratitude begets gratitude, that it’s actually contagious. I believe that now.
Can I confiscate guests’ phones before dinner?
Q: It bugs me when people use their phones in social situations when they should be paying attention to those by their sides. For instance, guests often have their phones at the table when they are dining in my home. I now have a basket by the door, and I ask guests to leave their phones in it during dinner. Am I overstepping? —Jason Trenchard (Philadelphia)
A: My parents had a mantra about guests: “My house, my rules.” I learned well, and now I ask my own guests to use coasters, clear their places after dinner, and strip their beds before departure. My whole family is like this. Before one recent get-together, I received an email declaring the dinner table “a politics-free zone.” Break the rule and you’re doing the dishes, it warned.
So along with your next invitation, send a note such as this: “Let’s talk to each other at the dinner table next week. Please silence your phone and keep it off the table.” Humour can help here, too: “Think your cell phone goes to the right of the knife? It actually doesn’t. It goes in your pocket. Or in my pretty little basket by the front door. Break the rule, and it’s KP duty for you!”
Make sure you’re not guilty of these annoying texting habits.
Texting and driving is unsafe at any speed
Q: How do you get across to people that they’re not driving safely when they are preoccupied with cell phones? Texting, talking—it doesn’t matter. Your attention is diverted, and you’re putting people—me—in danger. —Francesca Raynor (Citra, Florida)
A: This should be easy: Multiple studies have concluded that drivers using phones to talk or text (even hands-free) are more likely to crash than those who drink and drive. Would you get in a friend’s car if you knew he or she had been drinking? No—you’d take away the keys or call for a taxi. But I’ll admit this is hard, and I have a range of responses of what to say or do.
Non-confrontational: “Hey, how about if I text for you? Just tell me what you want to say.”
Cautionary: In states where it’s illegal to drive and text, deliver a warning, such as “I think I just saw a police car behind us. I know you don’t want to get a ticket.”
More assertive: “You’re making me nervous when you text and drive. Can you wait until we get there?”
The nuclear option: “I can’t ride with you anymore, because you text and drive.” You can even blame it on someone else: “My dad/girlfriend/daughter/husband says I’m not to be in the car with you until you promise not to text while driving.”
Follow these tips to stop texting and driving for good.
Ladies and gentlemen, stop saying “ladies and gentlemen”
Q: Can you still address a group as “ladies and gentlemen”? It seems like that might be misconstrued nowadays. —Pamela Bevan Ocala, Florida
A: I read that announcements on the London Tube now begin with “Hello, everyone.” Management says that this new language is more welcoming than “ladies and gentlemen,” which they say “belongs to yesterday.” These days, “ladies” are more apt to prefer being called women and “gentlemen,” men. The beauty of “Hello, everyone” is that it speaks to all of us, including men, women, and those who identify as gender-fluid or nonbinary. We must all mind the gap, so it’s kind to include all of us—regardless of our pronouns—in the warning.
Use this magic phrase to stop gossip in its tracks.
Ouch! Cramped knees on a plane
Q: On a recent flight, the person in front of me reclined his seat, hurting my knees. I was afraid to ask him to inch it forward. What can I do next time? Must I suffer? —June Fauver Glen Burnie, Maryland
A: Not long ago, I was on a flight when the fellow in front of me lurched his seat back. He didn’t look. He didn’t think. And he knocked my wine all over the seat tray (and me). I wasn’t on my best behaviour when I gave his seat a kick and shouted, “Pay attention. You’re not the only one cramped on this flight.” (To his credit, he apologized profusely.) If I had been given a do-over, I would have tapped him on the shoulder and said nicely, “You probably don’t realize it, but you knocked over my wineglass when you reclined. Could you move your seat forward?”
But part of my upset was spot-on. Pay attention! Before you recline, take notice of who’s behind you. Is it someone with an injury or who is really tall or perhaps overweight? Is it a parent with a lap baby? If so, don’t recline. (And don’t recline during meals.) If the extra inch or two you get by reclining is really worth bothering the person behind you, at least give fair warning that you’re about to crush her knees or spill his drink.
Don’t miss these other etiquette rules for flying on an airplane.
Q: Over the years, I’ve been given a lot of useless stuff: a clunky mug, a peace-sign cookie mold, an expensive photography book still wrapped in plastic. Can I regift? —Anonymous
A: Yes, but be careful. Last Christmas, I regifted a holiday bouquet decked out with a unique, festive ribbon. Hours later, it appeared on Facebook, with a public thanks to me. That was a new faux pas! As a power regifter—with a “regifting” shelf in a closet—I start by removing the tags and unwrapping the gift to make sure there’s no hidden card or inscription. Then I label each with a sticky note as a reminder of who gave it to me. I also try to be thoughtful; I’m not going to give a wool scarf to a relative in Florida. But I would give that cookie mold to a baker friend.
Find out what your body language says about you.
Am I being cheap?
Q: I don’t drink, and I’m tired of paying for my friends’ cocktails. When we split the check equally, I’m left having to chip in more than my share. I don’t want to offend anyone—or appear cheap—but I don’t want to pay for their drinks. How do I do that? —Anonymous
A: Nobody should have to pay for expensive manhattans or martinis they didn’t drink. That’s not being cheap; it’s being fair. Because some of my dining companions don’t drink, I’ll take the bill as soon as it’s placed on the table and calculate my own tab (including any manhattans I drank, plus a healthy tip). I really appreciate friends who take care of their friends and say something like, “So-and-so didn’t drink any of the wine, so let’s exclude that from his share.” Nice!
You could also ask your server for a separate check before you order (if that’s the restaurant’s policy). If you’re feeling tech-savvy, you can use one of the many new tab-splitting apps, such as Splitwise and Settle Up. I especially like Splitwise because it’s so easy. Download it to your phone, then add your friends. When you get the bill, enter each item and note whether it’s to be “paid by you” or “split equally.” The app does the rest, including tax and tip. Tech in the service of manners—I love it!
Try this advice for navigating awkward moments with manners.
Who pays for a broken phone?
Q: My son was roughhousing near a pool with a friend who had left her phone near the edge. During their horseplay, the girl’s phone got kicked into the water and ruined, and her parents are asking me to pay for the replacement ($700!). If the kid left her phone at the edge of the pool, I don’t feel my son is responsible for it. Do I have to pay for this? —Anonymous
A: Yes—but the misbehaviour by both kids contributed to the phone’s demise, so both should pay for it. Send a check for $350, with a note explaining why, and then set up a repayment program with your son, who needs to learn the consequences of horseplay.
Next, check out more etiquette rules we should never have abandoned.