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Ask Anything: 10 questions with etiquette expert Amanita Thomas

Etiquette expert Amanita Thomas answers your questions.

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Etiquette expert Amanita Thomas
I know this is often brought up as a joke, but I think it's a fair question, and I'd like to hear your take on it. Is it bad etiquette to point out other people's poor etiquette? Is there a difference between telling somebody they're using the wrong fork and telling them to hush in a movie theater? If so, where do you draw the line? Thanks in advance. – George, Raleigh

It is never correct to embarrass someone or put them in an awkward position. If a person looks lost at the dinner table about which fork to select, feel free to help out by inconspicuously showing by example. As far as hushing chatterers in a movie theater, it’s far better to alert an usher or theater attendant of the problem. Provide etiquette assistance only if you know it would be welcomed.
I know it may be too soon, but I'm in my 20s and have grown up in the digital and Internet age. Do you foresee it ever becoming acceptable to send thank-you notes via e-mail? Paper and stamps are such a waste of money, and you are still communicating the same words. – ABK, Raleigh
Thank-you notes are personalized, sincere expressions of gratitude. While thank-you notes among friends, especially friends your age, can be more casual and handled by e-mail, a handwritten note in our digital age is always welcomed.

The paper and stamps that you may consider a “waste of money” represents a fraction of the gift-giver’s time, effort and thought that he or she put into your gift, and it certainly warrants a personalized thank-you note.

I have recently had multiple times when I have invited friends to my house for dinner, etc. They have responded that they will get back to me, but they never do. Is it my place to follow up with them, or should I give up and focus on friends with better manners? – Judy, Cary

Accepting the role of host or hostess can be challenging at times. One of your responsibilities is to follow up on your invitations. Your initial invitation should be very specific, and if you can send it in writing, either by e-mail or by postal mail, you improve your chances of getting a response. If your friends continue to ignore your invitations, I'd say it was a good idea to invite friends with better manners. Do not get discouraged and give up on the friends you originally invited; perhaps you can maintain the friendship by doing other things such as going out to dinner (each paying his or her own way) or attending movies or other social events.

My husband and I will be staying with his family over the holidays. Should I bring a hostess gift to his mother? – Krystal, Raleigh

Good manners will make spirits bright for holiday houseguests (and their hosts). It is always important to remember that hosts do a great deal of planning to ensure your comfort during your stay. A considerate gesture would be to give something simple and personal; perhaps a token from your home state or city, such as Carolina pottery, a framed photo, monogrammed stationary or guest towels. A nice box of chocolates or fresh flowers are also popular, as long as you are sure the recipient has no allergies to those items. Remember your responsibility as a houseguest as well and be as considerate as possible at all times.

How do you explain etiquette to children and why it's important to know? "That's just the way it is" doesn't get it – at least not at my house. – Robin Richardson, Apex
I would not think that “that's just the way it is" would be a satisfactory response for the curious mind of a child. Let me provide some historical information that may help you respond to your children. Children do well with stories, and I encourage you to draw on your creativity in presenting this concept.

Etiquette used to mean “keep of the grass.” When Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles, near Paris, France, discovered that the aristocrats were trampling through his gardens, he put up signs, or “étiquets” to warn them off. But dukes and duchesses walked right past the signs anyway. Finally, the king himself had to decree that no one was to go beyond the bounds of the étiquets. The meaning of etiquette later was expanded to include the ticket to court functions that listed the rules on where to stand and what to do. Like language, etiquette evolves, but in a sense, it still means “keep off the grass.”

Why is etiquette important? If you stay within the flexible bounds of etiquette, you will give relationships a chance to grow, you will give yourself a chance to grow, and you will be able to present yourself with confidence and authority in all areas of your professional and personal lives.

Cell phone use has turned what once was private conversation into very public conversation. What advice do you have for cell phone users? – Susan Clark
Here are my Top 10 tips for cell phone users that will make the world a better place:

10. Don’t use a cell phone in enclosed public places such as restaurants, elevators, subways, airplanes, buses or medical waiting rooms.
9. It is not fashionable to wear an ear piece when you are not on the phone.
8. Loud and annoying ring tones or melodies are disruptive to ongoing conversations, especially in an office setting; keep your phone on vibrate, if at all.
7. Don’t have public conversations that you would not want recorded and posted on the Internet.
6. Texting and dialing while driving can be distracting and sometimes deadly.
5. Don’t take a personal cell phone call during a business meeting or transaction.
4. Always turn your phone off when you are having a dining experience and at public performances.
3. Don’t ask to use a friend’s cell phone for casual conversation.
2. Maintain at least a 10-foot buffer between you and the nearest person when you are on the phone.

1. Observe the rules of common sense and consideration when using cell phones.

After having dinner at a friend's home, I have a hard time deciding how long to stay after the meal. I tend to "eat and run" because I feel like I'm overstaying my welcome. What is a proper length of time to stay after dinner, and is it appropriate to make excuses to leave, such as "I have to go home to walk my dog"? – Heather, Chapel Hill

Eating a meal is not the only reason why a host invites you to the table. Remember that your host wants to enjoy your company. Take your cue from your host as far as leaving the table. As a guest, you should never depart from the table before the host. If you have a planned engagement, you should make this known prior to accepting an invitation. Although there are no hard and fast rules about how long to stay after sharing a meal, I think an hour is reasonable.

My brother-in-law has a new girlfriend, and I'm not particularly fond of her. She doesn't seem like a bad person, but we just don't click personally. I find it very hard to fake nice conversation with her, but at the same time I do not want to blatantly ignore her by leaving the room when she enters, because I do not want to hurt my brother-in-law. I feel like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. Please help. – Adelaide, Raleigh
I applaud you for being considerate of the feelings of your brother-in-law. Perhaps instead of “faking nice” conversation, how about just having a conversation with her? Conversation skills are an acquired art that can always be improved with practice. The local or national newspaper and news journal magazines would be great conversation sources. Try to avoid topics such as religion, politics, money, health, or diet habits, job woes, and controversial issues as well as asking any questions that can be answered with one word.

You might ask your brother-in-law about his girlfriend’s interests, hobbies or work before your next get-together, and your questions to her about these topics would be good steppingstones to further conversation. Who knows, you might end up learning more about her and enjoying the conversation.

My daughter recently got engaged, and the guest list has swollen to 200 guests – of which only about 60 are on the bride’s side. We are asking that they invite only family and close friends; however, the groom feels he needs to invite his whole church and every one of his extended family members. This is making the reception VERY expensive. Should we be quiet and just find a way to pay for the reception? Does everybody invited to the wedding have to be invited to the reception? Is it tacky to ask the groom to reduce his guest list? PLEASE KEEP MY NAME CONFIDENTIAL SO THERE CAN BE HARMONY IN THE TWO FAMILIES.
It will be hard to find a balance in pleasing everyone during such a celebration. The days of a bride’s parent bearing all of the expenses for a wedding are over. You need to call a family meeting and get a recommitment from the engaged couple and both parents to the budget. If a budget was not previously discussed, now is a good time to do it. Better late than never. You must decide on the number of guests you can afford to invite and stick to it. If the groom’s family wants to invite the entire church, explain that due to budgetary restrictions, there is a limit.

I encourage you to draw on your negotiation skills and set the boundaries early on while finding creative ways to please everyone.

What is the time frame for sending out thank-you notes for wedding showers, baby showers, etc. And if you give a gift and never receive a thank-you note, should you ever mention it to the person that you gave the gift to? – Lori, Raleigh
Although it is never too late to send a thank-you note, they should be sent as soon as possible after the event. Send your thank-you note before enjoying the gift. The bride and groom should send thank-you notes immediately after returning from their honeymoon.

When sending thank-you notes, there are two things to keep in mind: sincerity and promptness. Make sure that your notes are not “cookie cutter” and are sincere expressions of your gratitude.

Generally, you should never mention to a gift recipient that you did not receive a thank-you note, especially if you handed the gift to the person. However, if you mailed a gift and haven’t received a thank-you note within a couple of weeks, it is perfectly acceptable to call and check to make sure your gift arrived.

During this holiday season, I encourage all recipients of gifts to write thank-you notes before the gifts are enjoyed.

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