Category: Manners/Etiquette


Pet Peeves

Posted on September 19, 2012

I was on my way out of St. John the Divine, on 112th Street, after a Saturday night concert when I heard a woman behind me say in a loud, distinctly annoyed tone of voice, “But I don’t understand; why don’t they allow dogs in here?”

At first I was taken aback. For heaven’s sake, how ridiculous, I thought. Dogs in a cathedral? With the barking, the peeing, the panting—maybe even the biting? What kind of an animal fanatic was this woman, anyway? The concert we were coming from had featured solo harp music, during which even bodies shifting in their seats made too much noise; I could only imagine what a dog whimpering away would have been like.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a cat owner. Cat owners and dog owners are a bit like the Jets and the Sharks: In general, dog owners think cats are cold, finicky, standoffish animals; conversely, cat owners are enormously bewildered that anyone would intentionally structure his life so he would be regularly picking up his pet’s poop in the rain at 6 a.m.

However, on my way home, I started thinking about Paris and the way people there are allowed to take their beloved pooches to restaurants and cafes. Who can argue with the super-civilized behavior of the French? After all, dogs are loyal companions, and it would make a big difference to a lot of people if their owners could take them with them more often. Under New York City’s health code, pets are not allowed inside restaurants unless they are service animals, even though some restaurants allow it anyway. But why not? Is the toting of small dogs in carriers really that much different than bringing babies in strollers? Is my health really endangered by the close proximity of a lap dog?

By the time I got to my apartment, I was feeling some solidarity with the complaining stranger. After all, this kind of “uppity” behavior is one of the things I love about New York City. Where else could anyone be totally incensed that her Cairn terrier was not allowed to enjoy Bach’s Fugue in D Minor at a famous Episcopal cathedral? The brashness, the feeling of freedom and entitlement and desire for progress that Americans are traditionally known for is intensified in New York.

In D.C., Boston, London—indeed, in most other Western cities—people will line up in an orderly fashion at the train station. In New York, they tend to rush the gate. It’s not a myth; we really are pushier here. I may have been brought up by mild-mannered parents, but after 20-plus years of living in New York I find myself challenging the rules, testing the boundaries, pushing the envelope much more than if I had lived somewhere else—though I always try to smile when I find myself saying something like, “That doesn’t work for me; is there any way you can make an exception?”

New Yorkers are the best in the world at moving the line just a little farther than where it started. If a rule does not make sense, we challenge it. This keeps things stirred up, but also engenders progress. We are always demanding our rights (or what we see as our rights), always wanting more, never satisfied with the status quo—Why can’t I use my mobile device everywhere I want? Why can’t I eat my dinner on the subway? Why can’t I bring my kid to this adults-only thing? Why can’t I take flash photos of this museum exhibit? Why can’t I buy exotic fruits from Japan all year round? Why can’t I go topless in public? Why can’t I bring my dog to the harp concert?

Dogs might not be able to get into St. John the Divine, but what they can do in New York is get married. What was reportedly the most expensive dog wedding in history was held just a few weeks ago at the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel on Central Park South. It cost $158,187.26—though, alas, it was not a church wedding.

Keep on pushing, New Yorkers. If you don’t, who will?

 

The Third Rail

Posted on September 13, 2012

Like most single people, I socialize a lot with couples. Most of my friends are in couples. Sometimes we go to the theater or a movie, but often it’s just good conversation over dinner. What I have learned is that the potential problem inherent in single-to-couple socializing is not the uneven number of people, nor is it being the only single person there; it’s being the single person in a threesome. Almost every single person you talk to will tell you that being a fifth wheel (or better yet, a seventh or ninth wheel) is infinitely better than being a third wheel. Three is a tricky number.

The terms “fifth wheel” and “third wheel” come from the fact that four-wheeled carriages used to carry an extra wheel (or that two-wheeled carts might carry a third). Obviously the spare wheel was not necessary to make the conveyance go. Ergo, it connotes something that serves no useful purpose.

However, the truth is that being a third wheel is not as much about being unnecessary or unwanted as it is about causing instability. A shopping cart with only three wheels can be wonky or lopsided, just as threesomes in social life are potentially unwieldy. Three friends together is always more complicated than two or four. With three people, the psychological balance is always shifting—however slightly—between one pair and another.

Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I seem to be going out with only one couple at a time. These can make for lovely, intimate evenings, except when something like this happens:

Let’s say I am in the middle of dinner with Jennifer and Rick. We are talking about modern technology and its effect on the human brain. Everything is going along quite nicely, until Jennifer suddenly says, “Hey, listen. You can help Rick and me solve a dispute we are having.” (Right here is where, if there were alarms hooked up to our social lives, the flashing lights and bells would go off.)

Jennifer continues: “I feel our daughter should not have a cell phone until she is 14, but many of her friends have them now, at age 11, and Rick thinks she needs one, especially being in New York City. What do you think? Will you please tell Rick he’s out of his mind?” Uh-oh. Trouble. Trouble in the shape of a big, fat triangle.

Triangulation is the process whereby a person who has an issue with someone else uses a third person to validate her feelings. This is more commonly known as Getting Sucked Into a Fight. In extreme situations, triangulation can make you feel as if you are trapped in a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

But it doesn’t always manifest as an actual argument; it can be more passive than that, such as when a husband flirts with you in front of his wife or a wife makes cutting remarks about her husband in front of you. Sometimes it’s the third wheel herself who is responsible for pushing the evening onto the third rail. She can inadvertently reveal a secret one person has told her to “put in the vault.” Or she can bring up sore subjects or show markedly more interest in one person’s anecdotes than the other’s.

But one thing is certain: When you are asked point blank to side with one person against the other, no good can come of it. At the first sign of this kind of triangulation, you should proceed with extreme caution. Change the subject or, if you can, leave the table to go to the restroom, feed the meter or make a call.

If you are not able to sidestep the landmine, pretend to mediate. Listen carefully to both sides, then claim you are unable to decide on the matter. Other triangulation diffusers? Try “Don’t ask me—I’m the proverbial disinterested third party” or “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” Or even “Look they have marriage counselors for this!”

To the Jennifer/Rick debate above, I might smile and say, “I make enough bad decisions about my own life. Please don’t ask me to make bad decisions for yours.”

 

Beware the Chair

Posted on July 22, 2012

I had already been out to dinner and a play that evening, so by the time I got to the party, it was past 11 and I was tired. After greeting the host, I wandered out to a small terrace. I spotted an inviting empty chair and, without thinking, I sat down in it. It was one of those super slouchy chairs that seem to envelop you. I’ll just sit for a few minutes, I thought.

Almost instantly, I realized my mistake. The only other chair on the terrace was occupied by a blowsy woman who immediately began talking nonstop about her Lhasa apso puppies. Where she got them, where she walked them, what she fed them, how much she loved them. Even how she dressed them. All attempts at subject changing—or at a back-and-forth conversation—failed. With a sinking heart, I realized I had fallen right into the clutches of a human Venus flytrap. I was stuck. Now that I was already seated and the woman was talking to me so intently, it was going to be nearly impossible to get back up.

There are several good reasons for sitting down at a party where most people are standing up. You may simply be physically too tired to stand; you may be having trouble managing a plate of food while standing; or you and a friend may be eager to have a tête-à-tête without being interrupted. But be aware there is always a danger to sitting. Even if it’s next to someone you feel you’d love to talk to, once you are sitting down, you may lose your mingling momentum. You may find yourself thinking, “This is such a comfortable chair; maybe I’ll just observe from here for the rest of the night. What’s so great about talking to a lot of people I don’t know anyway?” Don’t give in to this feeling! You can sit when you get home.

Mainly, sitting is to be avoided because it’s extremely hard to get free of someone who is really talking at you and not to you. At most cocktail parties, it’s fairly easy to move away from someone you don’t want to talk to—and toward someone you do—without being rude. You simply say you need to get a drink or use the restroom or you just fade away into the general melee. But when you are sitting down, escape becomes much more problematic; you are committed. You have, in fact, made a statement of non-movement by the very act of sitting.

There are a couple techniques that I have found work pretty well in this situation. The first is Follow the Leader. Ask Ms. Flytrap if she would like to come inside with you to get a drink or something to eat. If she says no thank you, you’re scot-free; if she says yes, then once you have her on her feet and amidst a crowd of people, you can use any number of other cocktail party escape tactics to gently extricate yourself.

One of my most popular and controversial mingling maneuvers is something I call the Human Sacrifice, wherein you basically palm the person off on someone else. (This sounds cruel, but is an extremely common ploy.) This is easier if you are on your feet but it can also be done from a sitting down position, in the following way: Locate someone nearby and get his attention. (Wave him over if you must.) Lure him into the conversation by tossing a comments up at him—for example, you can ask him if he has any preconceptions about Lhasa apsos, as if you are playfully taking a poll.

The minute the new person even smiles at you or at the flytrap, get up, indicating your place, and say, “Would you care for a seat?” Or even, more aggressively, “Would you save my seat for a second?” This latter gambit is a bit wicked, because it’s almost impossible for the new person to refuse. But after all, all’s fair in love and mingling. (Of course, you won’t come back. You will be unavoidably waylaid.)

So what did I do to escape from being totally Lhasa apsoed? I employed the blunt but effective “note from my doctor” excuse. I interrupted the woman right in the middle of her recitation of possible names for her puppies with: “I’m so sorry, but this chair is terrible for my back, I realize. I’m going find some other place to sit inside. But it’s been so lovely meeting you.”

 
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