How To Avoid Rude Small Talk

Get it?

Get it?

Small talk! It’s weird and often uncomfortable, but we all have to do it otherwise we’d never make friends/would always be that person standing just outside of a conversation. You have to wade through the small talk to get to anything interesting! Or you can be like me this weekend and drunkenly start talking to strangers about their love lives before you get their names, but maybe you shouldn’t do that.

Here’s my theory: I don’t think you should open a conversation with a stranger/acquaintance with the most obvious thing about them. For example, if you meet a pregnant woman, don’t ask her about her pregnancy. Maybe she’ll bring up her pregnancy on her own, and then you can talk about it, but maybe she’ll want to talk about her job and her other interests because she’s sick of being asked about morning sickness. The same thing goes for someone getting married, on a job search, or applying to college. They may want to keep talking about it, but there’s also a good chance they’re completely talked out.

This doesn’t count for everyone. If you’re asking your own teenage son about how high school is going? Duh. Are you a Maid of Honor asking the bride how planning is going? Makes sense. But you have to make sure you’re close, which generally means friends-who-talk-constantly or close family (meaning you have a relationship outside seeing each other three times a year at whole-family gatherings). Below are a couple of suggestions as to questions/comments to avoid, and as always leave yours in the comments!

For an Engaged/Married Person

  • I’m so excited for the wedding!—Did you get an invitation yet/have the couple verbally confirmed you’re invited? If not, don’t assume anything, even if you’re close to them.

  • Are you dieting?—Usually followed by a weird stare if you say “no,” or a push for details if “yes.” Weird either way. Plus it comes off as you thinking the person in question should be dieting.

  • When are you having kids?—This is SUCH a personal question, and can often be painful to the person/couple in question. Maybe they have a medical condition that prevents them from having kids and don’t want to talk about it, or maybe they flat out don’t want kids. It should never be a question of “when.”

  • Unless you know for sure that one person in the couple is really into planning and the other is really not, ask both people the same questions and use plural pronouns. This is especially an issue with heterosexual couples, where everyone has a tendency to ask the bride-to-be about wedding planning and issues, and continues to ask the groom-to-be about his job, his hobbies, or anything else going on in his life.

For a Single Person

  • Any variation on “why are you still single?”—First off, single is not a “still.” Plenty of people are just fine with being single. And even if they’re not, this pretty much just blames them for their relationship status. Often this comes in the “But you’re so pretty/smart/interesting!” iteration, which both suggests that a) these are objective requirements to finding a partner and b) it’s somehow the person in question’s fault for not finding someone attracted to these things. Relationships aren’t science, and they take a heavy dose of luck.

For a Pregnant Person

  • Do you want a boy or a girl?—What is your expected answer here? “Oh man, I just want a boy so bad. If it’s a girl I’ll be so heartbroken. Nine months for nothing.”

  • When are you due?—True story: When I was in New Zealand I went shopping with another woman for sausage. This woman had a two-year-old daughter and still had some “baby weight” or whatever bullshit you want to call it. Anyway, the butcher gave me a slice of one sausage to try but hesitated giving it to her, joking that it was made with wine. She looked at him quizzically, and he gestured to her stomach in a “you know, because you’re pregnant” sort of way. She wasn’t pregnant. Do not assume anyone is pregnant.

For Kids

  • Where are you going to college?/Are you going to college?—This is specific to a certain class that assumes college is in the cards, but for the entirety of high school any adult talking to me only wanted to talk about SATs and college applications.

For Anyone

  • You look great! Have you lost weight?—Unless this person maybe lost 400 pounds and is super proud of it, no. Skinny does not necessarily equal healthy or beautiful.

  • You look tired today—I get this so much when I don’t wear makeup. It’s my normal face. My normal face looks bad to you? Ok.

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The Etiquette of Having/Seeing a Dog

LOOKIT HIM

LOOKIT HIM

“It wouldn’t be fair” was the constant refrain about dogs I heard when I was a kid. I grew up in an apartment, with cats, and the prospect of getting a dog just seemed insane. With cats, you can fill up a bowl of food and pretty much let them take care of themselves. With dogs you have to walk them, groom them, train them, come home every day right from work to make sure they’re ok instead of going out with friends, etc. They’re work!

Ahh but what work to have a dog, where his widdle face would jump up and lick yours at the end of the day and the widdle tail wagging and oh my god, I want a dog. I can’t have a dog, because I have two cats and a busy social life and no yard for anyone to run around in and that is just fine. But, like with children, I do live in a world with many dogs and notice some things that both dog owners and dog admirers can do to make the world a better place.

When the dog is yours

  • Think about where you live– My upstairs neighbors (in Queens) had a dog for a little bit. It was a part-beagle mutt that they got from a shelter, and though he was the most adorable thing, eventually they had to give him back. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with beagles, but they are NOT CITY DOGS. They are hounds! All they want to do is howl and hunt and run, which is very difficult to provide if you live in a 1,000 sq./ft. apartment and have a full time job.  In that same vein, think about your neighbors. If you live in close quarters they will most likely be hearing your dog yelp at 3am just as much as you are.
  • For fuck’s sake clean up after your dog– This should not need to be said but oh my god does it need to be said. Cleaning up after your dog means bringing enough bags to pick up its poop, picking up its poop, and throwing away its poop. And maybe if it’s a super messy poop bringing a bottle of water to rinse off the sidewalk. No saying you forgot bags. No putting the poop in the bag and then leaving it next to a tree (happens all the time in my neighborhood). No walking away and pretending it’s not there. If you cannot do this you should not own a dog. Period. (Obviously this is for city/suburban living. If you have a farm where you dog just runs around and does its thing, awesome, you need not worry.)
  • Some minor training is nice– There are many people in this world who are afraid of dogs and will be very uncomfortable if your dog jumps on or barks at them, no matter now much you know Fifi just wants to play. This can be more difficult depending on the dog you have (I assume young dogs are easier to train than older/abused dogs), but make an effort to make sure your dog knows how to sit. This also means knowing your dog and its limitations. Does your dog have an aggressive history? Don’t let it off the leash unless you’re 100% positive it can’t attack.
  • Not everyone is going to love your dog- As I said before, some people are afraid of dogs, or perhaps they’re allergic to dogs or just don’t like dogs. This is not a judgment on you for owning a dog, but perhaps they are not going to want to come over if they know you have a dog around. Offer alternatives for get-togethers, or train your dog to be ok for a few hours in the bedroom with the door closed.

When the dog is not yours

  • Do not pet dogs without the owner’s permission– Unless you’re sitting in a park and an unleashed dog runs up to you and jumps on you, you should always ask before petting a dog. There are a few reasons for this. One is that it’s just rude to start talking to a dog when the person in charge of it is right there. The second is that the dog may have some personal issues. Many rescued dogs have anxiety or aggression problems, and their owners may be trying to socialize them gradually. The Yellow Dog Project attempts to get owners with dogs like this to tie yellow ribbons to their dogs’ leashes, so if you see a yellow bow on a leash, definitely do not touch the dog.
  • Get to know the dogs in your neighborhood– Our friend David Shiffman mentions that his neighbors always say “good boy” when his dog, Magnolia, is wearing a pink bow and collar and is clearly a girl. We’ll save my very valid argument about GENDER NORMS for another day, but if someone has told you their dog’s name and gender, try to remember it.
  • Never pet a service dog– Service dogs are not so much pets as employed companions. Teeny weeny adorable companions in itsy vests, sure, but they are on the job! You would not pet a nurse pushing someone in a wheelchair, would you? No. Then don’t pet a service dog.

And always remember…

Feminism, Etiquette, and Being Fake

Instead of answering a question this week (but send us questions! info@uncommon-courtesy.com) we read this article on Jezebel It’s Not Fake to be Polite: A Defense of Etiquette and ended up having a long conversation about etiquette, feminism, being fake, tone of voice, and, strangely, cherry cordial.

Victoria: So this defense of etiquette on Jezebel, says that a lot of people think that being polite means being fake.

Jaya: Yeah, I think people keep mistaking etiquette for being nice at all costs. Like, people etiquette themselves into a box, thinking that they need to be polite no matter what people around them are doing.

Victoria: I obviously completely disagree that politeness is fakeness. There’s a reason why etiquette is called a social lubricant (Is it? Did I make that up?), because it helps society to function smoothly. There’s literally no benefit to pushing past people and being rude and yelling, because once everyone starts doing it, you have mass chaos. So actually, in sum, I think her main point in this post, is totally true. Especially the last paragraph.

Jaya: I think politeness is only fakeness when you’re using it to lie about something. Now, there’s a difference between “I’m not gonna call this person out because I just don’t want to get into it” and “I can never tell this person how rude they’re being because then I’ll be rude,” and it’s bad when it’s the second one, but I don’t begrudge anyone for just being like “ugh I’m tired and this isn’t worth it.”

Victoria: So then there’s the issue of assuming that being polite is part of being a woman and women especially “etiquette themselves into a box,” as you said. And in the Jezebel post, the example they give about Nicki Minaj about how Lil’ Wayne will just come in and treat everyone like crap and its fine. But when she does it, she’s a bitch….I see the problem more that Lil’ Wayne treats people terribly and gets away with it. The moral is that we shouldn’t find equality by it being okay for Nicki to treat people like crap but they should both be treating the people they work with with respect and consideration, you know?

Jaya: Omg yes! I was thinking about this the other day. There was this great post about how “life hacks” are often just signs of privilege. Like, this white dude wrote a post about “life hacks,” and how you can usually get what you want if you’re assertive and ask for things that aren’t advertised. But really, you think a black guy is gonna be able to walk into a restaurant and demand things the same way as a white guy? Unfortunately no, that’s not how this works. There are many instances where it does become a point of privilege, so it’s better and more equal for everyone if we all just follow some rules.

And yeah, I think a lot of times the women v. men thing is people assuming men do things better because men have traditionally been the more successful, and it was a part of a different wave of feminism to just try to be men to beat them at their own game, instead of changing the game to be more accepting of varied ways of decision making and social interaction. There was also a piece on the Hairpin about Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, where Nicki Minaj is all about playing the same game as men, whereas Rihanna tends to just bypass all of that and do her own thing. I think both ways of doing things can be valid for women, but I guess personally my feminism isn’t about trying to be successful by emulating men all the time.

Victoria Yes, and then in the Nicki Minaj example, why is Lil’ Wayne able to get away with being that rude and terrible at all? That shouldn’t be what people are striving to be.

Jaya:  Exactly! It’s just like, people in power are often assholes, so everyone thinks you need to be an asshole to be powerful. There shouldn’t be a double standard there. Nicki shouldn’t be treated as a bitch while Lil Wayne is respected.

Victoria Yeah, which is terrible. I read Lean In recently, and she was talking a lot about how “men do things like this and women do things like that,” and she was really encouraging women to do things the “male way” because that is currently regarded as the more successful way. But it occurred to me that maybe things would run more smoothly if everyone switched to the more “female way.”

Jaya:  I think that’s the conventionally accepted idea, that to be successful you have to do it the “male way.” Women communicate and listen, but men demand what they want, and both can be useful sometimes. Doing everything all one way or all another probably doesn’t help. But in general women are taught, indirectly, that it’s rude to ask for things. That asking = demanding, and demanding is bad.

Victoria: I was reading ANOTHER thing, on The Billfold, about how this grad program typically gives out $500 to students for travel, but will give more if the student asks and it was always the men who ask for more—assuming that any rules or caps on funds would be bent for them. And a) obviously more transparency about the whole process would be better and b) if there are rules, some segments of the population shouldn’t just assume they can break those rules, and the rule makers need to uphold the rules that they make.

Jaya:  Yeah, and that’s also insane that something like that wouldn’t be standardized or at least transparent enough for everyone to know what they should ask for.

Victoria Yeah, exactly. That’s why I like etiquette as a set of rules, at least you can see what the playing field is and what’s supposed to be going on.

Jaya:  Totally, and yes, break them thoughtfully if you need. But it at least reminds you that there are needs out there besides your own.

Victoria: I was thinking coming home tonight about how at some point you have to assert yourself even if you then become less polite when people aren’t following the rules. For example, a response to our laundry post was to NEVER touch someone’s laundry EVER. And like, yeah, that’s why I give a little buffer and I REALLY hate doing it, but what happens when you’ve got two washers and dryers for 8 apartments and someone literally leaves their clothes sitting there for 5, 6, 7, 8 whatever hours? Do you just meekly keep checking every hour and being “polite” or do you say, hey, they are breaking the rules and I need to do my laundry and they have had plenty of time to come get their stuff, but they haven’t so now I am going to move their stuff?

Jaya: Right.

Victoria: Another example I thought of was the men taking up too much space on the subway thing. l totally think its polite to ask someone to close their legs so you can sit in the spot they are blocking. Be assertive but polite.

Jaya:  Yeah! Like, don’t outwardly shame them, just ask for them to move their legs or their purse and then they gently know to be aware of it in the future.

Victoria But the whole, privileged rule breaking thing would be to ask someone who is just sitting in a seat to get up and move so you can sit down (assuming you have no injuries or NEED to sit etc). That’s the difference I think, between being assertive and just being rude.

Jaya: Yeah, etiquette is a balance. You weigh your needs against the needs of others. Your needs will not win out 100% of the time, but you also can’t ignore your own needs.

Victoria EXACTLY. So let’s talk about vocal tone a little, you were telling me something about it the other day. How do you think tone relates to etiquette?

Jaya:  Well, part of etiquette is reading situations, I think, and learning to communicate well.

Victoria:  Totally.

Jaya:  And I think a good part of that involves reading tones. For instance, I was at a party a while back and this one girl was just being really anti-social. So initially, I tried to make an effort to engage her in conversation, thinking she might be shy or something. But it became apparent very quickly that she was angry at something and wanted to be left alone. Even though she never said anything to that effect, you could just tell she was angry (later I found out what she was mad about and it was really dumb but whatever).

Victoria Hahahahaha

Jaya:  But yeah it’s like, I knew to back off because to continue to try to talk to her would probably make it worse.

Victoria Right, I think that’s a more subtle part of being polite and following etiquette. Like, advanced etiquette and social relations, a graduate level course.

Jaya:  Hahaha yeah, I am very advanced. I am perfect at reading tone always.

Victoria:  Riiight.

Jaya: Though instead of an etiquette thing, I think it has more to do with our idea that speaking like a “girl” is somehow an insult. This is a good description of that . This has actually been an interesting topic when my fiance and I have gotten into fights. Because sometimes one of us will say something or do something with a mean or sarcastic tone, and that’s what the other one reacts to, instead of what we’re actually saying or doing. So at first I was like “you need to listen to what I’m saying, not my tone,” but then I realized that’s impossible, because how you say things is so tied into what you’re saying. Isn’t that an Eddie Izzard bit? (Ed: Yes).

I think the issue with some things is that people focus on superficial tone things rather than “real” tones, for lack of a better term. Like, the teenage girl thing. It’s something we’ve invented that assumes talking with many of the affectations of a young girl means you’re stupid or uneducated. What we don’t invent is the tones when people are angry, scared, bored, etc. People aren’t signaling deeper feelings when they use slang, but they are with the overall tone of their voice, and I think part of being a polite and considerate person is trying to tune into that. However, there’s nothing worse than someone trying to tell you how you feel in a conversation, so even if you get the sense that someone is angry when what they’re saying doesn’t match the tone, don’t try to tell them they’re really angry unless they hint at it first.

Victoria: That’s really interesting. I think if your tone doesn’t match your words, that’s when we end up with this etiquette=fakeness thing. Because it basically comes down to, yeah, maybe being polite is a LITTLE fake on occasion, but would you rather someone say something really terrible to you or just nicely let you get on your way?

Jaya:  Yess.

Victoria Or like, maybe you eat in a really gross manner alone, but do you really want to watch someone ELSE do it in front of you? So you shouldn’t do it in front of them either.

Jaya:  Hahahaha, exactly. Like, if everyone just did 100% what they wanted at any moment all day long, it’d be a nightmare.

Victoria:  And I think you see how it would be without etiquette in the comments section of a lot of websites, where people just go nuts and don’t treat each other with any respect like they would if they were talking in person.

Jaya:  I think that obviously there are times where your needs come first. Where you need to speak up about something but sometimes it’s like, just let something slide, it’ll be easier for everyone involved. And there’s no great way to figure out which is which. Also some people think anyone who is naturally polite is going to be a martyr about it or something.

Victoria Yeah, which is ridiculous. Like I said, obviously I am pretty polite and have this etiquette blog, but I am certainly very forceful about my rights on the subway (ahhh I am going to get murdered for this someday, probably). We are also constantly telling people, right after we say we write an etiquette blog, that we aren’t the politeness police and don’t really care what they do.

Jaya:  Ultimately it’s not like anyone is greatly harmed by most of this. Besides if someone is being outwardly racist/sexist/otherwise offensive and no one calls them out, but if you chew with your mouth open that really does not affect me besides maybe grossing me out for 30 seconds. But if you encounter a hundred people who all chew with their mouths open and lean on subway poles and cut in line, your day is gonna suck.

Victoria: Yes! Exactly!

Jaya: I think being polite is fake only when you feel like your personal needs are being needlessly ignored, and yet you don’t say anything in the name of being “polite.”

Victoria Or when you are just actually being fake- like I’m imagining a situation where you are at a party and continue to introduce people to, or bring drinks to, or otherwise be nice to someone you don’t like while you are saying mean things behind their back. When you could just politely greet them and then ignore them and not talk about them behind their back.

Jaya:  Yessssss, being polite doesn’t mean you have to act like best friends with everyone.

Victoria Yeah, just be, you know, cordial.

Jaya:  We’re all adults, and we don’t all love each other, and that’s fine.

Victoria I like the word cordial.

Jaya:  Haha me too, like cherries.

Victoria:  It’s like, being the bare minimum of polite for social acceptance.

Jaya:  I mean sometimes you are forced to interact with someone you don’t like but there’s a difference between being nice and pretending they’re your favorite. And that’s the difference between actual politeness and being fake.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Hat Etiquette

I could do a whole post on famous hats in movies. [ via Wikimedia Commons]

Technically, we do still have to follow hat etiquette. But since hats are no longer de rigueur, a lot of this has fallen by the wayside. However, when you do wear a hat, you really do need to follow this and shouldn’t wear your hipster fedora inside even though you think you are so cool. In fact, taking your hat off inside is probably the only hat etiquette rule that still needs to be followed.

Unfortunately, for equality, most hat etiquette is intended for the man. The reason for this is that men’s hats are easily removed. Women’s hats traditionally were very fussy and actually attached to their hair with hat pins and the like. Taking it off would also often mess up their hair dos. However, when a woman wears a gender-neutral hat like a baseball cap, she needs to also remove it when indoors. I would count warm winter hats as well, but you’re probably taking those off indoors already.

Interestingly, a hostess does not wear a hat in her own home. So if a woman were hosting a luncheon, bridge game, bridal shower, etc. in her home during the afternoon (in ye olden times) all of her female guests would probably be wearing hats, but she would not. Women did not wear hats with a brim after 5pm, they switched to cocktail hats which were much smaller.

An interesting exception to women keeping their hats on inside was when attending the theater. If one’s hat was so big as to obscure the view for someone behind them, the person who was being blocked could ask that the hat be removed and it should be done at once. It would be wise to wear only very small hats to the theater, obviously. Men took off their top hats when seated for the performance (collapsible top hats were made for this very purpose!) but they kept them on when strolling the corridors.

There is an exception to taking your hat off indoors. When you enter a public building and are using transitional spaces such as lobbies, hallways, and elevators, you do not need to take your hat off. Do take it off once you reach the office/apartment/whatever you are visiting. Hats remain on on public transportation and in stores as well. Hats are removed in restaurants (except when sitting at a counter in an informal restaurant).

In addition to indoors, hats need to be removed for the national anthem and passing funeral processions.

In some religious spaces, such as some Jewish synagogues, it might be required that men cover their heads. Go with what is done.

Traditionally, men spent a lot of time doffing their hats or tipping the brim. A man would remove his hat when meeting a woman in the street and stopping to talk with her. He would also take it off when a woman entered an elevator he was in. A man would briefly lift his hat or touch the brim when: greeting strangers on the street, after briefly speaking to a strange woman (after informing her of a dropped object, for example), when passing a woman in a tight space, to acknowledge a kindness or favor in public, or basically anytime he needed to acknowledge a stranger in public.

Communal Laundry Etiquette

At least we don’t have to wash laundry this way anymore. [Via The Boston Public Library on Flickr]

This is for communal laundry rooms in an apartment or dorm or similar, a commercial laundromat is a completely different thing.

There are only a few rules for communal laundry but they are pretty important.

  • If you come in and the washer or dryer is stopped but full of clothes, it is kind to wait a couple of minutes (if possible) for the person to come back. If they don’t, you are perfectly free to remove the clothes and use the machine. You should do your best to put the clothes in a laundry cart or cleanish table. Never throw them on the floor! Technically, I don’t think you even need to wait to see if someone shows up, but I like to give a little buffer (though, I live only one floor above my laundry room).
  • If you do not want someone touching your things, you need to get there exactly when the wash or dry cycle ends and remove them.
  • Originally I had written that it is fine to use multiple machines, but that you might consider leaving one machine open if it’s a busy time like a Saturday afternoon. However, it has been mathematically demonstrated to me (seriously) that is it more efficient for all possible laundry doers if you do all your laundry at once and don’t cause down time on the machines. However, I do still think it is a bit rude to plan on doing, I don’t know, 8 loads of laundry on a day that you know your particular laundry room is busy.
  • If there is an accessible lint tray in the dryer, empty it when you remove your clothes.
  • Do your best to keep the room relatively neat, cleaning up your detergent spills and pocket detritus.

What annoys you about your shared laundry situation?