Talking About Height Differences

It’s a metaphor, get it? [Via Wikimedia Commons]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

So I can’t sleep and  for some reason I thought of the most random etiquette question. I know it’s rude to walk in between people having a conversation without saying “excuse me” or whatever ( like people at work having convo in the narrow hallway or something), but what if I’m short enough to walk between the people without obstructing their line of vision between one another? Similarly, it’s totally rude for people to have conversations over my head right? 


Very Short


Official Etiquette:

There doesn’t seem to be much out there addressing this specific sort of question, but of course talking over a shorter person’s head is rude!


Our Take:

Jaya: When you are short and passing between two people having a conversation, basically you want to give them a heads up, not because you can’t slip between them, but because they might be having a private conversation and it’d be rude of you just to zoom in between them.

Victoria: Yeah, plus they might notice you and be like, omg so weird.

Jaya: And like, among friends, obviously tall people should be open to including everyone in a conversation, just like anyone else. It’d be just as rude if two short people shut out a tall person.

Victoria: Yeah, and also like, if they are teasing you, then its teasing, and you have to decide if you like that kind of teasing or won’t tolerate it. I’ve had friends do that to me and I don’t care, because they were just being silly. But if it really bothers you or it’s excessive, just tell them! They are your friends!


How To Raise A Kid In A City

We're not all like this

We’re not all like this

Excuse me if I seem bitter, but there’s something I need to get off my chest. I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, in apartments, sometimes one-bedrooms I shared with a parent. I’m of an age where peers are beginning to have kids, or think about having kids, which always raises the question–do we raise little precious in the big, bad city? Or do we move to the suburbs “for the children”? Of course, living in a non-urban area is a FINE AND GREAT LIFE CHOICE and you should make it if it’s for you. Personally, I’m a fan of being from a city. Both lifestyles also have their perks and drawbacks, and it’s just a matter of what works for you and your family.

Anyway, recently I’ve come across a lot of people who are trying to game the system by raising their children in a big city, but then moving to the suburbs just in time for middle school. Their kid will get to peacock about being a “city kid” while basking in the comfort and societal normalcy of suburban life, and also might have a better chance at getting into a “good” school. Plus, the parents then get to say they were the cool ones who were totally fine with balancing an exciting city life with a baby. There are lots of things that bother me about this, but the main one is that these kids (and their parents) rarely bother to learn apartment etiquette. To them it’s not important. They’re going to be leaving anyway.

We’ve gone over some basics of apartment etiquette, but the main premise that a lot of people can’t wrap their heads around is that even though you have four walls a door, you are not really isolated. As I write this I can hear my neighbor’s dog barking, the guy on the sidewalk shoveling out his driveway, and my upstairs neighbor playing piano. This might sound like torture to some people, but I think it’s good for us to remember we aren’t alone in this world. Your presence and actions affect others.

So if you have a kid in an apartment, for no matter how long, here are some things you should know and start implementing.

  • Do not leave your strollers in the hallway. I know your apartment is small. Everyone’s is. That’s why you shouldn’t have gotten the 30 pound stroller with the shock wheels that won’t fold up in the first place. The hallways are for public use, and save for umbrellas, wet shoes, and mayyybe a trash bag left out at night and taken down first thing in the morning, you should not keep your stuff out there.
  • Understand when it’s time to be quiet. Obviously few parents can help a screaming infant in the middle of the night, and most apartment dwellers are pretty forgiving of noise. We all get that we share walls. But you should teach your kids early and often that hallways are not for screaming, not to jump or pound on floors, and not to practice instruments after a reasonable time at night (or too early in the morning). And for everyone, if you’re having a party or expect to be making a lot of noise past that “reasonable” time, try to give your neighbors a heads up.
  • Be understanding of the noise others make. Ideally, everyone comes to apartment living with a forgiving attitude. We all try our best to be mindful of others, but some things just can’t be helped. I don’t mind the occasional crying infant, because I know shit happens. In the same forgiving vein, parents, do not assume that every noise made was made specifically to disturb your child. I’ve heard of parents shouting at their neighbors for ringing buzzers or making noise when their child is trying to nap, or for throwing a party past their child’s bedtime. Obviously if something is ongoing and extraordinarily loud you have the right to complain, but part of apartment living means you need to make concessions. Also, children are resilient and learn to sleep through noise! It happens all the time.
  • The city is not always kid-friendly. People curse on the street. People are drunk in public. People wear “inappropriate” things. This is true of everywhere, but all the more likely the more heavily concentrated the area. In all likelihood, your kid is going to see some things you think they are too young or too innocent to see. Make peace with this now, or move to a place where it’s easier to shelter them.
  • The subway is not your car. This one goes outside the apartment, but it’s still important. There is a certain efficiency to living that it necessary in a big city, especially when cars are not an option. I see a lot of parents forget about this, and insist on taking up a whole subway bench for their strollers, diaper bags, and whatever entertainment their kids seem to “need.” Once I saw someone set up a playpen on the subway floor. Once again, this is a public space, and space economy needs to be taken into account. Don’t take up more than your allotted number of seats, and if your kid needs entertainment, give them a book, a quiet toy, or an iPad with headphones. Far too many people just let their kids watch movies at full volume and it’s driving me insane.

Plenty of people move to big cities to really have a life there. Those aren’t the people I’m talking about here. Those people care about living in a city, and adapting to what everyday life must look like. I’m talking about the people who say they want to live in a city without understanding that your lifestyle cannot be that of one in the suburbs or in a rural area. Just as I wouldn’t move to a farm and expect a deli to open up around the corner, you should not live in a city and expect the sort of space and privacy country living provides. If you want all the trappings of suburbia, then sorry, that’s where you have to go. We all gotta make sacrifices.

How To Politely Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity

265720Last week I conducted a phone interview that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. I was calling this man for research help for a book I’m working on, and within the first ten seconds of the call, he interrupts me to ask me where my name is from. I barely even had time to thank him for speaking to me before he started explaining how he had never heard of “Saxena” before and how it sounds so “exotic,” that he just simply had to know its origins.

Ask anyone with a “weird” (aka non-white) name or look, and they will have a million stories like this, either endlessly being asked where they are from (and getting the “no, where are you really from?” when “New Jersey” isn’t an acceptable answer), questions about “exotic” names, or people just assuming they know where you’re from based on your brown-ish skin color. More than once I’ve had people start speaking a different language to me–Spanish, Hebrew, Greek–and was then made to apologize to them when I revealed that, sorry, I’m not Israeli.

A lot of biracial, non-white, and otherwise “ethnically ambiguous” people are, rightly, fed up with dealing with this and refuse to answer those sorts of questions. Quite a few times I’ve refused too, but after telling another non-white friend about this latest incident, she asked me the honest question, “is there any context in which a question like this is okay?” I think there is! I understand that, despite my name being incredibly common in India, most Americans have likely not heard it, just like I’ve likely not heard most names from other places around the world. It’s natural to be curious about people’s backgrounds, and I think there are ways to talk about it without coming off as an intrusive asshole. It just requires some finesse.

By the way, most of this is written with the assumption that it’s a white person asking a non-white person about their ethnicity. Not that other variants of this don’t happen, but ask around–white people tend to be the ones messing up here. This is what it looks like most of the time.

1. Ask yourself why you need to know. One of the most frustrating things about being asked questions like this all the time is having the experience of being asked, answering, and then watching the person walk away once they’ve gotten their information. Seriously, multiple times I’ve had strangers walk up to me, demand “What are you?,” and leave once I’ve panicked and responded something about my Indian heritage. Do you care because this person seems like a new friend and you want to get to know them better? Are you trying to hit on someone and think this is a good way to break the ice (it’s not)? Did you just see a person who doesn’t look white and want to know why? Would knowing someone’s racial background change how you think of them, and how you interact with them? Dig deep.

2. Understand that you have no right to know. You have every right in the world to ask someone about their name, ethnicity, and country of origin, and they have every right not to answer you, and to call you an asshole. “What’s the matter?” you may be asking, “I’d have no problem talking about my great-great-grandfather who moved here from Scotland if someone asked me.” That’s because having a great-great-grandfather from Scotland is the standard in this country, and I’m speaking as someone who also has great-x-5 ancestors from Scotland. Questions about a white person’s ethnicity rarely result in questions of their belonging, of their right to be where they are. No one asks where you’re “really” from, because the assumption is that it’s here. Most non-white people have at least one story about being asked where they’re “really” from, and then being angrily told to return.

3. Do not open a conversation with this question. If there are no other rules you remember, remember this one. No one likes feeling accosted for personal information, no matter what it is. Walking up to a stranger and demanding to know their racial makeup is incredibly invasive, so if you need to ask, have a decent conversation going first.

4. Think about your relationship to the person you’re asking. I really enjoy talking to all my friends about our various backgrounds. Ancestry and genealogy interest me, so these types of conversations come up all the time in really great ways. However, since they’re my friends, there’s an understanding that they’re interested in and care about me as more than a racial curiosity. I don’t have that trust with a stranger at a bar, or even someone I’ve met once or twice.

5. If you need to ask, make it about your own ignorance. And maybe about names instead of skin color. There’s a big tonal difference between a “What the hell name is that?” and “Wow, I’ve never heard that name before, where is it from?” The former makes the person being asked the weird one for having such a “strange” name, and the latter makes it clear the asker knows they’re ignorant. Most productive, polite conversations I’ve had about my race with someone who didn’t know started with a question like that, in which I could respond that it’s an Indian name, and then we get into a conversation about my heritage. Nothing like that has ever come out of being asked “Wow, why do you look so ethnic?”

6. Be willing to answer every question you ask. Like I said before, these questions have different connotations and consequences when your answer is “we moved from England to Pennsylvania in the 1700s,” but unless you’re willing to dive into your family’s history, don’t ask anyone else about theirs.

7. Read the conversation. Obviously this etiquette advice is apt in any conversation, but especially in ones with “tricky” subjects like this. Is the person excitedly responding to you, or are they trying to change the subject? Do they seem uncomfortable and slow to answer your questions? Make yourself pay attention to things like this, and apologize if you get the sense that you’re coming off as intrusive.

Reception Only Invitations

Victoria's great-grandmother at her wedding in 1906

Victoria’s great-grandmother at her wedding in 1906

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

I was hoping to get some advice regarding wedding guest list etiquette. My fiancé and I are getting married in a very small chapel. It is a historical chapel that only has 6 long pews and we will be adding some chairs in the back. The chapel is tucked away in a private wooded area…quite secluded and intimate. Our guest list for our wedding ceremony is 50 people. However, our guest list for our meal and wedding reception is 150. Do you think it is bad etiquette to invite people to one part of the evening and not the other?

Thank you,

Confused bride


Official Etiquette:

In my edition of Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, she says that it’s fine to have a large reception for an intimate wedding. The wording she suggests is:

Mr. and Mrs. Lastname

request the pleasure of your company

at the wedding breakfast of their daughter



Mr. Firstname Middlename Hisname

on Day, Date

at Location


Our Take:

Jaya: Okay so I have my Emily Post book out and am looking for what to do about inviting people to the reception and not the ceremony.

Victoria: Yeah, I know that Miss Manners says you should come up with your approximate guest list first thing to get an idea of the numbers you are working with and THEN find a venue that fits them all. She is a people above all person. I think technically though, you can do this, though I personally do not like it.

Jaya: I know in a lot of cultures it’s pretty common, so I think if it’s that situation, everyone already knows the drill. Okay, Emily Post says basically that this is a way to have a wedding, and that two invitations are needed, so the wording is clear that some people are only invited to the reception. I mean, I think that’s why in a lot of “traditional” invitation packages there’s a separate card with the reception info.

Victoria: Ahhh yeah, that makes sense.

Jaya: I don’t think it’s inherently bad etiquette, though I think that if it’s not what’s usually done in your circle, no matter how carefully you do it, some people may feel jilted. You’re automatically setting up a very clear hierarchy, and if that’s not “what’s done” some people will have a hard time understanding it.

Victoria: Yeah, for sure. And for a lot of people, seeing the ceremony IS important. I actually did go to a wedding where the ceremony was separate and private, but the reception was the next day. So it didn’t feel like as big a deal? I was also about 15 so i don’t think I cared that much

Jaya: Haha right. And yeah, looking at various message boards, everyone has different opinions on this.

Victoria: Yeah, I think that’s why I would tread really carefully. Although, it sounds like it’s already a done deal for her. But for me, I would just avoid any possibility of drama and just have my ceremony somewhere that could fit all my guests.

Jaya: Yeah, so if that’s the case, the invitations should make it very clear that they’re being invited to the reception in honor of the couple. And be prepared to answer questions

Victoria: So many questions.

Jaya: (god so many of these are like “we want everyone at the ceremony but we can’t afford everyone at the reception.” don’t do that!!!)

Victoria: Oh man, it’s situations like this that make me think you should really consider all sides of your guest list and wedding choices before putting any money down anywhere. Like really think through everything you are planning on and what any possible consequences will be. Like that APW post I was reading recently where so many people were like “I wish I knew that having an unconventional venue would mean that I would be responsible for all kinds of permits and tents, and chairs, and floors, and tables, and lights, and portapoties and everything.”

Jaya: Right. We don’t know this bride’s family, or her reasons for wanting the ceremony in such an intimate chapel when their guest list is three times the size. But we’re trusting she has them. And I think she just has to be prepared to explain them to the reception-only guests if anyone asks. Interestingly, a few people on these forums are saying the ceremony is the part that should be open for everyone, while the reception should only be for close family and friends. So, you know, everyone has opinions.

Victoria: Yeah, I think technically weddings in a church are open to all regular parishioners? I would assume she has already dealt with all of the big issues. but I would definitely tell people in the planning stages who are thinking of doing this to talk with their families and really get an idea of what kind of fallout if any they are looking at.

Jaya: Yeah. Also, this might be just me, but 50 guests seems sort of large to get away with “intimate” wedding. I’ve had friends who got married with like, 5-10 people by a JOP, and then held a dinner for everyone after. That makes more sense. 50 people is already the size lots of people have for their full wedding.

Victoria: Haha yeah, definitely. Although, if it’s only 1/3 of her guest list, I guess that’s not SO bad. But I think when you get to the point that 1/2 your guest list is invite to the ceremony and 1/2 isn’t, then it starts to become a bit murky. And if you are only excluding, say, 1/4 of the guests, I think that’s full on rude.

Jaya: Right

Victoria: I mean, it’s all totally subjective. But it’s the situation of all the kids in the class invited to the birthday except for one…it becomes hurtful. And hurting people is bad.

Jaya: Okay, so I think no, this is not inherently rude. But they should start explaining to their friends and family, get the info out there, and see how people react. I think people are much more forgiving if they’ve had a conversation about why this is happening than just getting the invitation and seeing where they fall in the hierarchy.

Victoria: Yeah. Until they think they should be higher up in the hierarchy.

Jaya: Right. And we don’t know their family, but there is definitely a chance that would happen. Offbeat Bride has a great point, that in a reception only invitation, there’s no need to mention the ceremony. You don’t want to bring up the thing people are missing. “We love you but you can’t come to this part — but we still love you … no seriously!” It’s just rubbing salt into a wound that people didn’t even know they had.

Victoria: Although, if there are 50 people there who are all discussing the ceremony that they JUST witnessed…It’s hard to keep it on the DL. Or if they don’t know people were excluded, they’ll be like, why weren’t you at the ceremony?

Jaya: Right. It’s a difficult balance between making sure everyone knows what’s up and also hiding the fact that, well, some people just didn’t make the cut.

Victoria: Yeah. That’s why I don’t like it…its too hard to control that many people. I mean, not control but if you have 5 people at the ceremony, its obvious that its very exclusive.

Jaya: Yes. Which is why I think this bride has to be careful. 5 out of 150 is exclusive. 50 out of 150 is not really? Or maybe it is. It’s hard to draw a line somewhere like that. Okay, so like, hard advice, what should she do if she’s already decided this is what it’s gonna be?

Victoria: Okay, yes, and I want to reiterate, that there’s no real judgment from us about her choice in this. But yeah, definitely separate invitations with clear wording for those attending just the reception something like, so and so invite you to celebrate their marriage at a dinner and dancing (or whatever) reception in PLACE at TIME on DATE. Whereas the ceremony guests would get something like so and so invite you to celebrate their marriage at PLACE at TIME on DATE, reception at PLACE to follow. And I might be so bold as to put something specific on a wedding website like a ceremony page that says “we will be having an intimate wedding ceremony prior to the big party with everyone we love.”

Jaya: Hmm, do you think that’d just be drawing attention to the fact that certain people aren’t invited? Or maybe people invited to the reception would be confused if they went to the website, and saw the ceremony thing? Like, they’d think they could go to that too?

Victoria: It might, but if you’re going to do it, I feel like its better to be up front (yet vague about how intimate) rather than let people find out by calling Aunt Suzy to discuss the wedding and finding out that SHE is going to a ceremony.

Jaya: That’s true. But yes that’s another point–get your family on board.

Victoria: I mean, in the ceremony page, you wouldn’t list the location…

Jaya: I can forsee a lot of aunts being like “well of course the cousins can come to the ceremony” without running it by the couple.

Victoria: Yes, if your parents aren’t 100% with you on this, you are going to have a struggle.

Jaya: Hell that happened to me at the rehearsal dinner. Luckily it didn’t really matter but, yeah.

Victoria: We had some friends get married and one of their moms was inviting random people left and right.

Jaya: Hahaha yuuuup

Victoria: Yeah, I mean, I think that the moral of the story is that the more you go out of “the usual” (the usual for your circle)  the more time you are going to have to spend explaining things. And the more you are going to have to have a fully united front with your families. And the more likely are to have drama and or hurt feelings.

Jaya: Right, and you just have to balance what’s worth it to you.

Etiquette Origins: Escort Cards

Via Flickr

Escort cards are probably the easiest part of the wedding to DIY and you can be incredibly creative with them. Via Flickr

I was very confused for a while when I first started reading wedding websites (erm, for research for friends weddings and this here etiquette website) and people kept referring to escort cards. At this stage in my life I had not been to many weddings so I was like “what’s an escort card?” If you also do not know, an escort card is the little card with your name on it that you find at the entrance to the reception that tells you what table you are to sit at. This is a modern alternative to the more traditional seating chart or a simple place card at your seat (why doesn’t anyone do these anymore???) The most confusing thing about escort cards, to me, was the name. Sure they tell you where you are supposed to sit, but they aren’t ESCORTING you there. It seemed like a very active verb for such a passive way of getting you to your seat.

It turns out that escort cards have a previous etiquette life where they made a lot more sense.

Back in the Downton Abbey type of era, for a fancy dinner all the guests would meet outside the dining room before the meal started. When dinner was ready, the butler would say that dinner was served. Then all the guests would line up two by two, boy and girl, like little ducks and march into the dining room. To complicate things, in England (and other places??), every single person had a rank and that rank HAD to determine where they would sit at dinner and in what order they would march in. Hostesses literally had to hire people and buy giant books to tell them what order their guests had to go in. So after putting all that work in, the hostess couldn’t let the guests bungle it up by choosing who to walk in with. So, the escort card was invented to tell men which lady they would be ESCORTING (active verbs for active actions!) into the dining room and what order they would be in. These would be shown to the men discreetly or handed to them when they arrived for dinner.

And now we have Pinterest to tell us that we are never going to be good enough, even with some stupid scraps of paper.

Alternative history: The Art of Manliness has a fascinating post describing escort cards as a cheeky way that 19th century men asked women out on dates.