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Mind your manners

Tips to guide you through the social minefields you negotiate every day

brunch Updated: Nov 04, 2017 21:07 IST
Seema Goswami
Getting the right reaction might not be that easy when it comes to handling WhatsApp groups or even a cynically recycled gift
Getting the right reaction might not be that easy when it comes to handling WhatsApp groups or even a cynically recycled gift(Shutterstock)

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with two of my girlfriends at a restaurant when a much older male acquaintance dropped by our table to say hello. He had already lunched, but unfortunately so had his facial hair, which was now festooned with bits of food. Throughout the conversation that followed, all three of us stared with horrified fascination at his beard and moustache. But we could not bring ourselves to tell him that he had food stuck all over his face.

Was that the right thing to do? Was that even the kind thing to do?

I must confess that I thought long and hard about it afterwards. Should we have indicated that he had food bits all over his beard and risked embarrassing him? Or was it better to pretend that all was well and let him go through the rest of the day being stared and laughed at?

On balance I think we should have taken option one. Sure, he would have been crushed – he has a somewhat fragile self-esteem anyway – but at least the humiliation would have been momentary, rather than a day-long process. Imagine going back home after the day is done, taking a look at yourself in the bathroom mirror and wondering just how long you have had that stuff stuck to your beard. I know that I wouldn’t want that happening to me (which is why I always sport the clean-shaven look!).

All of this got me thinking about when it is appropriate to speak up, even if doing so may result in some degree of awkwardness.

Take all those WhatsApp groups we are all inevitably made a part of. What is the best way to deal with a close friend or family member who outs himself/herself as a bigot on this platform? Is it better to quietly exit and hope that no one notices (hot tip: someone always will)? Or is it better and braver to call out the bigot and his bigotry, even if it leads to some tension and bad feelings?

I must confess that after the initial outrage – and the impulse to knock someone’s teeth out – I always take the cowardly way out. Family is enough trouble without adding confrontation to the mix. So when a distant cousin posted something about ‘presstitutes’ on Facebook, I stamped down on the impulse to call him a few choice names of my own, and just quietly ‘unfriended’ him. (In case he hadn’t noticed yet, he most certainly will now – so allow me to say “No thanks and goodbye”.) Who needs the grief, I ask myself on such occasions. Certainly not me.

But I am not sure that a discreet silence is the best response to a cynically recycled gift. And most definitely not when it is a gift that you thoughtfully picked out for a friend only to find it re-gifted back to you in a year or so, having been passed through a couple of other recipients for good measure.

Whenever that happens to me, my mind flashes back to V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux. Their friendship was ruined when Theroux found a signed copy of his book with a personal inscription made out to Naipaul in a second-hand book store. Theroux confronted him about it. An unmoved Naipaul is believed to have said “Take it on the chin and move on.” The two men are believed to have made up since then, but for me, this is pretty much friendship-ending behaviour.

Then, there are those little social irritants that all of us react to differently. There are many of my married friends who have no problem with being sent cards addressed to Mrs and Mr Insert Husband’s Last Name, even though they still officially go by their maiden names. I must confess, though, that I find this a little irksome. I love my name. I continue to use it. So why can’t my friends and family? But I guess this is just me.

And talking about names, what is it with millennials taking it upon themselves to first-name you from the get-go even though you are old enough to have given birth to them? Shouldn’t they at least wait until they are asked to make free with your name? And what is the correct procedure to deal with such impertinence? No, don’t tell me to ‘go with the flow’ or ‘chill’ because that’s simply not happening.

That may well work for you. But the next time a 20-something ‘Seemas’ me without so much as a by your leave, I am going to smile sweetly and say, “Sorry, but that’s Ms Goswami to you.”

I can’t wait to see how popular that makes me!

From HT Brunch, November 5, 2017

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