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The Urban Etiquette Handbook


The Office
What do you do when someone asks you for help getting a job you don’t think he deserves?
If this individual is not a close- enough friend that you can tell him the truth, you may have to resort to one of the following humanely disingenuous approaches: (1) Respond enthusiastically with information of limited value: “Would it help if I gave you the name of the human-resources person? I think I might even have his e-mail!” (2) Issue a self-deprecating disclaimer of helplessness: “I don’t know how much my word counts on this one . . . ” (3) Technically do the favor, but warn off the prospective employer either explicitly or between the lines: “An acquaintance of mine is looking for something. I’ve known him ever since we went to Bennington! He dropped out though.”

What do you say to someone who’s just been fired?
Handle the situation as you would a friend’s breakup: Immediately disparage the ex-job. Remind the firee of his many highly employable talents and cast the job as an anchor keeping him from either success in his field or his true dream of becoming a novelist-restaurateur. Do not allude to unemployment benefits, which conjure up images of Soviets waiting in line for sugar, or the possibility of escaping the careerist New York rat race, which conjures up images of trite cinematic journeys to Middle American hometowns.

Is it ever acceptable to talk to a stranger on an elevator?
If there are six or fewer people on the elevator, no. However, if the group is larger than six, you have achieved an Elevator Humor Quorum and someone must make a remark about the elevator’s lack of size or speed in order to relieve the tension created by standing in a tiny space with six or more strangers. If another member of the group makes the remark first, Elevator Humor Solidarity obligates you to chuckle mildly.

Which officemates are you required to invite to your wedding?
Allot invitations in the following order: (1) officemates you consider close friends and genuinely like and want at your wedding, (2) your direct managers or those one position higher with whom you interact on a daily basis, and (3) people who can fire you. The issues often come from those who straddle those lines, like co-workers you merely deem acquaintances and direct managers you simply don’t like. In the former case, don’t lose sleep over losing their invitations in the mail; if you don’t think they’re worth $150 a plate, consider this a perfect opportunity to establish the parameters of your relationship. In the case of a disliked manager or a boss, it’s actually in your best interest to suck it up and invite them; if you don’t, you’ll have to spend months skulking around and hoping no one mentions the wedding around them, and if you do, the most you’ll have to do is pay a tiny amount of attention to them on the day itself.

What do you do if you see someone crying at work?
Rather than approaching your co-worker with concern or consolation (a further imposition) or ignoring the tears entirely (a sign of coldheartedness or contempt), ride the line with a reaction that has become a mark of just this occasion: the Unobtrusive, Empathetic Wince. Cast a second glance toward the weeper (who will be looking at you to gauge the damage). Scrunch your face as follows: Push your bottom lip up toward your upper gums to create a combination smile-frown, add some worry brows while nodding or tilting your head, then glance down and away. That sends the message “I understand, I will not interfere, and your secret is safe with me.”

When does an e-mail exchange end?
At the office, acknowledging receipt of requested work or information is entirely appropriate and necessary, but acknowledging receipt of receipt-acknowledgment is superfluous.

What if you see someone from work in a compromising situation elsewhere?
Immediately remove yourself from the situation and pretend it never happened.

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