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The Urban Etiquette Handbook

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Rules of the dinner party: (1) If you’re going to get wasted, make sure you’re not the only one. (2) Kids allowed only in event of verifiable babysitter emergency. (3) All drugs must be shared. (4) After spills, apologize once, clean it up, then let it go. (5) Air kiss over handshake. (6) Men over the age of 40 should never wear leather pants. Anywhere.  

Friends
When can you send a thank-you via e-mail?
A mass e-mail is actually preferable when thanking people who combined to put together a work project or totally rockin’ party, as it emphasizes the communal nature of the achievement and offers the opportunity for public praise. Everything else (e.g., weddings, gifts, anniversaries, job promotions or interviews, etc.) still goes on nice, high-fiber stationery or a store-bought card.

How do you handle it when you, in full party panic, can’t remember the name of someone you know?
Blame the panic! In fact, don’t just blame the panic, inflate it. Begin talking about how flustered you are: You thought it was Thursday for a second, you put your drink down five minutes ago and can’t find it, you are so out of it that you’ve forgotten the name . . . of someone across the room whose name, in reality, you do remember! Then, conspiratorially ask the person whose name you can’t recall to introduce herself to the third party—as you laugh all the way to the First National Bank of Knowing Everybody’s Name.

How do you bring up the subject of a friend’s serious medical problem?
The simple answer is, you don’t. If someone has a medical condition that’s serious but not visually detectable, and he hasn’t broached the subject with you, chances are it’s because he doesn’t want it broached at all. People have all sorts of legitimate reasons for wanting to keep health issues private. You can let your friend know you’re concerned—without embarrassing him—with an earnest gaze and a sincere “So, how are you doing?” which communicates empathy without raising the subject out loud if he really doesn’t feel like talking.

How do you acknowledge obvious plastic surgery?
If the intentions were subtle, pretend you don’t know exactly what change your friend has undergone, even if she looks like a convenience-store thief masked in Saran Wrap. Something like, “Oh, wow . . . you look great. I can’t put my finger on what’s different, but you look years younger.” If the operation was done expressly to garner attention—say the former B-cup is now a DD with the top three buttons undone—well, then just let it rip: “Wow! Those hooters are like big twin Hindenburgs!”

What’s the best response to a racist remark at a dinner party?
Nervous laughter is the inevitable reflex. But the failure to respond will certainly add to your hangover, no matter how much gin has been consumed. The first line of defense against bigotry is to assume that it’s a joke, and say so. “You must be joking . . . though it’s not really that funny.” Try to smile as little as possible while holding out the possibility of forgiveness. You could also accuse the person of being drunk, which is almost always the case. But if someone is offering an entire line of argument that is clearly bigoted or otherwise beyond the bounds of civilized discourse (“I don’t want them in my neighborhood”), someone is honor-bound to make an Atticus Finch–like declaration of belief.

Should the wealthier half of a friendship be expected to give more-expensive gifts?
In an ideal world, no. But in the real world, yeah, pretty much. A rule of thumb: Give according to your means, not the recipient’s. If you’re the richer friend, your impoverished friends will appreciate your generosity infinitely more than a cheap trinket you purchased so as not to embarrass them. If you’re the poorer friend—and you’re worried about being outclassed—get together with other friends of lesser means to pool resources on an item of greater value. Better still, spend extra effort on a thoughtful but nevertheless affordable gift that shows you’ve actually paid attention to your friends’ most obscure tastes and interests.

What’s the best way to avoid awkward crossed-signals handshake-meets-cheek-kiss encounters?
Remember: You can usually get away with unwarranted familiarity if your intended recipient sees it coming. Strike early:
• If you or the person you’re greeting is a woman, start telegraphing your intentions before you make eye contact, either extending your hand or opening your arms according to whim. (Under no circumstances should you give a woman a fist pound.)
• If it’s a masculine pairing, make eye contact and form your hand into the appropriate shake/fist pound/gangster-style-clasp shape before raising your arm. (And never give an elaborate handshake to the uninitiated.)

What do “I’ll call you” or “Let’s have lunch” mean?
In a non-dating situation, these hollow parting comments often translate roughly to “In all likelihood, I won’t call you” and “Let’s not have lunch, though I have generally positive feelings about you.” (Though the recipient has no choice but to be agreeable in the moment and assume the phone won’t ring.) If you’re prone to such phrases, consider deploying “It was good to see you,” which, while perfectly pleasant, won’t confuse anyone.

Can you reject a Friendster, Facebook, or MySpace friend request from someone you know?
No. It’s not as though adding someone to your online social network costs anything: The only potential damage is to the perceived quality of your accumulated friends. And if you know someone who judges you based on your Friendster network, then, well, like Mom said, he’s not your real Internet friend anyway.

How do you end an exchange of witty, flirtatious e-mail banter?
The exchange of witty, flirtatious banter is admittedly the e-mail quagmire with the fewest number of obvious exit strategies. Nonetheless, it should be resolved like real-time witty, flirtatious banter: with one party either summoning the courage to ask for a date or ending the quasi relationship by means of unexplained unresponsiveness.

What do you do when you’ve attended a performance by your aspiring actor/singer/comic friend—and you were driven to tears by its utter banality?
Always lie, but try to do it in ways that aren’t so liar-y. Gush about aspects of the show that weren’t horrid (“Such exquisite costuming!”), compliment the very particular elements of his performance that were adequate, or say something not-technically-false like “That’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from you!” Long-term encouragement of delusional artistic aspirations, though, is impolite: If the invites are repeated, let your nonattendance send a message.

If you accept a dinner invitation and have a miserable time, must you reciprocate?
If someone treats you to dinner at a restaurant or in their home, you owe them the same honor. But if you really can’t stand the inviting individual/couple, a good compromise is to invite them to your next big party. This sends the message that you are thinking about them while minimizing the probability of actual contact.

How far are you obligated to go to accommodate vegetarians and vegans in your home?
If it’s a dinner party, you should have at least one option for each course that suits everyone’s dietary needs, though restricted eaters have the responsibility of letting you know what they can and can’t eat. If you’re the guest, you should politely inform the host of your regimen by way of offering to bring a dish that suits your needs that everyone will “enjoy.” (The less appetizing it sounds—e.g., seaweed dogs—the more likely your horrified host will come up with something better.)

How do you pick restaurants and other social activities in circles that involve widely varying incomes?
Inviting the whole gang over for dinner solves some problems—the poor people won’t have to choose between missing a credit card payment or being treated, and the richer folk get a nice meal if you’re a generally decent cook. Of course, it creates an altogether new problem: In your sensitivity to everyone’s income issues, you alone wind up underwriting the entire evening. That’s fine some of the time, but for another alternative, choose an under-the-radar, inexpensive restaurant where everyone will feel cutting-edge— self-congratulatory hipsterdom knows no class boundaries.

What’s the best way to split the check in a group?
At a group meal, an equal split should be the baseline expectation: It falls to those who ordered more-expensive dishes to offer to pay more, not to others to pay less. Failure to partake in the appetizers or the wine can be cited as a reason to cut one’s contribution only if there was some socially sanctioned reason for declining (veganism, Islam, pregnancy). If you just got the soup and you don’t think that’s fair, well, think about whether it’s “fair” to make your friends eat dinner with a buzz-killing cheapskate.



WHEN IS IT ACCEPTABLE TO BLACKBERRY DURING A CONVERSATION?
When it’s a “conversation” in the sense of “The New School Presents a Conversation With Harold Bloom” and you’re there. Otherwise, never. This remains one of society’s most frequent breaches of basic human decency. Seriously, what is wrong with those people?!?

HOW DO YOU TELL SOMEONE HE’S BEEN MISPRONOUNCING YOUR NAME FOR THREE MONTHS?
Tell him a story in which you use your own name, clearly enunciating where he’s got it wrong. For example, if you were Ralph Fiennes, you’d say, “I called him and said, ‘Hi, this is Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafe Fines.’ ”

IS IT EVER OKAY TO DRIVE A HUMMER?
Yes! If you’re leading a nighttime raid in Tikrit. Otherwise, Hummers have returned to their rightful place as a semi-obnoxious, semi-absurd rarity. Accepting a ride is different: In New York, being a passenger in any vehicle, matter how gauche or fuel-inefficient, is a rare treat.


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