Sunday, June 15, 2008


I don't write about etiquette. If you're looking for advice on how many months you have to give a couple a gift after their wedding or whether you should wait for a hostess to unfold her cloth napkin before you unfold yours, I'm not your guy.

But there are occasions when questions about ethics, which involves the moral rightness of a decision, and etiquette, which is concerned with how you should behave in social situations, overlap.

A reader from California writes to me that she is known for her "wonderful dinner parties." For these sit-down events she sets two tables, one for 12 people and the other for six. She places her married guests apart from their spouses so that they can mingle with people who will be "new and interesting."

Both tables are in the dining room, but the smaller table is slightly closer to the kitchen.

At a recent dinner party, one couple called her after they had left -- while the party was still going on -- and screamed at her that they had never been so humiliated in their lives.

"You are so Beverly Hills," the couple yelled. "You put us at the B table! Why did you put us with those old people instead of our friends?"

As someone who spends little time in Beverly Hills, I have no idea what they meant by "so Beverly Hills," but I do know that it wasn't meant as a compliment. My reader provides some guidance by noting that the callers seemed particularly incensed because there was a celebrity at the larger table, which in their minds made it the A table. She adds that she had deliberately separated the couple from their friends because the pairs had been giving one another the cold shoulder for several weeks.

"I found the rudeness uncalled for," my reader writes. "What should I have done?"

It was probably a breach of etiquette for the couple to berate their hostess while the party was still going on, but was it also a lapse in ethical judgment?

I believe so. They might have expressed their disappointment at not being seated with their friends in a civil manner, but instead chose to verbally attack my reader and accuse her of deliberately slighting them. Their behavior crossed into ethical territory when they decided to attack her. Not sending a thank-you note would have been a breach in etiquette, but shouting expletives about being seated near the kitchen goes a step further. That they called while the party was still in progress makes it a full-blown leap into doing the wrong thing.

The right thing for my reader to do was to let them know that she was sorry they were upset, explain that she had a dinner party to get back to and then seriously consider striking them from her list of future invitees.

Treating people badly lands firmly in unethical territory. Granted, how people behave at a swank dinner party ranks low on anyone's list of most egregious ethical lapses. It's how we behave in our day-to-day dealings that ultimately defines who we really are, though. Learning to be gracious is a lesson that will improve both our etiquette and our ethics.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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