Myka’s Manners is Observer’s etiquette column helmed by Myka Meier, the director of Beaumont Etiquette and founder of The Plaza Hotel’s Finishing Program, an instructional course in modern manners. Send all your questions on contemporary decorum to Myka@
Q: I have a question about politics. I hate them. Everything about them. And, as we are all aware, it seems to be a very hot topic lately. So please tell me, how do I avoid this discussion at the Thanksgiving table this year? Particularly when it’s all anyone wants to talk about!! Sincerely, Over Politics at Dinner.
Dear Over Politics at Dinner,
No need to throw the candelabra across the table at Aunt Agnes’ head. Instead I will offer you a few other options. Although politics is all anyone seems to be talking about these days, this is an age-old conundrum that has plagued holiday dinner tables for centuries. Now, if you are the host, your job is to be the conversation moderator—meaning it’s up to you to change the subject to ensure all of your guests are comfortable. However, if you’re a guest sitting across the Thanksgiving table from Uncle Frank who only wants to talk politics—and especially if you don’t agree—I recommend being direct and straightforward and saying something along the lines of, “Uncle Frank, I respect that you are passionate about your beliefs, however, as we share different ones, I think it’s best you and I don’t talk about politics and just enjoy family time.” You can also try, “I understand you have a perspective on this, however I think we’ll need to agree to disagree on this one. Now, I know we can agree on (insert new convo topic i.e. how exciting cousin Jack’s new job is)… how about we chat about that?”
Q: What’s the etiquette for men in a business lunch? I had lunch with a 59-year-old CEO + his wife + a woman whom the CEO was a client of. I had on a blazer and I didn’t take it off while eating. Nobody seemed to care. The CEO wore a suit, but removed the jacket while eating. All I really knew is that I looked best with the blazer on not off. Signed, What Suits?
Dear What Suits,
Our friend Oscar Wilde said it best: “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” Now, a dinner jacket is called so because it’s meant to stay on throughout, and I highly recommend following suit. That being said, lunches are often more casual, and it truly depends on the formality of two things: the dining establishment, and your relationship with the client. If both are formal, then keep that beauty of a jacket on. Now, my other general rule of thumb is that whoever is the most VIP person at the table is the one who sets precedence for taking off a jacket. So, if you’re going to lunch with your boss and your colleague and your boss does not take his/her jacket off, you should not either. In your case, the client took off his jacket (the most VIP person) so you technically could have as well—but the choice is yours. Remember, if you keep your jacket on, when you sit you may unbutton the top button. When you stand to leave the table however, you should immediately button that top button again. When in doubt, blaze-on.
Q: When you have guests over to your house, and they bring a gift—such as a bottle of wine—are you supposed to serve what they brought, or save it for another time? Thanks, Feeling Obliged.
Dear Feeling Obliged,
First, what lovely guests you have. It is excellent etiquette to show up to your host’s home with a small gift to show your appreciation for the evening. Now, as a host, if someone brings you a host/ess gift, such as a bottle of wine or macaroons, you should feel no pressure to open it that evening. After all, as a good host, you have most likely already planned the food and wine for the evening, and the gift may not go with what you planned. You’re absolutely welcome to open the bottle or put out the macaroons that evening if you wish, but it is not bad etiquette to save it for a rainy day instead!
Q: I am wondering if there is an etiquette rule that you give all the time but have a hard time following yourself? From, I Do That, Too.
Dear I Do That, Too,
Oh yes! It is bad etiquette to correct some else’s bad etiquette! So as much as I’d love to tell Jonny sitting across the table that it’s inappropriate to stick his fork into my potatoes to try them, I bite my tongue and think about pretty things to make myself smile.
Q: Is there any way to yawn without looking rude? I’m fairly certain yawning gracefully is out of the question—but if anyone could do it, it would be you. Research has shown that yawning might not be an indication of being tired, but rather that yawns have a broader purpose: improving concentration. I also know yawning is associated with being bored, but I have absolutely yawned when I am not at all tired—and I’m rarely bored. We all know that yawns are also a sign of empathy because they are contagious… But none of this changes the fact that yawning is ugly. I always cover my mouth, and I’ve learned how to hold my yawn in my jaw, hoping others don’t notice the sudden tension, but that doesn’t look (or feel) nice, either! Should I keep it up anyway? Help! Polite Yawner.
Dear Polite Yawner,
I have been known to do jumping jacks, take 10 deep breaths in row and even drink a double espresso in order not to yawn before walking into a meeting or event, as it is indeed universal body language that refers to boredom or disinterest, even if that is not the case. So, if it happens, I recommend following two simple steps: 1. Cover your mouth (always use your left hand to cough, sneeze or yawn so that your right hand stays clean to shake hands) 2. Immediately verbally address the yawn in a way that makes light of it. “Oh goodness, I’m terribly sorry… It must be Monday / I clearly missed my coffee today!” It puts the other person at ease knowing it is not a reflection of them. As much as we try to hide a yawn, the other person still picks up on it…so just go with it, and let your body do its job (yawing is your body trying to race oxygen to your brain to wake up!) but address it upfront to lessen any awkwardness. Now if we ever meet while doing jumping jacks in the hallway, just wink and I’ll know it’s you.
Q: When I go out to group dinners, people inevitably order too much food and go overboard with the drinks, and then split the bill. What do I do if I want to be social and join the fun, but only want to pay for (and can comfortably afford) my own order? Thank you, Always Overboard.
Dear Always Overboard,
There’s always one person, isn’t there!? I see two options here. First option (and makes the most sense to me), if there is a repeat lobster-and-Champagne offender, I would probably stop going out to dinner with that person. A second option is to ask for separate bills at the beginning of the meal, so the waitstaff knows there will be multiple checks. You could phrase it as “to make it easier at the end of the evening, may we please have separate checks?” Now, if you are in a group and you notice someone only had a water and one course, but everyone else had three courses and Champagne, it would be a nice gesture when the bill came to tell that person to just chip in for their course and then split the rest equally. In most group dining situations, everyone divides the bill equally, which is ideal where possible. That being said, with big dinners, there is always one over-spender in the group, and if you can’t think of who it is, then it might be you!
Myka Meier is the Founder of NY-based Beaumont Etiquette and co-founder of The Plaza Hotel Finishing Program. Trained in part by a former member of The Royal Household of Her Majesty the Queen, Myka teaches dining, social and business etiquette, offering courses to adults, children and companies. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @mykameier