A reader writes:
Your column this week about the use of "All Set?," reminded me of a colloquial quandary once raised by a friend for whom English was not a first language but who nevertheless spoke it very well. He said Americans will use "All set?" to mean anything and everything. His example: a restaurant visit.
Greeted by the hostess, she says to the party "All set?" meaning "Ready to be seated." The menus are delivered. A waiter arrives. he says "All set?" meaning either "Do you want drinks?" or "Are you ready to order?" The orders are placed. the plates are brought out. The waiter again says "All set?" meaning "Is your order right -- do you need anything else?" When the diners are finished, the bus boy arrives and says "All set?" meaning "Can I remove your plates?" He also leaves dessert menus. The waiter returns with his "All set?" again, meaning "Would you like dessert, or, alternatively, "Are you finished?" When he returns with the check, he waits a suitable amount of time to see a credit card or cash appearing in the check cover. Touching it gently as he returns he asks, "All set?" After accepting payment with a suitable tip, he returns with the receipt and as he sets it down, he makes the very first declarative remark of the evening: "All SET! Thank you very much!"
In this regard, we seem like the Eskimos who are commonly believed to have a thousand words for snow, except with have a thousand meanings for one phrase. One can only imagine what the romantic couple means when, after dinner, back at home, one says to the other: "All set?"
This killed me, because I have made almost exactly the same rant to friends before. I love "all set." What the writer leaves out, however, is the opposing corollary to "all set." When we are not all set--when we have not decided what to order, finished our meals, or figured out the bill--what are we? What do we say? "Still working on it."
All set versus still working on it. So much of life can be compressed into that binary distinction. Aristotle was all set. Plato was still working on it. Hunters are all set. Gatherers are still working on it. The Stones were all set. The Beatles were still working on it. Captain Picard is all set. Admiral Adama is still working on it.
My father was all set. My mother is still working on it.
A lot of people have the misconception that etiquette is about being all set. Knowing the place and time for everything and the perfect thing to say and wear on all occasions. It's not. Etiquette is one set of tools you use when you are still working on it.
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Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.