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Obligation Versus Opportunity

Posted by Peter Post November 27, 2012 07:00 AM

The holiday season is fast approaching; and that means gift giving; and that, in turn, brings up the issue of thank-you notes. Each year I get asked, “Do I have to…?” and “To whom do I have to send one?”

The book on when a thank-you note should be sent is: Send one when you don’t have the opportunity to thank the giver in person. (The one exception is wedding gifts; a thank-you note should be sent for each wedding gift received whether or not it is opened in front of the giver.) One important reason for sending a note is to let the giver know you received it. In this day and age of on-line shopping and shipping of packages across the country, the gift may never have arrived. Yet without some acknowledgement, the giver is left in the quandary of wondering whether it arrived or if the recipient is just unappreciative.

There is also nothing wrong with following up the in-person “thank you” with a note. That’s where the difference between thinking of a thank you note as an obligation or as an opportunity comes in. As an obligation it’s something you have to do and therefore will be done only as absolutely necessary. But when thought of as an opportunity, the thank-you note becomes a way to build relationships through showing appreciation.

They’re not hard to do. Just three or four sentences written neatly on a note card and sent in the mail. Why mail them rather than email them? Because when the mailed note is received, it’s opened, read and then placed on a counter or desk or attached to a refrigerator with a magnet where the person sees it repeatedly and is reminded of you each time he or she sees it. But when emailed, it’s opened (if it’s not spam blocked), read, and then deleted. Ask yourself: “Would you rather be deleted or remembered?”

Email Does Petraeus In

Posted by Peter Post November 20, 2012 07:00 AM

The mighty has fallen, yet again. This time it’s General David Petraeus. And email, again, is the tool that did him in.

I’ve written before about the bulletin board rule: Don’t put anything into an email that you wouldn’t put on a bulletin board for anyone to read. Inevitably and at the worst possible time, the most private of messages are the ones that become public.

Petraeus’ case illuminates two corollary rules to the bulletin board rule.

Corollary #1: Trying to hide your emails doesn’t work. Petraeus and his lover, Paula Broadwell, understood that their emails were potentially damaging so instead they tried to make it impossible for anyone to find them by not actually sending them. In its November 19 online edition The Telegraph explained what Petraeus and Broadwell did. In short they set up a Gmail account which they both could access. They wrote their salacious emails as drafts, and saved them to the draft folder. Then the partner could open the same email account, read the draft, and believe it was safe from discovery because the email had never been sent. They knew what they were writing was something they never wanted to be read by anyone else.

Corollary #2: You can’t control what other people might do. In a pique of jealousy, Broadwell took it upon herself to send some anonymous “cat-fight stuff” emails to Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who was an unpaid social liaison at MacDill Air Force Base and a perceived rival for Petraeus. Kelley didn’t like those emails, so she contacted an FBI friend and asked him to look into who was sending them. It didn’t take the FBI long to identify Broadwell and find the Petraeus emails as well.

End result: Everybody gets outed, Petraeus resigns, and the USA loses a person who is eminently qualified for his position.

Email: It’s great for communicating the who, what, when, and where—just the public facts. But for anything truly private, find another way to send your message—using your secret decoder ring. Even the head of the CIA couldn’t keep his private emails private.

The Silence Is Golden

Posted by Peter Post November 13, 2012 07:00 AM

November 8 heralded a new era across America—the silencing of the political ad machine and the quieting of conversations which always seemed to turn to politics and the election for the last umpteen months.

With the media, it was a simple rising of the sun on November 8 with no election in sight that silenced the interminable ads. In our everyday lives I began to notice something else: pregnant pauses—periods of time when people actually had to think of something else to talk about. Suddenly, they were confronted with the challenge of small talk.

Small talk is an art. I’m constantly amazed by people who can engage in it seamlessly. They meet a stranger and somehow manage to strike up a conversation effortlessly, while others are frightened by engaging in even the most innocuous conversation. Yet, small talk itself isn’t that difficult to master.

It begins long before you meet a stranger. The first step is to become knowledgeable about a variety of topics. To do that you need to read the newspaper, not just for the big headline but also for the smaller stories buried on page 7 and beyond. Watch TV; not necessarily the news but some of the shows you hear about. Then, when you read that newspaper or magazine or watch those shows, think for a moment what could be a question you could ask someone. “Have you watched “Homeland”? I understand it’s even one of the few shows the President watches.” Or “Do like watching hockey? Do you think they’ll ever settle the strike and start playing?”

Just last night I attended a party with a band that played 60’s, 70’s and 80’s music. Instead of talking presidential politics we talked about 60 and 70 year-old rock stars still making it on the concert tour circuit. It was plain fun to see how quickly you could identify the song and the artist as the band began to play.

And every now and then the conversation would die down, and people would just look around the table and smile at each other. The silence was golden.

What do you do if the gratuity is already on the bill?

Posted by Peter Post November 6, 2012 07:00 AM

Our check arrived at the end of dinner, and there it was. That little line right under the sub-total: Service Charge.

The establishment has seen fit to include a tip on the bill for me. Now, I'm used to seeing that line when I'm in a group of more than six people. Almost every restaurant prints a disclosure on the menu indicating a gratuity will automatically be added on bills for large groups (usually defined as more than six people). Usually, that gratuity is 18%. What's not usual is when a gratuity is added to a bill no matter how many people are served.

That happened to me two nights ago when my wife and I went out to dinner. The bill was for $80+ dollars and then a service charge for $16+ dollars appeared right below the sub-total. "Okay," I thought to myself. "That's 20%. That takes care of the tip." But then I saw that gut-wrenching, confidence-sapping line below the total: Additional tip.

Additional tip? I've been writing and teaching about the etiquette of tipping for a long time. One of the questions I ask groups I'm speaking to is how much they tip on a restaurant bill. The answer is almost always the same: 20%. A smattering of people indicate 15%, but rarely, if ever, does anyone indicate more than 20%.

So what to do? If I put an extra $5 on the "Additional tip" line, I'm now tipping 26.25%. That seems excessive by any convention of tipping today. Yet, if I put nothing on the line, I wonder if that makes me appear to be a cheapskate. Ultimately, I decided that while the server had been pleasant, nothing out of the expected norm had occurred that would have prompted me to tip more, so I left the check at the printed amount with the 20% gratuity.

I was sitting with a friend the next day at lunch, and when the checks arrived, I pointed out the 20% tip, commented on the "Additional tip" line, and asked her what she does. She said it seemed awkward not to put anything on the line so she always added a "little something."

So, my question to you: If a check arrives with a 20% gratuity figured in, what do you do?

About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. The column is distributed by The New York Times More »

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