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MISS CONDUCT

The Measure of Rudeness

Where does a faux pas fall? Plus fork rules and going dutch gone wrong.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)

As I waited for my husband to join me for lunch, the restaurant's strolling guitarist agreed to my request to play a song. Just then, my husband arrived, and I told him we were about to be serenaded. Moments into the romantic music, my husband's cellphone rang. To my dismay, he answered and carried on a conversation with a friend. How bad was his behavior on the rudeness scale? When is it appropriate to interrupt someone on the phone if he or she is behaving badly?
N.C. in Waltham

Your husband's behavior was pretty bad. The term "egregious" might have to be invoked, I'm afraid. However, it was the very best kind of bad manners - the kind that is over-the-top, almost archetypically rude but doesn't actually hurt anyone's feelings. (Or not much, anyway. The guitarist may have been miffed, but artists have tough skins about such things. And you yourself sound more bemused and astonished than wounded, as some sentimental spouses might be.) You can almost imagine it as a New Yorker cartoon, can't you: a man chatting on a cellphone while a strolling guitarist serenades his lady?

See this graph. Gaffes that are both funny and mean are hard to forget, and may be hard to forgive as well, even if they were unintentional. (The classic: asking a non-pregnant woman when her baby is due.) Mistakes that are hurtful and can't eventually become an entertaining story are even harder to forgive. Those that are neither entertaining nor hurtful - mildly bad table manners, say - are easy to forgive and forget. But bad manners that are funny and yet don't hurt anyone are the easiest to forgive and hardest to forget. Such is your husband's cellphone indiscretion!

To answer your final question, you can interrupt an inconsiderate cellphone user when and how you would interrupt a person carrying on any other kind of inappropriate conversation. Unless you're married to him, in which case just kick him lightly under the table.

My mother-in-law uses a form of table etiquette that's a pet peeve of mine. After cutting a piece of food with the fork in her left hand and knife in her right, she keeps the fork in her left hand and puts it in her mouth upside down. I was always told to switch hands after cutting and turn the fork upright. I have mentioned this to her several times, and she insists her method is OK. Can you set the record straight?
D.C. in Duxbury

Here's the straightened record, D.C.: Your mother-in-law is using the European style of utensil handling, which is fully acceptable in the United States and is even preferred by some etiquette experts. She is also an exceptionally tolerant woman who doesn't seem to mind that her child is married to someone who believes it is appropriate to criticize the table manners of fellow adults, even when said criticism is based on ignorance rather than knowledge. I'd be happy to share a table with her any time.

My husband and I enjoyed dinner with another couple at a restaurant we might go to only once every few years because of the cost. (Our friends are in a much higher economic sphere.) The two husbands put down their credit cards so the bill could be split 50-50. Several months later, I realized the restaurant had run my husband's credit card through twice, so we ended up paying for the entire dinner! Is it too late to call the restaurant? If we tell our friends, I'm afraid we'll seem cheap. What to do?
J.M. in Weston

Call your friends, silly! They won't think you're cheap. They never intended for you to take them out on the town and would be horrified to know you did. You might still be able to call the restaurant, but it seems to me that it would be more convenient to tell your friends what happened and they can give you the money in person. You seem a wee bit paralyzed by embarrassment over the fact that you can't just laugh off the expense and tell your friends that they're in luck and dinner was on you. I understand this feeling all too well, but you can't let this kind of financial shame and self-consciousness control you. Let go of your worries and make the call.

My Word!

If you haven't been living in a cave for the past year, you certainly don't need Professor Trelawney's crystal ball to know that the final Harry Potter book will be released this Saturday. Be polite while you're waiting in line for your copy, and don't act like Draco. And if you read as fast as Hermione Granger, keep the juicy plot details to yourself! Spoiling the surprises other readers have in store is almost worthy of a Cruciatus curse.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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