“Raising the Tone”: Our New Etiquette Column -The Toast

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A new feature! Please send your etiquette-based questions to advice@the-toast.net, subject line: “Ms. Proprietypants.”

My flatmate is wonderful in most ways. He’s generous, kind, a fabulous cook, and a pleasure to be around. Unfortunately, he also has deplorable personal hygiene. After watching him lick his fingers while cutting vegetables a few times, I have stopped eating anything he makes that is raw. He says he distrusts soap when washing hands. Whenever I come back home after a few hours, I notice a strong BO smell wafting through the hallway. Aside from moving out, is there anything I can do? 

Ew, this question is gross. Not as gross as the two dead birds I saw on the sidewalk today in two different states of decay, but SICKNESS! That is mad nasty, and these situations sound rancid. Note I said situations. Because we have two different problems here. They might benefit from the same approach, but they might not; you’ll have to be the final judge.

About the absence of hand-washing before preparing food for others, you absolutely must be direct. I can’t tell if you’ve explained to him why you are no longer eating his kale salad, but if you haven’t, simply give him the facts. You don’t have to be way harsh. You just have to tell it like it is. A well-placed “dude” goes a long way. For example:

Your Dirty Roommate: Want some fresh hummus-guac mashup?

Yourself: Dude. You totally licked your fingers while making that. I cannot in good faith eat it.

Your Dirty Roommate: Why not? Don’t be such a stick in the mud! Haven’t you heard about the Hygiene Hypothesis?

Yourself: It’s a hypothesis. Not a fact. You gotta wash your hands before you cook, dude. It’s just one of those things.

I like the use of “dude” here. It emphasizes that you are talking to him directly and pointedly. He knows you mean him, not the cat. But it also identifies him as a companion, and adds jocular levity to your remarks.

But really, with regards to the absence of hand-washing before cooking, you can even be less friendly. You can just tell him, in so many words, that he must wash his hands with soap before preparing food for others. You can explain that he would probably be better off washing his hands before he prepares food for himself, too. If he were preparing food professionally, it would be the law. This, and washing your hands after you use the toilet, is such common courtesy that you do not beat around the bush in saying it. Where someone is literally defecating on common courtesy, and the situation is not emotionally fraught, delicate handling is not required.

However, there are no laws about smelling bad. If you want to suggest to him that his habits could be alienating to others, you can again employ the use of dude. I.e.:

Yourself: Smelling ripe in here, dude. When did you last shower?

Or, in the unlikely event that he asks your opinion, you could employ the unfailingly polite wording my husband once used when I asked if my hair looked dirty: “It doesn’t look as clean as it does when you’ve recently washed it.” But, the thing is, dear LW, he won’t ask your opinion. He doesn’t care. And hopefully that is charming somehow? Perhaps he doesn’t care in other ways, so he’s sort of a free spirit? Which is something you enjoy? Maybe you guys like to hike together, or do performance art, or attend Burning Man, other “free-spirited” activities? Let us hope.

I am curious about his distrust of soap, though. Perhaps he just needs a shrink.

I was invited to a bridal shower but not the wedding. What is the etiquette?

There is no etiquette in that situation. Only bad manners. Sadly, I must inform you that this person is likely not worth your time. The only possible explanation that isn’t unpardonably uncouth is that the host of the shower did not know who was invited to the wedding, and it is a surprise shower. That’s it. (And if that’s the case, it’s very badly done on the hostess’s part.)

Right about here is where I’m inclined to decry the materialistic nature of society today, because clearly this person wants you to buy her something but doesn’t want to buy you a seat at her wedding, or “can’t” or some nonsense, but I just bought a sweatshirt that makes me feel very glamorous and am having a hard time coping with the recent loss of my sweet and beloved and thoroughly effective rain boots. This makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously condemn cultures of consumption, etc.

That said, it is not difficult for me to say definitively that weddings are not about the prezzies, and bridal showers, are, with few exceptions, lousy times. This person is rude, and has created a situation that cannot be justified. Don’t go. Don’t send a gift. Just send polite regrets to the bridal shower. What a segue for…!

How do you fill out a decline card?

What a great question (and so very concise). Here’s how: You don’t simply fill out a decline card. You check the sad little “decline” or “will not attend” box, and then you write a note. In my book (or “page on the world wide web,” I guess) this would be on a separate piece of paper, which you would then tuck neatly into the provided envelope, but I concede, I guess, that’s not really necessary. If there’s room on the front of the decline card, you can start writing your note at the bottom and then continue on the back. If there’s no room, just draw a friendly little arrow on the front and write your nice note on the back. But you MUST write a supplementary note, and it must be a few lines long.

And, your nice note must contain:

1. Gratitude for being invited/thought of/included

2. A straightforward statement conveying that you won’t be able to make it

3. Some expression of regret

Your nice note can contain:

1. The reason why. This reason, if you choose to include it, can be vague or specific, true or untrue. (I mean, I guess true is better, but as long as you won’t get caught, I do not care what you say.)

An invitation is not a contract, so you’re absolutely not obligated to justify your absence, but if you have a good reason and sharing it would make you feel better, proceed apace. Good reasons include:

1. You will be out of the country

2. You have already committed to another wedding on that date

3. You have just had a baby or will be expecting one anysecondnow

4. You are in medical school or the Marines or similar grueling exercise in spirit-breaking and cannot get the time off

Good reasons do not include:

1. You can’t afford it (make no mistake–this is a good reason not to attend, but it is not appropriate to make this the bride/groom’s problem. Also dicey because if it were your bestie, you would probably find that somehow you could, in fact, afford to fly to Tacoma AND buy a new dress to boot.)

2. It is difficult to travel with your pet (again, if this is true, so be it. But no one wants to hear that your special-needs weasel is specialer than his special day).

Good reasons that need not be named explicitly in your kind little note:

1. You live very far away from the blessed event.

2. You have a million small children who must be watered, fed, napped, wheeled about, scrubbed, changed out of soiled diapers and/or rompers around the clock.

If you fit into one (or, yikes, both) of these categories, presumably the lucky couple has invited you with the understanding that you might not be able to make it, and the fact that you won’t be schlepping your brood through x-ray sensors that will no doubt give their mini-brains mini-brain tumors is not going to come as a surprise to them. Unless they are weirdly thoughtless. Which they may well be! But let us hope that they are not, because probably you are either friends with them, or related to them.

Really, the decline card presents a problem that should not exist. Because, in my mind, there should be no decline card! Because this is not elementary school, and no one should be passing notes that say “Do you like me, check yes or no.” I often hear of betrotheds who feel snubbed when they receive decline cards upon which someone has ticked the “no” box with a sad, cold, ungrateful little tick and nothing more, and I think why did you give them the chance to be annoying? It’s like handing a toddler a Ming vase with a super cool snarly dragon, and being upset when they yell “DWAGON!” and smash it. Dude, you straight-up handed the kid the vase! I saw you do it!!!

If you have decided to get married, fine. Just send out some invitations. People will get back to you. (I disagree because I literally never remember to respond to invites and am a total monster. – Ed. note) How? Do you have a return address stamp (you should! they are fun!)? Do you have a cell phone? Do you have email? Do you have google chat? Do you have WhatsApp? Do you have snapchat? I thought so! They will find you. I promise.

You, the LW, may now wonder why, if someone has done the silly thing of including a response card, you, the unwitting, long-suffering recipient, are responsible for raising the tone. Because it’s the right thing to do. It will make everyone happier: you, and the unlucky bride/groom. Also, I’m looking back at your original question and sensing that you might be the strong and silent–or at least pithy–sort, so you may balk at all this extra wordage, but you did ask, and that’s what I think.

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