Eeek, there’s a bug in my borscht! Answers to common etiquette dilemmas

I first had the thought of teaching etiquette classes when I worked for Washington Mutual. My job at the time was managing sponsorships for non-profit events like breakfasts and lunches. Because the company often received a table at these events I had to fill them with willing WaMu employees. Not always an easy job. Inevitably, there would be a few people at the table who would look panicked at the multitude of utensils, plates and glasses. They weren’t sure which bread plate and glasses belonged to them at the crowded tables or which utensil to use first. I always felt badly for them. I knew if they learned a couple of etiquette tips they could feel more confident and would never be panicked again.

Etiquette dilemmas can trip us up and keep us from being fully present and relaxed. So that you don’t have to panic, here are answers to some common etiquette dilemmas.

You find a hair, bug or other inedible item in your food

If you’re in a restaurant, leave it alone and ask the waiter to bring you a new order. Don’t alert your fellow diners as you don’t want them to lose their appetite. If you’re in someone’s home it’s a bit trickier because you don’t want the host to feel badly about the distasteful item and you don’t want to let the other guests know about it. If it’s something you can remove and either hide or dispose of without it ruining your appetite then handle it quietly. If you are completely disgusted by the item leave your plate alone and pretend like you’re eating.

Someone uses your bread plate

This is an area in which many people struggle. At a crowded banquet table they aren’t sure which bread plate belongs to them – the one on the left or on the right – and often take the one on the right. They don’t know that the place setting is organized like the acronym BMW – Bread (plate on the left), Meal (in the middle), Water (and other glasses are on the right). Others may or may not follow suit and eventually someone ends up with either no bread plate or only the incorrect one on the right. If either is the case, put your bread and butter on the edge of your main plate and say nary a word to your uninformed neighbors.

You spill something on yourself before an important meeting

There’s nothing worse than staining a garment before a big meeting. Avoid rubbing it, which may spread it or push it in deeper. Instead, use cold water and a little soap on a paper towel or sponge and try to blot it up. If that doesn’t work try hiding it with a sweater, jacket or scarf. And if all else fails, simply make a joke about it when you join the meeting so your colleagues don’t think you’re a clueless slob – “I had a fight with my coffee and the coffee won.”

You don’t like being hugged

We do tend to be huggy people in the casual Northwest. But I’m often told by one or two people attending my seminars that they don’t like being hugged. For those of you huggers out there, when meeting someone for the first or second time always start with a handshake. If you see the person later, ask first if you may hug him or her before doing so.  Casually ask “Are you a hugger?” or, “Handshake or hug?” before going in for the embrace. For those of you who don’t like being hugged, try to get your hand out as soon as you meet someone, especially if you see them hugging others. You can also say “Do you mind if we shake hands? I’m not a big hugger.”

A coworker is really loud

You’re trying to concentrate or you’re on the phone and your cubicle mate plays loud music or uses cell yell voice on the phone. What do you do? You ask him in a nice way to turn down the volume. “Bill, I’m having a hard time concentrating on this report that’s due in an hour. Would you mind talking quieter so I can focus?”

A friend talks politics

Maybe you have a friend who likes to share her political beliefs which are different from yours. Depending on how she handles it it could be just fine if you’re up for some respectful dialogue. But most people struggle with discussing politics civilly and can become judgmental and angry. Never fun! If that’s the direction the conversations tend to go, simply make a neutral comment and change the subject or state outright that you don’t want to discuss politics. “Jane, let’s agree to disagree and talk about something we both agree on. Wasn’t “Hidden Figures” an inspiring movie?!

Someone’s fly is down

I was speaking to a chamber group about handling common etiquette dilemmas and at of the end of the presentation a man asked, “How do you tell someone their fly is down?” I said, you simply tell them in the same tone you’d say “It’s raining outside.” He then said “Your fly is down” in that tone. And I said, “Yes, just like that.” After the presentation, I was talking to someone and I happened to notice that my fly was down. Oh horrors!!! He was talking to me! I’ll never wear those multiple button and hooks pants again. They get me in trouble.

So there you have it – the answers to several etiquette dilemmas and a true confession from your perfectly imperfect etiquette consultant. What etiquette dilemmas have you encountered?

P.S. Many of these dilemmas come straight from my book, Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success. If you’d like answers to more etiquette dilemmas the book is available on and

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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