Communicating Socially with Your Significant Other

A story:

Once upon a time, back when they had only been dating six months, Jack and Lily Beth were planning to attend a wedding in California. A certain number of hotel rooms had been allotted to be paid for by the host, because the host was required to spend a certain amount of money with the hotel, and graciously chose to do so by picking up the room tab for the bridal party, groomsmen, and family. Class act, right?

Said host and future groom – we’ll call him Danny – called Jack Tempest to announce this, and ask if Jack and Lily Beth would like a room. Lily Beth was sitting on the couch, reading. Jack clicked his cell phone over to speakerphone so Lily Beth could hear.

“The thing is,” explained Danny, “We’re putting two couples to a room to save space. That way we can offer free accommodations to even more people. So you’d be sharing a room with another couple.”

Jack turned to Lily Beth.

“That’s okay, right?” he asked. Danny waited at the other end of the speakerphone line.

Lily Beth was flummoxed.

She most definitely did not want to share a room with a couple – who would be strangers, not friends – but how could she gracefully extricate herself from the situation with the host waiting on the line for an answer?

She panicked.

“Yeah, sure, fine, great,” she said. It was settled.

Only it was not so settled. Within moments of Jack hanging up the phone, Lily Beth started to panic even more. She didn’t know any of these people, and she and Jack had only been dating for a few months, and what if these people were the kind of who liked to stay up late or come back to the room totally trashed or were crazy fundamentalists or holocaust deniers or bigots who wanted to expound upon their theories about just where the negros belonged? Furthermore, what if they were normal, but she still had to negotiate getting her and Jack ready for a wedding in a small hotel room with two other people to trip over?

Shit.

After five minutes of sitting in silence, ramping up her panic, she exploded.

“How could you do that to me?!” she raved at Jack. “What is wrong with you, asking me something like that over the phone with Danny on the line?

Jack was taken aback. He’d dated women on and off, but never as seriously as Lily Beth – that is to say, never serious enough to travel with. In that sense, he’d been a confirmed bachelor for ten years. He was at a loss.

“I – well – I mean it’s not such a big deal, right? I didn’t think – I mean, if you didn’t want to, you should have just said something.

And then as Lily Beth began to explain, in a yelling voice, how she could not have just said something with Danny on the line, it occurred to her:

This was as much her fault as Jack’s.

Sure, Jack had been a general dumbass by putting her in that position, but he certainly didn’t do it out of malice. She could have simply said, “That’s very kind, but I think we need to talk about that. Could we call him right back?”

She realized they had reached their first major etiquette hurdle operating as a couple. And of course, it wouldn’t be their last.

War of Words: Who’s Side Are You On, Anyway?

Communicating with your spouse in public can feel like warfare.

He wants to have another drink while you just want to get the hell out of there. He wants to introduce you to his ex-girlfriend and then have an hour-long discourse on all three of her children and her cheating ex-husband. He verbally accepts an invitation you wouldn’t be caught dead agreeing to, or accepts it over other plans you’ve already made. He invites the one person you can’t stand to share your extra ticket to the opera. He divulges confidential information to a crowd, which you thought he understood was top-secret classified.

You’re both pulling in two opposite directions, but the other hasn’t even been informed you’re at battle. They’re just chattering along, having a perfectly lovely time while you sit fuming. And they continue to have a lovely time while your evening is ruined – at least, until you can get into the car on the way home, at which point you proceed to ruin their evening as well by really letting them have it.

Hence, the need to discuss boundaries like these before you leave the house, both in the grand scheme of things and periodically as situations arise.

In the case of the anecdote above with Danny and his hotel rooms, Jack and I talked out the reasons behind why I was so upset, and Jack’s reasoning for thinking his behavior was perfectly okay. Specific etiquette debates aside, it was generally agreed that if something bothered me and was easily avoidable (as this situation was), there was no reason Jack should pursue behavior that upset me. And vice-versa – if something bothered Jack and was neutral to me, the cards should break in Jack’s direction.

For the first time, we talked about our social and travel preferences. Jack discovered that I liked to be social, but also felt very strongly about having our own space to retreat to after our social obligations were met. Likewise, I felt very independent about having our own mode of transportation. Jack didn’t know any of these things, because I had never really told him – I just assumed since we were similar on so many other things, he would be of like mind about this too. And Jack assumed the same, in reverse: he wasn’t fighting to maintain the last rights of his manhood, it had just never occurred to him that he couldn’t continue to operate the same way he had as a spare man, as a bachelor.

So periodically, we discuss things – like when we see social situations arise with other couples, I bring it up in the car on the way home.

“How did you feel about what Joe said to Linda on the dance floor?” I’ll ask, or “What did you think of Henry’s impromptu toast?”

And then we have a neutral forum to discuss how we would prefer situations to be handled, should they ever happen to us.

Likewise, before we go into a potentially sticky situation – such as a wedding, or a weekend as houseguests, or a dinner with colleagues – we chat about the potential pitfalls as we’re getting ready.

“Now remember,” I’ll say as I fasten on an earring, “Amanda hasn’t told anyone else she’s pregnant yet. She only told me because I asked her directly. It’s her news to share when she wants, so don’t mention it.”

Or Jack will say to me as he buttons his vest, “Now, what I told you about Matt’s company going filing for Chapter 9 – that’s pillow talk, not for public knowledge. They haven’t announced it.”

Even though these items seem obvious to you, they may not to your spouse. Or, more importantly, your spouse may have filed them in the back of his mind, not thinking they’re important, and then trot them out when trying to make conversation (“So, great news about Amanda being pregnant, huh?”) or pop them up unexpectedly in a panic when asked a direct question (“Well – I mean – maybe I wouldn’t invest in their stock right now, best to wait a bit. Why? I mean – well – they’re – Chapter 9 – nevermind.”)

Always Make a Battle Plan

Maybe you and your spouse’s lives are so in tune that you never need to speak – but somehow, I doubt it.

Have it out well ahead of time, not at the event

There have been many days where my 6:00pm arrival at home is the first time Jack sees me – for a whole thirty minutes – before we go out (or worse, when we haven’t had any time to talk privately and then arrive at an event separately). There are times when I have a 6:00am breakfast meeting, but he doesn’t have to be at work until 7:00pm the next day, and neither of us have gotten a chance to share our schedules.

Every couple should make time to discuss the battle plan before they go out – earlier is better (if you’re going to disagree, it’s best to have the disagreement as far away from said event as possible), so making it the day before is better than the afternoon of, and the afternoon of is better than the car on the way to. And me calling Jack on my cell phone as we’re both on our way over from different locations to say “I’d prefer if we only stayed for one drink” is better than trying to hash out your departure time as you walk in the door of a party or in the presence of others.

Discuss departure time

You’ll be happier couples if you can agree to a departure time before you embark on an event. Whether you count it by drinks (“one drink,” “two drinks”), courses (“right after dessert and coffee”), or by the hour (“I have to be in bed by 11”), be sure to bring when you’d like to get home to light before you leave the house.

Likewise, time can get away from you – have an established signal. Jack likes to joke that our signal is a complicated gesture involving using both our hands to make a flying dove, interpretive-dance style, but in reality your signal should be as un-public as possible – nothing that could making your hostess thing you’re bored or unhappy. Hence, no tapping your wrist or looking pointedly at your watch, no raised eyebrows or head-jerk towards the door, etc.

Our real signal is that I will find Jack wherever he’s wandered off to, and put my arm around him as I join whatever conversation he’s in, and then give his lower back a gentle press of my fingertips. That’s his sign to gracefully wrap up whatever conversation he’s in and prepare to make our goodbyes.

Set limits on confidentiality

Man, have Jack and I ever screwed this up by not being clear with each other beforehand. Once, I confided top secret finance figures to Jack, and even mentioned that they were confidential, but I didn’t really impart the specifics. Later, we were out at dinner with friends of the same inner circle of where I’d heard the information, save one woman – a woman who has the biggest mouth in town.

“So,” Jack remarked off-hand, “What do you think of Theatre X being $140K over-budget this season? Lily Beth says they’re calling in the calvary, because if they can’t make up that deficit, they might go under.”

Five out of the six people at that table already knew this information, like Jack assumed they would. But the sixth person – the loudest woman in the world – did not, and she pounced on it like a lion on a weak gazelle.

When we got home, I exploded to him.

“What were you thinking, bringing that up in front of her?! I told you it was confidential, and now the entire town is going to know!”

His response?

“It was obvious everyone else at that table knew, so I thought I could talk about it! How was I supposed to know she didn’t know?”

If something’s confidential, whether it be finances or pregnancy news or divorce gossip, don’t just discuss its confidentiality with your spouse – set the limits on just how confidential both when you first impart the information (“Now, Jimmy and Mere know this, but no-one else, okay?”) and then again before you go anywhere it might be an issue (“Remember when we get to this reunion, Jimmy and Mere are the only people who know this, so don’t bring it up.”)

Don’t put your significant other down in public

I’m as guilty as anyone else of this, because it’s often insidious. Everyone’s joking, having a good time, and then you cross the line making a joke at the expense of your significant other. Or you’re having a ultra-serious conversation, something you’re passionate about, and commiserate with someone concerning that one time your significant other behaved incredibly poorly.

Don’t trot this out in a public light – it’s simply no one’s business, and furthermore, most people would prefer you not share information that puts your spouse in a negative light. It makes them feel awkward, not just in the moment, but also makes them wince internally the next time they see your spouse.

Gauge the group beforehand

A dinner with your six closest friends is very different from a wedding where you only know the bride and groom, which is very different from a work function where your significant other knows everyone but you know no one. Discuss the guest list and purpose beforehand. The spouse who set the date or accepted the invitation should bring this up, but if they don’t, it’s also your responsibility to ask.

Knowledge of power – take a page from the boy scouts and Be Prepared.

You’ll want to cover what type of a function it is (work, social, a mix of  both?), what the real arrival time is (is 6:00 the cocktail hour, allowing people a chance to get there, or is 6:00 a hard start time?), and who’s going to be attending (is that man you can’t stand going to be there? are family going to be there? are work colleague going to be there?).

This allows you to arm yourself – not only in preparation for what you will experience, but also gives you a heads-up on dressing appropriately. A festive holiday cocktail party among friends might suggest to your husband that it’s okay to be ultra casual, but when you confide that your boss (or better, someone you hope to be employed by in the future) will also be stopping by, that might mean a shift in wardrobe.

Behaving on the Battlefield

So you’ve taken the necessary precautions beforehand, and that’s great, but now you’re through the door at your wedding/gala/cocktail party/happy hour/birthday dinner, what have you. There are still plenty of potential pitfalls that can occur even with your hard-won preparation.

The introduction

Jack used to do this to me all the time – “Oh wow, it’s great to see you! How’s Tom, and the kids? I imagine the youngest is just old enough now to start hitting you up for money, haha!” – and then Jack and Mystery Woman X are off on a whirlwind conversation of catch-up while I stand there awkwardly with no idea who this woman is.

I let this go on for the first six months or so that we dated, piling up negative emotions within me, before I mentioned it finally.

“What gives?” I asked after a particularly grueling party. “Why don’t you ever introduce me? Are you ashamed of me? That poor hostess didn’t even know I was with you – she thought I was just some random party crasher!”

Jack was totally taken aback that I thought he could ever be ashamed of me. He sat down on the bed, hard, and rubbed his face as he mulled over why this could be.

“Well, honestly, I guess – this is kind of embarrassing – I never remember who most of the people are. I don’t really know how to make an introduction when I can’t remember the person’s name – I just panic and start talking, and I leave you out entirely.”

Hence, a lesson in introductions commenced. When Jack securely knew the person’s name, he made a proper introduction: “Lily Beth, this is Reggie Wilson; he’s the executive director of that dance company we like so much.”

This gives me the person’s name, plus a bit of background I can use to immediately jumpstart a conversation – “Mr. Wilson – how lovely to finally meet you! Jack and I have been to every performance this season; you are really doing some innovative things over there.”

When Jack is at a loss for a person’s name, he falls back on his fumbling spare man persona. “Have you met my wife, Lily Beth?” he’ll say, putting his arm on my lower back, which is my cue to step forward and say, “Lily Beth Tempest – lovely to meet you,” which usually propels the person to introduce themselves by name to me – and by proxy, Jack.

When the person really is a sideline player – someone Jack’s only met once, or knows peripherally – the admission of forgetting the person’s name is more acceptable, especially if its followed up with information to let the person know that you really have just blanked on their name, not how you knew them entirely, such as:

“Let me introduce my wife Lily Beth – and I’m so sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name – Joe! Yes, Lily Beth, this is Joe; he used to be a volunteer for us a few years ago at the theatre. I tell you what, this man could have some lights now! Fearless on a ladder!”

Keeping your significant other informed of your coordinates

How often have you been caught up in conversation and then looked up and realized your spouse has slipped off somewhere?

Then you’re tapping your foot, ready to leave, but he or she is nowhere to be found – you’re forced to navigate slowly through each room or area, getting sidetracked left and right, even checking the bathrooms, until you find that they’ve retired to the balcony with that old friend from school, and at that point you’re so fed up that you risk behaving poorly.

This can be avoided with simply giving your spouse a head’s up on your intentions – “I’m going to the bar, would you like anything?”, “I’m just going to step outside with John for a minute to smoke,” “I’m popping out to move the car, I’m blocking someone in,” etc.

The exception to this rule is sharing your impending departure to the bathroom in public. If we’re standing there alone, I’ll say to Jack, “I’m going to slip off to the ladies room, be right back,” but if we’re in public-public, a simple “Would you excuse me for a moment?” does just fine.

NO FIGHTING IN PUBLIC

Fleur Britten says it best in Debrett’s Etiquette for Girls when she states, “Cultivating a reputation for leaving scars on events attended together will always result in diminished invitations.” I love the way she puts this, because having a fight in public – whether with your significant other or someone else – does, indeed, leave a scar on the event for the hostess and everyone who attended.

The no-fighting-in-public rule takes both an obvious and a less-obvious slant. First, the obvious:

We have a couple we used to be closer with. We’ll call them Rick and Rachel.

As time wore on, though, Rick and Rachel’s marriage seemed to have more and more internal problems – arguments over having children, arguments over work, arguments over finances. It was one thing for Rachel to call and confide these things to me, but it was another when they began trotting these (very loud, very angry) fights out in public – not just the homes of their friends during casual get-togethers, but then in public restaurants, charity functions, and the like. It got to where people began casually inquiring about their seating, to make sure they could avoid Rick and Rachel like the plague.

Now, Jack and I stuck by this couple, who later pushed through a messy divorce. But recently, at a party for Jack’s 30th birthday – the only party he’s ever had for his birthday, come to think of it – Rick arrived with his long-term girlfriend, and was exceedingly polite and wonderful to everyone present. Rachel, who had a long-term boyfriend of her own and who’d already been informed that Rick would probably be attending as well, walked into the foyer, let her face drop, shoved a bottle of champagne into my hand, and screeched, “I can not believe you asked him here! How could you do this to me?!” and then fled outside to the screened in porch, where she remained for the rest of the evening, sending people to fetch her drinks so she wouldn’t have to set eyes on her ex-husband.

Rachel didn’t apologize to Jack or I for her behavior – but Rick did. Upon he and his girlfriend’s departure, he made sure to kiss my cheek and say, “Sorry about all this – we’re going to call you in the morning,” which he promptly did, to thank us again for a lovely evening, wish Jack a happy 30 more years, and again apologize for his ex-wife’s behavior.

Finally, we were forced into making a decision: Rachel will never be asked back, while Rick is always welcome.

Second, the less obvious:

Fighting is not the same as tension, but the outcome is similar for both – even if you and your significant other know quite well that you’re not fighting, avoid bringing up tense subjects. I recently caught myself doing this at a dinner with a couple we did not know very well. The woman, who was engaged, mentioned that her mother-in-law to-be had given her the nicest handbag as an engagement present – only it came with a huge monogram with her fiance’s last name, even though she’d been very clear with her mother-in-law about the fact that she was keeping her own name.

I was fuming inside – her mother-in-law’s actions are just the sort of passive-agressive behavior I can’t stand. I was halfway through a swearing tirade about how ridiculous that was, and all the ideological viewpoints from cultural to linguistic, when my husband Jack reached under the table and squeezed my knee. I stopped dead.

Even though our new friend had shared the story because she wanted someone to commiserate with her, my reaction was way too intense for how casually acquainted we were. After all, I was talking about her future mother-in-law, not to mention the actual mother of her fiance, who was indeed sitting there.

I was immediately mortified, and apologize profusely – I’d essentially been having a fight with no one, in public.

Don’t do it – you don’t have to be a bastion of Roman stoicism, but don’t let your passions (politics, religion, sports cars, cupcakes, whatever) run away with you entirely.

And for god’s sake, never talk money. Amy Vanderbilt says it best in The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette when she states, “All social conversation centering on money is unattractive and unbecoming to people of any taste or character. Money matters should really be discussed only with your spouse or family, your banker or financial adviser.”

Troops Back to the Barracks: Wrapping Up an Evening

You’re not out of the woods yet – what’s the proper couples etiquette for leaving?

Splitting the Check

From the word “go,” request a separate check for the two of you from the waiter. You may not think this is necessary, and then someone orders a bottle of champagne and some lobster and you’re in an awkward situation of either taking an additional $30 hit on your check, or haggling.

Likewise, the knife cuts both ways – I’m a liquor snob, when I have the option to be. I won’t turn my nose up at the house gin, but given the opportunity, I’ll order the top shelf. Because it’s important to me. And I’m not about to have anyone else pick up part of my expensive booze habit, either; it’s not fair. Always take separate checks when you can.

If it’s a large party (think 6 or more), many restaurants refuse to split a check for you and insist on issuing one check for the whole table. (This irks the hell out of me, because really, this is not 1950, you’re not doing the math with an abacus – run it through the computer, issue separate checks and be done with it. Separate checks are the cost of doing business). But whether or not this pisses you off, you still have to deal with it, so keep it in mind before the meal, not after.

If we’re in a big group, I make sure we always have cash on hand, and not just an unbreakable bill, either. More than once I’ve made Jack pull over en route to the ATM to get out a few $20s and then broken them by buying a pack of gum or whatnot so that we’d have a way to easily fork over our portion of the bill with correct change, including tip. It’s absolutely and totally worth it to be able to say, “Here’s $35 for us!” while everyone else haggles with breaking bills and credit cards.

Picking Up the Check

So Jack and I love to do this – mainly because our college friends are still not as well off financially as we are. It’s a gift; we love to go out and have a good time more than anything else. But we don’t flash it around – we don’t pick up the check every time we go out for burgers or Chinese. Amy Vanderbilt suggests, “Be sensitive about not making it a habit to always pay for a friend who has less money than you. Let him pay his way or treat you occasionally when you know the circumstances are right.”

Instead, we save it for special occasions, like this past weekend, when we came into town a week early for a wedding and picked up dinner for the to-be bride and groom, or recently when we took Rose out to celebrate a new job (complete with her fiance in tow) and picked up the whole check – the event was celebratory, and instigated by us, from the get-go, so we felt pretty good about picking up their meal and drinks.

My Mama always said never to lend money, always consider it a gift, even if the person swears they’ll pay you back.

“That’s all good and fine,” she’d say, “And if they pay you back, you let them – it’s a proud thing to do, to pay someone back money you’ve borrowed, and a fine thing, too. But you need to make it clear up front that you don’t make loans, only gifts. That way no one has hurt feelings when the time comes and they don’t pay you back; making it a gift is as much getting your own mind right as it is theirs.”

And her same philosophy applied to picking up the check – don’t do it if you can’t afford it, and don’t do it if you’re going to count the days until Dick-and-Jane pick up your tab in return.

Know When to Hold ‘Em – Know When to Fold ‘Em

“Know when to walk away, and when to run,” the song goes. But honestly, every good couple should know when to say “Thank you and goodnight!”

Ideally, you’ve already discussed your departure time beforehand. But what if the party ends well before your discussed departure time? Well in a more neutral location, like a restaurant, it’s acceptable for you and another couple (or hell, even just you!) to move to the bar after the party has broken up and the hostess has said her good-byes.

But in someone’s home, you have to remember: they put a lot more effort into throwing that party that you did in showing up. They’re tired, no matter what their smiling faces say. If the invitation says 7-10pm, you need to keep that in mind and prepare to collect your coat around 10pm – not 11pm or midnight or 1am, as we recently had friends do. (Finally, at 2am, I fixed them all doggie bags – they were all single men, best friends of Jack, or else they never would have gotten away with it – and kissed them all on the cheek and put on my Southern charm accent, saying “Y’all can stay as long as you like, but I’m goin’ to bed!” At which point they looked up, declared embarrassment at the hour, and promptly made their good-byes.)

Sure, we all had those moments in college where the best conversations happened when the participants had dwindled down to a handful in the wee hours of the night – but this is not college. People have jobs, kids, projects, lives. Tis better to err on the side of leaving a bit early than err on the side of overstaying your welcome.

Signs you and your partner want to look for that signal it’s time to go:

  • After coffee and dessert have been served. Lara Shriftman and Elizabeth Harrison in their book Party Confidential: New Etiquette for Fabulous Entertaining suggest that you time your departure no more than 45 minutes after coffee and dessert have been served – not finished.
  • Coffee and dessert are not going to be served. Not everyone offers a sobering bolster of coffee to guests before sending them on their way. Furthermore, if coffee and dessert are skipped altogether, it’s usually an indication that the couple would like an early evening or even that the hostess is suddenly not feeling well. If 15 minutes has passed after the hostess cleared the dinner dishes, and coffee and/or dessert still haven’t been offered, you need to think about wrapping up your conversations and finding your coat.
  • The bar is running low. My mother always said “Nothing worth doing happens after midnight,” but she might as well have said, “Nothing good comes of an empty bar.” If the bar and food have been exhausted, don’t be that couple that makes the hostess feel like she has to magically whip up a third dessert and dust off a bottle of port she wasn’t planning on serving.
  • Your hostess looks tired. Her social veneer has worn thin, and maybe she deflates a bit as she begins thinking how late it is and how much cleaning she’ll have to do in the morning. You can see this moment when it happens – yawning, slower movements, a quick hand-to-the-back as she stands up. Don’t prolong it.
  • The party population begins dwindling. Fifteen minutes ago, the place was packed – but now you looked up and the number of guests has been reduced significantly. You’ve crossed that magical threshold where people suddenly decided, en masse, when to leave – let the leaving spirit catch you too, and bid your hosts goodbye shortly.
  • The hostess begins clean-up in earnest. Not just a tidying here and there as the evening goes on, but begins to actually clear the after-dinner coffee and dessert, cork the wine, etc. Offer to assist her with whatever she’s doing (because it’s the polite thing to do, and because two people cleaning hastens the departure of others faster than one person cleaning), but don’t be one of those troopers who stays until the last glass is finished. Myself, I always decline offers of help, because I’m picky about how things get washed, where they get put, and I don’t particularly enjoy people seeing the inside of my kitchen trash can or our fridge.

Additional Reading and References:

  • Peter Post’s Essential Manners for Couples
  • John Bridge and Bryan Curtis’ A Gentleman Entertains: A Guide to Making Memorable Occasions Happen
  • Fleur Britten’s Debrett’s Etiquette for Girls
  • Lara Shriftman and Elizabeth Harrison’s Party Confidential: New Etiquette for Fabulous Entertaining
  • Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan’s The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette
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