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Navigating family and dinner table etiquette landmines

By Catherine Newman, Real Simple
updated 11:21 AM EST, Mon November 19, 2012
Are you old-fashioned about using smartphones at the holiday dinner table?
Are you old-fashioned about using smartphones at the holiday dinner table?
  • Avoid upsetting extended family by visiting sets of grandparents in turns
  • If you don't want guests using phones at dinner, poke fun at your generational divide
  • Don't like your daughter's new boyfriend? Focus on her instead of him

Editor's note: Real Simple's etiquette expert, Catherine Newman, has answers for Thanksgiving and other family gathering dilemmas.

(Real Simple) -- I come from a divorced family, and so does my husband. Every year on Thanksgiving, we wonder: Of the four sets of parents, which one should we take our kids to visit this year? (All live nearby, which makes the decision even more challenging.) We try to be careful with our choice, but it's tricky, and we have inadvertently caused offense in the past. How can we avoid upsetting any of our loved ones this time around? -- Name withheld by request

Yay for an abundance of grandparents! As problems go, it's a lovely one. You're right, though, that this family landscape requires some delicate navigating.

I would suggest that you opt for a rotation system: Each set of grandparents can look forward to the pleasure of your company once every four years. Of course, you may need to consider certain factors, such as how you divvy up other holidays and whether any grandparents will be stranded on their lonesome. (And which set is likeliest to torment you with their disappointment. Just kidding! Sort of.) This year, visit the neediest parents—or the ones you haven't shared a Thanksgiving meal with in the longest amount of time—then let the alternating begin.

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My husband, Michael, and I have solved (or tempered) a similar problem with our folks by adding an extra, low-key celebration the day after Thanksgiving. That's when we join my husband's father and stepmother, along with his stepsisters and their families, for board games, jigsaw puzzles, and leftovers. This leaves everyone free on Thursday to satisfy other obligations and to look forward to a relaxed post-holiday gathering.

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Whatever you decide, be open about how hard the situation is. Tell them, "I wish we could spend the holiday with everyone, but we can't," and give thanks for such a wealth of kinship.

My husband and I are dear friends with a younger couple. They both have busy careers and text and e-mail incessantly for work. Recently the four of us dined out at a wonderful country inn, and they texted throughout the meal. I care very much about my relationship with them and do not wish to offend them, but this behavior bothered me. How can I nicely ask them to put their smartphones away? -- Cecily from Portland, Oregon

Funny you should ask. Michael and I are total throwbacks, hanging tight to the belief that we should pay attention to each other when we're together, as opposed to spending virtual time with other people.

But even folks who have never talked on a phone with a cord agree that you shouldn't text at dinner. Since you and your friends have such a great relationship, you should be able to address this issue. Might there be a lighthearted way to do it—one that involves poking fun at your generational divide? For instance: "I hate to sound like an old fogey, and I know that you guys often need to stay connected with your busy jobs, but we're greedy about our time with you and we would love to have your undivided attention during dinner." Or: "I'm sorry to be so old-fashioned, but if it's such an urgent matter that it can't wait until after dinner, I can't help wondering if you should take your phone outside, where you can concentrate."

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Whatever you say, end by acknowledging how considerate they usually are: "You're such thoughtful friends. I knew that you would want to know how we felt." Plus, asking them to return to the here and now of your delightful company will give them permission to put work aside for the evening, and that might be a real—if low-tech—blessing in disguise.

My friend and her family came over for brunch. They didn't bring anything, yet they asked to take home some of the leftovers. I think asking to take home food is rude, but my friend says I'm in the wrong. Isn't it impolite to ask for leftovers? -- Wendy S. from Philadelphia

As a person who counts on leftovers to fill my kids' lunch boxes, let me say: I hear you. I can be both flattered and horrified as those would-be Thermos contents disappear into people's pieholes. But is your question about whether a person should ever ask to take food home? (To which the answer is: probably not, although you can drop hints about the coffee cake and see what happens.) Or are you wondering about how you should have behaved once someone did pose that question?

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For one thing, it sounds as if you were peeved that your friend hadn't contributed anything to the brunch. The next time, make your expectations clear. It would be delightful if Dotty brought something unbidden, of course, but if you want her to provide the melon balls, then tell her beforehand, so she doesn't let you down.

And whether or not your guest shows up with a dish, bear in mind that hosting a meal in your home is a contract with graciousness. You are obliged to treat people with kindness and to remind yourself that their feelings are always more important than, say, food or a strict code of etiquette. This means that if someone asks for leftovers, you say, "I'm so glad that you enjoyed the meal," and wrap up a wedge of quiche.

I should mention that this issue is especially likely to come up at Thanksgiving dinner. Personally, I'm usually desperate to off-load some of the leftovers: "I'll give you $5 if you take a turkey leg. Please."

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I disapprove of my daughter's boyfriend. She told me that recently he lied to her about a very important matter: He didn't tell her that he had been thrown out of law school. I now think he can't be trusted. Should I let my feelings on this subject be known? -- Name withheld by request

May my nine-year-old daughter never grow up. Between the lying and whatever it is that got that guy thrown out of law school: Yikes! But you're lucky, still, that your daughter apparently trusts you enough to confide in you. Right now you should focus on reinforcing that trust between you and your child, not on sharing your thoughts about her boyfriend. Throw frosty judgments at her and you'll risk chilling your relationship or even sending her straight into the arms of the prevaricating nonlawyer.

If the two of you discuss the matter, tread lightly: Do more asking than telling, and help her figure out how she feels about what happened. If you hear her express doubts about him, repeat the words back to her: "It sounds as if you're still worried about him lying. Can you imagine trusting him again?"

And keep one possibility in the back of your mind: This could be an isolated incident. Yes, maybe the law-school lie is the tip of a big-jerk iceberg, and the next thing you know, the boyfriend will be faking an M.B.A. and scamming people out of their life savings. But he could simply have been embarrassed and handled the whole thing poorly.

If it's the former, I'll keep my fingers crossed for a swift breakup. But if it's the latter, you might want to think of the experience as a painful lesson for everyone concerned and move past it.

I have two-year-old twin girls named Sofia and Alexa. My first cousin is also expecting twin girls. Without telling me in advance, she posted an announcement on Facebook stating that the names of her twins will be Sophia and Alexie (!). I got upset. Now her side of the family, with whom I have been close in the past, has condemned me for "making a mountain out of a molehill." They claim that since our kids live far apart, I shouldn't care one way or the other. Should my cousin have told me about the names and considered my reaction? -- Audra K. from Denver

On the one hand, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. On the other hand, that is a peculiar thing to do. Not the naming itself—which could, if handled differently, be charming, or at least acceptable—but neglecting to mention it to you before broadcasting it so widely.

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Your cousin didn't need your permission, of course, but it would have been much nicer of her to let you know in a direct and positive way ("We love your girls' names so much that we're going to give versions of them to our own daughters!") than to inform you indirectly. This is where you have to hate Facebook a little for allowing a private family matter to unfold as a spectacle, when open and compassionate communication would be healthier.

That said, your cousin has announced the names, and she probably won't reconsider. So at this point it's not really your molehill to mountain, if you know what I mean. Sure, you're annoyed, but ultimately it doesn't matter. The cousins are probably going to love having similar names, and it's your daughters who will get to be the big-girl role models. It's time to forgive and focus on the real drama—which is that these two sparkling-new people are about to make their way into the world.

And that's cause for celebration.

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