modern manners

Editor’s Note: Real Simple’s etiquette expert, Catherine Newman, offers her best advice on your social quandaries. This month she tackles coping with wayward pooches, dealing with the costs of hosting a party, and more.

Story highlights

Annoyed with the neighbors? Approach in the spirit of information-sharing instead of blame.

Approach a friend's bereavement directly and with compassion.

Birthday parties for seven-year-olds can get expensive, quickly. Focus on the experience.

When sharing your child's sexual orientation with others, you should act on their cues

Real Simple  — 

All our neighbors have dogs, which they allow to wander freely. These pets often end up in my backyard, where they leave me “surprises.” I am forced to dispose of the waste, which seems unfair, since I don’t have a dog. How can I ask my neighbors to keep their animals off my property without souring relations? Amy Sandberg, Troy, Missouri

Catherine Newman: That stinks in more ways than one. Yes, if you don’t own a dog, you shouldn’t have to wield a pooper-scooper.

In some towns where dogs are forbidden from going off-leash, these neighbors wouldn’t just be thought-less—they would also be breaking the law. But of course you want to keep your neighborly relations neighborly, so it’s best not to get the local animal-control authorities involved if you can avoid it.

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    Rather than assigning blame, approach these remiss pet owners in the spirit of information-sharing. Drop by next door and say, “I love your pups, but they have been leaving their poop on my lawn. Please, could you keep them out of my yard?”

    You can also convey this message in an e-mail, but be extra careful to sound polite, since the tone of e-mails can be misinterpreted. If this doesn’t work, bring up the issue again, more forcefully. And if the dogs are still invading your space? Well, then you may need to contact your local animal-control department to learn what your options are. Despite the old saying, it’s considerate people, not fences, who make the best neighbors. Fingers crossed that you have the former so you won’t need the latter.

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    A few people close to me have recently suffered miscarriages. I feel as though I never know the right thing to say when the subject comes up in conversation. (Making it more awkward is the fact that I am the mother of a small child.) Should I broach the issue myself, to acknowledge the pain that my friends are going through, or stay quiet? B. Brown, Steilacoom, Washington

    Newman: Miscarriages are somehow the worst of both worlds: mortifyingly public and isolatingly private at the same time. When I lost a pregnancy a number of years ago, I felt totally alone in my sadness, even as I was aware that everybody in my life—friends, family, colleagues—knew about it. Most of us don’t have rituals in place to mourn that kind of terrible loss, and we should.

    The kindest thing that you can do—and I say this from personal experience—is to treat your friend’s miscarriage the same way you would any other bereavement. Acknowledge it directly and compassionately. Send flowers, comfort food, or a card, or tell her in person, “I’m deeply sorry for your loss, and I’m here to listen if you ever need someone to talk to.” It might feel uncomfortable—and she might not want to discuss what happened, which is fine—but do it anyway.

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    You don’t need to worry that you’re reminding your friend of something painful; she is probably thinking of little else. And you’ll dispel that strange sense of shame—as if the event were an embarrassing gynecological issue or a personal failure and not a devastating heartbreak—felt by some women who have had miscarriages. Your job as a friend is to share the burden of sorrow. You can’t do that by looking the other way. You have to reach out.

    My husband and I are throwing a birthday party for our seven-year-old son at a restaurant, with about 20 guests in all. We thought it would be nice to take care of the whole bill. But we’ve recently learned that the price tag is going to be much bigger than we imagined. Is it too late to ask our guests to make a financial contribution toward the meal? M. M., Los Angeles, California

    Newman: The main point of a party is not really the food—it’s the togetherness. But now that you’ve extended an invitation to an all-expenses-paid fete, it’s best not to retract or alter it.

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    Instead, try these ideas, which will help you be gracious without going bankrupt: Consider asking the restaurant if it can do a special prix fixe meal for your party, as opposed to giving guests the full run of the menu.

    Or, rather than allowing people to order, say, a double espresso, prearrange for coffee service for the table. Gently let folks know that if they would like to order something different, they are welcome to do so with the waiter, on their own dime.

    Whatever happens—even if you end up absorbing the total cost of the party yourself—be sure to enjoy the experience. And write off the expense (mentally) as the cost of a useful lesson.

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    My daughter came out to me and my husband several years ago. I have not disclosed that she is gay to any of our friends, nor do I feel the need to. Out of respect for my daughter, I don’t feel that such an announcement is necessary. But one of my friends has been asking me about my daughter and seems to be trying to coerce a disclosure. (I’m not sure how, but I think that she knows the truth.) Do you have any suggestions on how I should handle this situation? Jacqui, Louisville, Kentucky

    Newman: I’m going to get to Mrs. Busybody in a second. But first: The phrase “out of respect for my daughter” gave me pause. Perhaps you would feel reluctant to share details about your daughter’s personal life even if she were straight. However, given our culture’s history of pressuring gay people to stay closeted, it’s worth asking yourself if remaining mum is the most considerate approach to your child’s sexuality.

    You could consider the cues your daughter is giving. (For example, is she out at work?) But there is only one way to gauge how much privacy she wants: Ask her. If your daughter feels, as you do, that her orientation is nobody else’s business, then either ignore your pal’s needling comments or kindly suggest that she’s being nosy. “I’m inclined to leave my daughter’s private life private,” you might say.

    But if your daughter would prefer for you to be open and honest with your friends, then get on board, because that’s your train, it’s leaving the station, and you need to be on it—or risk permanently damaging the relationship you have with your child.

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