Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.

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Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 1 2005 6:34 AM

Skin Deep

How can I deal with comments that border on being racist?


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Dear Prudence,
I am black, with a light complexion, as is my immediate family—without any white parent or grandparent. I have often been in the position of going to school or working in an almost entirely white environment where whites have had little personal contact with blacks. Often they will tell me they thought I was Native American or Mexican. I have no trouble with this, but some will often say to me in a tone that suggests a compliment, "You don't look black," which I find insulting. Light or not, I am black, and resent any implication that I should be proud that I do not "look black." I usually respond, "Blacks are both light and dark, so I do look black." I'm not sure the people who make these comments realize it is insulting, and sometimes I want to say, "You don't look white to me," as many whites look like my family and we are all black. Any suggestions on handling this?

—Black and Proud

Dear Black,
To give you an informed answer with knowledge and experience behind it, Prudie checked with Karen Grigsby Bates. She is a fair-skinned black journalist who's spent much of her career writing about race. When she read your letter, she said, she rolled her eyes and thought, "Been there; living that." She borrowed Prudie's cap, and here's her answer: "If you want to be bothered with broadening people's cultural landscapes, you could say something like, 'Well, black is a very flexible color in America. We run the gamut.' Then leave it at that. Or you could elaborate: 'My whole family is black and everyone is a different color. It's very common.' Personally, I like the second option. Should you be in snarky-educational mode, try: 'Funny, you don't look white to me—but maybe that's because you look so much like one of my favorite aunts.' "


—Prudie, progressively

Dear Prudie,
The question remained, even at our 14th wedding anniversary celebratory dinner: Why must I, a well-adjusted left-handed person, wear my wedding ring on my left hand? My wife (a right-handed person, as you might expect) is quite clear and insistent that there is no wiggle room on this, and all my complaints about the ring squishing my middle finger when I write, etc., fall on deaf ears. What is the big taboo about wearing a wedding ring on my right hand? "Handism" remains an institutionalized bias pooh-poohed by the right-handed supremacists who don't understand the unfairness in scissors, pay telephones, pneumatic tools, and other daily devices. You have always—well, almost always—demonstrated a sense of fair play, Prudie. Set my wife on the right path to open-handedness. Please. And no left-handed compliments.

—Left in the Lurch

Dear Left,
With no effort to curry favor, Prudie feels she can once again earn your fair-play accolade, because she definitely agrees with you. It is almost hard to figure out why your wife is so hidebound about what is customary in the United States, but not Europe and many other countries. Her parochial insistence on this flies in the face of rationality. As they say in the sociology books, she is extremely "other-directed." If you are uncomfortable because your ring interferes with some of the things you must do with your left hand, you should be able to eliminate the discomfort. Many workmen in the building trades wear their rings on either hand (or not at all). Yo-Yo Ma wears his on his right hand because it would interfere with his playing if he wore it on the left. Prudie actually finds it distinctive when a man wears a right-hand wedding band. After 14 years, the time has come for you to stop discussing it and simply put the ring on your other hand. This is clearly a case of common sense trumping an arbitrary tradition. What should be important to your wife is that you act married, not on which finger you wear the ring.


—Prudie, mutinously

I am a single male frequently invited to events in a social circle above mine, though I now count many of these people as friends. They really enjoy having me and I've found myself invited to some very select parties. I have reached this level because of some simple rules I always follow, such as hand-writing thank you notes—no matter how small the occasion, taking small gifts to the hosts, always walking curbside when with women, just generally having old-world manners. To that end, I enjoy the art of kissing an offered female hand, which has always made a huge impact and has allowed me to ingratiate myself to hostesses. I now find I am invited to a very well-heeled winter wedding, where I will be practicing this little bit of chivalry. I know that one is supposed to kiss the hand of a single woman but not a married one, or vice-versa. I am wondering about the specific protocol.

—Knight Errant?

Dear Knight,
You are certainly not in the mainstream, let's put it that way. And given that hand-kissing is so not happening in society as we know it, it probably won't make a damn bit of difference whose hand you kiss. You sound like the proverbial, albeit desirable extra man; certainly one who seems not averse to a little social mountaineering. As for the practice of hand-kissing, whenever someone has kissed Prudie's hand, it has always seemed overwrought and silly. The only time it felt natural was some years ago in Acapulco. Now here comes a big name-drop, kids ... from the days before Prudie was at your service, chained to her computer. The hand-kisser was Prince Albert of Monaco. So, dear Knight, if you could latch on to a title between now and your ritzy wedding, it would make your chivalrous act all the more meaningful.


—Prudie, royally

Dear Prudence,
My question is basic: Are people being raised in barns now, or am I too old-fashioned for the current era? To explain: I have worked for a medium-sized law firm for the last eight years. My father passed away a little over a month ago. We are located in the Southeast (where I thought we were known for our manners), but the only acknowledgment I received from any of the partners of the firm has been a simple interoffice e-mail expressing his condolences for my loss. Am I wrong for feeling hurt, or am I so out of touch with the modern era that this cold indifference is now acceptable?


Dear Jur,
It is not that people are being raised in barns, it is that etiquette has taken a real hit. People who are delinquent in this area are either those who were never taught the right thing to do, or they've simply decided they are too busy or that is doesn't matter. (They are wrong.) Prudie shares your feelings about writing notes at appropriate times. Lord knows, the recipients never forget who bothered to send a message when there's a death in the family. One adjustment Prudie has made, and that you might consider, is that e-mails count. The mode of delivery is different, but the thought is there, along with the effort. In your case, do factor in the possibility that not everyone in your firm may have known of your loss.

—Prudie, understandingly