Monthly Archives: July 2009

Etiquette for Awkward Situations — Vol 2

At a BBQ

Awkward Situation: You attend a summer BBQ in which the host declined your offer to contribute food or drink.  You normally would bring something anyway, but didn’t want to presume that she would be lacking something.  When you arrive, everyone else has brought a dish or bottle of wine.

Solution: You are now the official helper.  Be at your host’s side when she’s serving food, offering to help with anything in the kitchen.  Be the first to initiate cleanup and offer to pick up any refills at the store.  It might be a little much, but you should even offer to start on dishes.  If she refuses your help, send a bottle of wine with your thank you note, and be sure to invite her for dinner to return the hospitality.

At the Bar

Awkward Situation: You, or a friend of yours, is treating your group to a couple rounds of beer.  You notice that no one in the group is offering to get the next round, and frankly this is getting expensive.

Solution: The simple solution is to cease the offer.  The absence of drinks will always prompt someone to get the next one.  If you’re truly on a budget but would like the evening to continue, simply say in a congenial manner, “Alright, who’s eager to impress by getting the next round?”

At a Wedding

Awkward Situation: You are attending an outdoor wedding and everything is going swimmingly…especially the sweat in your underarms/back/enter-awkward-place-here.

Solution: Against all odds, get up and move.  While it would seem that sitting at your dinner table would be coolest, standing upright and allowing a breeze to do it’s work is much more effective (especially for the ladies…hello skirt!).  Gentlemen, you are completely free to remove that jacket, but the tie stays.  If you need instant cool, grab a beer.

At the Spa

Awkward Situation: You are getting a pedicure and the woman working on your nails just asked you a polite question, but you cannot understand her accent so you have no idea what she just said. You feel horrible and racist and completely useless.

Solution: See if you can catch the eye of a person sitting near you, or another pedicurist.  Emphasize that you are completely mortified that you aren’t sure what was said, and simply repeat back a question that sounds reasonable for the situation.  Most times someone will chime in with what was actually said, and you’ll be saved.  Huge smiles and a tip go a long way, too.

At Dinner

Awkward Situation: You are having dinner with a new friend who recalls exactly what you do at work with great clarity, but you cannot even remember where he works, much less what he does.

Solution: Generalities are best.  Ask open ended questions like, “How busy has work been for you?” or “What are your hours like these days?” that will lead them to talk about their job, wherein you can piece it together.

If you have an awkward situation that needs addressing, please email me at wordsbecomeone@gmail.com.  No guarantees on solutions, but two heads are better than one.

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Unbearable

In 2005 I attended a student retreat in Gettysburg, PA with a number of friends from the University of Washington.  Days earlier we attended events in Washington, DC (the “other” Washington, as it’s called around here) and then headed to rural Pennsylvania for leadership training with students from around the country.

But that is not all we did.

After the first meet-and-greet day, and all of the awkwardness that comes with it, everyone pretty much settled on with whom they would spend any voluntary time.  In fact, we were given four free hours the next morning to do whatever we wanted:  mistake number one.   We were also given a choice of steak or crab cakes for dinner that evening, and I chose crab cakes:  mistake number two, though I wouldn’t find that out until later.

The leaders suggested we invest in our country’s history and take a guided tour of Gettysburg.  I had already done it, and it’s something one needn’t do twice in a decade.  The rest of my crew hadn’t done it, but for some reason didn’t find it necessary to learn about the Civil War.  That left us perusing the brochure stand to find a viable alternative.

What a relief that the good people of the Carroll Valley Resort had included the brochures to every antique and quilt store in a 50 mile radius!  And look at the literature on the ten thousand museums on the Civil War — every college sophomore’s dream!

Skipping past those thrilling options, our eyes settled on a tourist’s heaven-on-earth: a brochure for Boyd’s Bear Country.

“Welcome to Boyd’s Bear Country!” it read.  “A picturesque country setting of the world’s largest teddy bear store, perfect for a family day trip or weekend destination.  Yer heart will melt as ya look at all the lil’ bear cubs.  Enjoy the day with those you luv!”

It was like all our minds together formed one thought bubble above our heads that read “WHAT THE…?”

We immediately got into the car.

Annie, Hunter, Casey and I were on our way to the most heinous tourist trap imaginable.  Who needed Gettysburg?

After a ten minute drive through winding roads lined with endless fields, we arrived to a parking lot that rivaled Costco’s in size.  We stared in wonder at the largest red barn any of us had ever seen (but really, how many red barns have we Seattleite’s encountered?).

We walked inside and were immediately visually assaulted by so many thousands of stuffed bears, even the Berenstain’s would have turned and run back to the car.

Hunter:  “This is like the mothership of bad taste.”

Annie:  “I don’t know whether to be horrified or amazed.”

Casey:  “Get me the HELL out of here.”

Abby:  (Stunned silence)

Allow me to paint a picture of just how insane the entire concept of Boyds Bear Country truly is.  As we walked from room to room, we saw bears in various human situations – at school, at a picnic, sitting around the Christmas tree at home.  Things went from appalling to creepy when we found the Boyd’s Teddy Bear Nursery.  It was built to look EXACTLY like a real nursery – one stands on one side of the glass looking into a room of infant incubators filled with STUFFED BABY BEARS.  The nurse on duty (yes, this is someone’s actual job) walks up to you and asks if you’d like to hold a bear to consider for adoption.  I briefly considered poking her in the face to see if she too, was stuffed.

However, the real low point came when we happened upon “Peeker Boo’s Folkus Pocus Portrait Studio” (I couldn’t make these names up).  We saw cute families getting their photos taken together against a typical brown backdrop.  The photographer was printing out some results so we walked over and took a look.

It pains me even to write this.

When the picture came out of the printer, the nice family’s bodies were gone, and their heads were superimposed onto STUFFED BEAR BODIES.  Bear, bear, bear – human face, human face, human face.  It was all I could do not to light my hair on fire.

We immediately signed up to be photographed.  How else would anyone back at Carroll Valley believe that we had seen such atrocities?

After wandering around with our eyes glazed over as we toured the FOUR FLOORS of bears, it was finally our turn to have our bodies replaced with bear fur.  There was serious debate as to who should get which kind of bear body, but given that we were all different in size, it quickly became obvious.  Hunter was stocky, Annie was shortest, I was average, and Casey had dark hair and eyes – obviously the kitten bear.

As I sat to have my picture taken, I realized this was one of those moments in life when I’m sure I have left Earth and entered an entirely different planet comprised of a wack-job species.  How else to explain that in some boardroom a group of people decided there needed to be a Wal-Mart sized barn full of bears and people who take pictures to look like them?

The resulting picture caused such a scene of laughter and hysteria between the four of us that you would have thought we had just won the lottery and discovered it was tax-exempt.  That’s right, we were all going to split $65 million and the government wasn’t getting a dime.  We were THAT ecstatic.

Except for the cashier.  The tears of laughter streaming down our faces probably caused her to feel somewhat suicidal due to her form of employment.

And to think we almost passed this up to tour Gettysburg.

Bear Country

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House of Worship

I will be the first to admit that the Coldplay concert on July 11 was epic.  It was intense, beautiful and incredibly well done.  Best of all, it was the only concert I have ever experienced that filled me with an indescribable joy from start to finish.   The music was euphoric; even their more somber songs were played with an air of triumph.  I have never seen anything like it.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I was ecstatic the entire set – literally jumping up and down for hours.  From the moment they entered the stage, I started screaming and bouncing at the sight of my favorite band.  Seeing them at The Gorge was ideal – it’s been named the best outdoor concert venue in the US, and that’s no exaggeration.  It’s stunningly gorgeous (no pun intended).

What happened next gave me pause:  during the first and second songs, I had tears in my eyes.  Two times, without warning, I felt like I was about to cry.  This had never happened before and I stopped jumping around for a moment to take stock.

Why would this make me emotional?  Why on earth was I acting like a teenage girl at a Beatles concert in 1965?  Chris Martin is NOT that good-looking.

Suddenly it occurred to me that it wasn’t the band that was sending me over the top, it was the collective experience.  Here I was among 30,000 people all singing the same lyrics, all fans of the same music, all happy together for three hours.  Where else can this be found?

Certainly not in Seattle.

Statistically, Seattle is the least-churched city in the US.  Given that absence, it’s no wonder that people are drawn to gathering by the thousands for a common interest such as a concert.   Where else in Seattle can one experience the community and fellowship of coming together to adore a single entity?  Where else can one stand among strangers and feel like you all have something in common?  Even sporting events can’t compare – they always involve competition.  The person sitting next to you could HATE the team you are rooting for.  At a concert, you are all there because you love the same performer.

As I was thinking about this, I had a flashback.  Two years ago, my father-in-law attended a Dave Matthews Band concert at The Gorge with me, Mike and all of our siblings.  Afterward, we eagerly asked him what he thought of it.  He paused, and then said, “It was a worship service.  Idolatry, really.”

Not critical, not positive or negative, just fact.

At first I thought, you can’t be serious.  What, we’re bowing down to gods made of stone? But he explained that today’s idols are really anything you put before God.  That could be musicians, actors, comic books, even your own beauty.

Then it was obvious; what I was experiencing was akin to going to a massive worship service — of Coldplay.

For me, it’s not too much of a stretch to fall into idol worship…but that’s less because of the music than because of their celebrity.  When they entered a smaller stage inside the crowd, just thirty feet from us, what did I do?  I bolted straight for them to get as close as the burly security guard would let me.  Why?  Because I idolize their talent and success.  And because, hello, the lead singer is married to Gwyneth Paltrow.  Need I write more?

It is fantastic to recognize that the music Coldplay creates is brilliant, but I have to remember the ability to create that music is God-given.   To recognize it as anything less is idol worship.  So while I’m amazed by what I’m hearing, I’m also thinking how incredible it is that we are created to create.  And that was the difference, I believe: I was in awe of the talent the Lord gives people, rather than being emotionally in awe of Chris, Will, Guy and Jonny.  And who wouldn’t be, with lyrics like this that make you feel invincible?

“Oh love, don’t let me go/Won’t you take me where the street lights glow?/I can hear rain coming like a serenade of sound/Now my feet won’t touch the ground.”  (Life in Technicolor II)

After considering these thoughts as the band played on, I had one of those ridiculous Christian-panic moments where I was thinking, “Now am I supposed to interpret all the lyrics through this lens?  Do I have to analyze everything to see how God is involved?”  No, I don’t.  In fact, when I have those thoughts, God is probably looking at me thinking, LIGHTEN UP.

So I am free to enjoy the music.

“I can hear rain coming like a serenade of sound…now my feet won’t touch the ground.”

Summer 09 050

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Hospitality: Large Events

In the world of hospitality, hosting a large event is in a category all its own.  It’s overwhelming, yet nuanced; enormously stressful, yet rewarding.  And if you’ve ever tried to pull one off, you know it ain’t easy.

Having recently attended a major event that went brilliantly, I thought it apt to interview the hostess to discover her tips and tricks (in this case, how to present a keg tastefully).

She is one Annie Snyder, 24 years old, living in Seattle, WA (Greenlake, specifically).   Her favorite holiday is Independence Day, so for the past three years she has hosted a 4th of July party that lasts all weekend.

To give credit where due, Miss Snyder admits she learned everything she knows from Mrs. Snyder – and in fact held the event at Mrs. Snyder’s waterfront home in Gig Harbor.  Together, they made for a killer mother-daughter hostess duo.

But first let’s admit that though bigger events are more work for the hostess, there’s an incredible self-serving benefit:  it’s the host’s friends.  “It’s all of my favorite people in one place at one time!”  Annie says.

However, she concedes, “It’s overwhelming. Sometimes I have to grab people just for a few minutes and get time with only them, otherwise I’ll never see some people.”

But let’s talk turkey.  One of the most challenging aspects of serving more than 50 people is doing so economically.  In this case, Annie’s best tip is to purchase kegs — in multiples.  She purchased three kegs so she could negotiate with the brewery on the price per keg.  She did well:  $48 per keg.  Usually kegs cost up to $120 each.

“It’s easier to serve people with a keg, and also easier to clean up.  We served 65-70 people for less than $150,” Annie reports.

And don’t just leave those ugly gray barrels as they are.  Annie decided to purchase flag-themed garbage can covers and used them to cover the similarly-shaped kegs.

And though it’s great to save some money on the alcohol, avoid skipping major elements of the food you’re serving.

“Don’t be stingy and cheap, because your guests will know.  If you’re going to entertain, fully entertain.  Don’t rely on your guests for staple items.  Once you choose to entertain, it’s on you,” Annie says.

But if you do ask others to contribute, don’t say, “Please bring a dish to share.”  As Annie says, “Be specific in knowing what you want others to bring.  It’s my biggest pet peeve when people stray from simple instruction, like if I tell you to bring a side, bring a damn side.  Don’t bring a dessert.”

But atmosphere is crucial as well.  And even though Annie attributes any party’s success to the people who attend, she says that decorations don’t hurt either.

“You can’t have too much patriotic paraphernalia on the 4th of July,” she says.  “We bought four dozen hats, tons of red, white and blue fringe, and even temporary tattoos.”

It’s true.  The decided the look of the weekend was to have a “tramp stamp” on everyone’s lower backs, except in this case rather than a typical tattoo symbol, there were American flags and George Washington’s face.

It’s important to keep your role as host in perspective, Annie reminds us.  Your role as host is not to provide a personal experience of happiness for each guest, but rather to create a place where a great time can occur.

“The fun is already happening – I don’t have to entertain fully, I just say ‘here you go, here’s the party.’  As host, YOU’RE not the fun, you’re the springboard to the fun,” she says.

And not every moment is bliss for the host.  Sometimes, guests hog your time.

“People trap me in a 20 minute conversation and I’m stuck,” she confesses.

And how to get out of such a situation?  Initiate clean up.

“Some people take advantage of the situation, like especially when it comes to clean-up.  You know who your friends are when it’s cleanup time and others disperse to leave,” she remarks.

But while they’re around, keep them happy with snappy tunes.

“Definitely compile a good play list…heavy on the Rhianna,” Annie recommends.

Annie credits a great turn-out with word-of-mouth. She says that “the measure of a good event is how well you pitch it.”  And she must have pitched a home run, because even newcomers were impressed.

“I love when people come up to me and say that they’re having such a good time,” Annie says.  “Like my friend Catlyn said “I knew I was going to have fun this weekend, but I didn’t know I was going to have this much fun.”

A successful event, indeed.

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The Mag Rag

Every couple weeks I see a newscast or blog shouting about the end of the printed newspaper.  They claim that it is only a matter of time before they all fold completely, because no one will pay for what they can get for free online.  But you never hear such commotion about magazines, and I believe that is because they’re not going anywhere.  We love them too much.

For instance, my current subscription is for Real Simple magazine (I only allow myself one subscription at a time, because I don’t have time to read more).  I love it.  I am obsessed with it.  Despite being in the middle of reading an excellent book, I will virtually pace at my mailbox for my Real Simple.  I will drop my book on its binding the moment it arrives and likely not revisit it until my magazine is dog-eared and tea-stained.

But this doesn’t make sense.  Do you know what I do with those pages of information that hundreds of people have compiled for me?  Nothing.

I apply about one percent of what I read, yet I feel compelled to keep subscribing anyway.  A recent issue suggested I switch from perfume to fragrant water; I haven’t.  Another showed me how to use household foods and baking ingredients to all-naturally clean my home; I still use the regular stuff.  I briefly considered switching to their incoming mail organization system, but decided our mail was fine.

So why do I read it?  It’s organization porn.

I seriously feel like I’m going to have a happiness stroke when I see how they completely made over someone’s closet.  Or how they ingeniously suggest using a colander to hold ice when you’re mixing cocktails so the water escapes, leaving drinks undiluted.

As I read, I picture myself transforming our home with these techniques.  I will banish clutter from our junk drawer by inserting cubic boxes for each item!  I will create an efficient mudroom with cubbies for all of my imaginary children to store their backpacks and shoes!

And it’s not just Real Simple.  Why do I sometimes read People magazine?  Do I personally know any of the people to which they refer?  Of course not.  But I could tell you the names of all of the Jolie-Pitt children, as well as their birthplaces.  I could joke about the “colon cleanse” Gwyneth Paltrow was quoted talking about.

In a strange way, celebrity gossip is like reading about fabulous cleaning products – fun to read, but totally irrelevant.

I used to subscribe to InStyle magazine.  It showed me how to be of-the-moment, superbly fashionable and utterly urban.  Yet I never bought the clothes and couldn’t afford to if I wanted to.  And it took me years to realize that it made me feel like an ugly, poverty-stricken hick.

It’s not just me, either.  I have a friend who subscribes to Cooking Light and absolutely loves it – yet has never cooked one recipe from it.  I have a husband who reads The Economist, yet rarely has the chance to discuss the in-depth articles with anyone.  My mother reads movie reviews in People magazine every week but won’t see a movie in the theater, she always waits for it to come out on DVD six months later.

All of this is really ironic when you consider that I have wanted to be a magazine editor for as long as I can remember.  The concept of magazines has always drawn me because it would seem that people read their magazines because they like them, not because they have to be informed like with a newspaper.

As I wrote for several newspapers in college, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was reading my work.  Why slave over each word and every fact if no one will read past your first three sentences?  But with magazines, you have a chance.  Readers have already selected your publication because they love your topic, so it just might matter to them if you choose to write about “Bing vs. Google” rather than “The Benefits of Bing.”

Magazines are an escape into information for your life, whether you apply it or not.  They entertain as they inform, which is exactly what draws a reader to them.  Also, they’re low on the commitment scale.  Have just ten minutes?  Read one article and you won’t feel like you were left hanging.

Who knows?  Maybe one day I’ll be the writer/editor telling Real Simple readers how they can avoid the pitfalls of not finding the right manicurist. And maybe that person will dream of following my advice, and then a week later head to the bathroom to do her own nails.  Even so, I bet I’ll have hooked a reader for life.

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