Adding Some Shine To Your Holiday Manners

America's increasingly diverse society is rewriting many of the traditional rules of etiquette. Host Michel Martin gets tips from etiquette experts Harriette Cole, Phillip Galanes, and social commentator Firoozeh Dumas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, some listeners were all fired up about our conversation this week about talking to kids about marijuana in the wake of a new push to legalize the drug. We'll hear what they had to say. That's just ahead in Back Talk.

But first, we've been thinking about all the things we love about the holidays but we are also mindful of all the ways they can be awkward - painful family dinners, mandatory office parties, moments when you happen to be under the mistletoe with exactly the wrong person.

And when you add different cultures, ethnicities and sexual orientations to the mix, it can make things that much more complicated. So we wanted to talk more about how to handle some of these awkward moments. With us are Harriette Cole. She is the president of Harriette Cole Media and the author of "How to Be: Contemporary Etiquette for African-Americans."

Phillip Galanes writes the Social Qs column for the New York Times. He also wrote an etiquette book of the same name. Also with us is Firoozeh Dumas. She is a social commentator and the author of "Funny in Farsi." Welcome to all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.

HARRIETTE COLE: Great to be here.

FIROOZEH DUMAS: Thank you for having me.

PHILLIP GALANES: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So Phillip Galanes, I was wondering how often the questions that come to you in writing your column have to do with, you know, issues around ethnicity. And I'm thinking of all the times that I have heard - particularly some of our senior diva and divo family members trot out some of those chestnuts that they have been enjoying for years but which are no longer appropriate involving various ethnic groups.

Does that come up a lot?

GALANES: It does come up a lot. But, you know, from about November 15 forward, my In Box is exploding with holiday questions. And ethnic jokes, sure. Racial jokes, yes. Sexuality. All kinds of things. And the question - my real question about this, Michel, is that - is to try to - is to wonder whether it's better to have a moment of awkwardness when you clear up something that's been horrible at your table or let it poison the entire evening.

And it seems pretty easy to me that, you know, step forward. Speak up. Try to clean it up, if you can. Quickly.

MARTIN: So if Grandpa, you know, or Grandma, for that matter, pulls out a term that is not considered appropriate anymore, your idea is use that as a teachable moment. Is that about right?

GALANES: Yeah. That's about right. I don't know that I need to teach my grandma anything in front of a table of 25, but you know, I think there are ways to get people aside or to, you know, to have a word and to let her know that we're all in this, you know, we're all in this together. We've all got to play on the same lawn for about six weeks.

And so we better figure out the way that - to do it peacefully.

MARTIN: Harriette Cole, what about you? Especially because you've written a lot about how manners change from generation to generation among everybody, but also particularly among African-Americans, I might say. What's your take on that?

COLE: Well, it's true. And, you know, in my column which is "Sense and Sensitivity," people write to me about these things as well. And I think anything you can do in advance is helpful. You know who's coming to that dinner. If you are bringing someone to the dinner and you know your grandma or grandpa, or whoever it might be, might be insensitive, prep your family to say, you know, X person is coming, this is who the person is. Because it could be - it could be race. It could be class. It could be education. It could be sexuality. Just where the person is from. Talk to your family members about who's going to be coming to dinner. Remember that movie? It's still real. So that there is a heightened sensitivity to just being aware of who's present.

MARTIN: I mean what if Grandma says this is my house. I'll talk however I want to talk in my house.

COLE: And if she does, then you make sure you prep your friend too.

GALANES: Well, Harriette makes a great point too, Michel, because sometimes families or, you know, what you were saying, families - we have stories about our families. And we all play a role inside of our families. And lots of times people like - would rather retain the grudge they have against their sister-in-law than fix it.

COLE: Right.

GALANES: Because, you know, whatever we can do to reify our story of she's the miserable sister-in-law...

(LAUGHTER)

GALANES: ...we love that.

MARTIN: Oh, that's - OK. Well, let me get to some specific things that people have written to you about, but before we do, I don't want to leave Firoozeh out. Your husband is French and you're Iranian-American and you're living across cultures, you know, all the time, but of course everybody, especially at the holidays - I think you have a story about trying to walk the etiquette line at your mother-in-law's dinner table. Do you want to tell us that story?

DUMAS: Well, I think the most important nugget about cultural etiquette is that when you go into somebody's house and they have prepared a meal for you, especially if that person is from any country other than the U.S., that meal represents so much. I mean you are - you are a diplomat and you have to eat what they give you.

And you can't ask a thousand questions about it. It's not like you're looking for nuclear waste in their food. But I remember one meal when I was at my French mother-in-law's, and they serve meals in courses. So you are just sitting there - you're a sitting duck. I mean you have to eat what is in front of you.

And the next course is not served until everyone's finished. So I remember she served a fish terrine, which is like - for the listeners out there, it's like a brick of meat pushed together, all stuck together, and it's cold and it's covered with a gelatinous layer. And everything about this is wrong. And this particular terrine was made of fish.

MARTIN: Sounds lovely.

(LAUGHTER)

DUMAS: It was made of three kinds of fish. So it was a beautiful object to look at but it wasn't something you necessarily want to eat. And I just remember having this slice put in front of me, and of course in front of my children as well. And I just gave them that look that said here we go. You know, there's a water glass next to you. So you just have to eat it.

It's not, you know, at that moment you've got to suck it up for world peace. And yeah, I don't like fish terrine. Everything about it is wrong to my palate.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I used to like it, but I don't think I do anymore. I'm rethinking it. Our guests are Firoozeh Dumas, etiquette experts Harriette Cole and Phillip Galanes. We're talking about how cultural diversity is changing or maybe not changing the rules of etiquette. Well, let's get to some specific challenges that we know that people have written to you about.

Phillip, a white woman recently wrote to you about bringing her black boyfriend home for the holidays and she wanted to know if it was OK to tell her 90-year-old grandmother not to use the term colored to refer to black people. What was your advice there?

GALANES: I told her let it rip. I told her absolutely to let it rip. And I told her - I suggested that she do it before the guests - before all the other guests arrive. And I also suggested that she have a word with her boyfriend. And the thing to - the thing that was kind of plaintive, plaintive about this story to me, Michel, was that this woman lived in a little town in Vermont.

Its population was, like, less than a thousand and the woman was a warm, lovely person. And the way it came up was that on television, when Oprah Winfrey would come on, she'd say that is one smart colored girl. And she was meaning it with a full, kind heart. But the words were cutting so much against it. And I really felt for the poor girlfriend, who was feeling everything - all of her internal organs get tied into a knot because...

MARTIN: It just felt wrong. But Harriette, I understand you have a slightly different perspective on that.

COLE: Well, you know, I think it's interesting because her boyfriend might not be nearly as sensitive as she. Colored is different from the N word. So we've been called lots of different things. My grandmother, who lived to be 101, was colored. That's what we were called then. And this 90-year-old grandmother calls black people colored.

Over the generations we've been called many things. I think that the girlfriend is highly sensitized because she knows how sensitive race is in the names. The N-word is unacceptable. Colored, to me, is acceptable. I think what she should just do is tell her boyfriend, my grandmother lovingly calls black people colored.

And it would probably be over immediately, because it's not a disparaging term. It doesn't have the historical baggage attached to it.

GALANES: But, you know...

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Hold on. Let me get Firoozeh in here, because what about...

DUMAS: And I have to say...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

DUMAS: The boyfriend's lucky he's not Middle Eastern, because he'd be called worse.

COLE: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: Well, this is where I was actually going to go right there, Firoozeh, because I was going to say, you know, you've been in situations where a person you were socializing with said something offensive about Muslims and may not know that you were a Muslim. And I can tell you, you know, I have a family member who's married to, you know, a Muslim and people felt free to make comments, not knowing that his wife was Muslim.

And he was constantly feeling that he had to engage on this question. Thankfully not with our family, but what about it, Firoozeh? What did you do?

DUMAS: Well, I've got to say, you know, I'm not a practicing Muslim but I always stand up when someone makes a disparaging remark(ph) about any religion, be it, you know, Islam or Christianity or Judaism. And I - you know, I am the person who says, well, come one, now, you know that's a stereotype. You know, not everyone is like that.

And you know, I let it go. I mean, I don't think that - I think just saying one statement is enough. And usually it doesn't change people.

You know, someone who was that ingrained in their racism or hatred really isn't going to listen to what I'm saying anyways. But I just say it just so I've done the right thing and I move on. And, you know, that's how people are. I try not to ruin the whole event by, you know, I don't want to have a debate, you know, at someone's Christmas Eve meal.

MARTIN: Harriette, what do you think?

COLE: But you know, I also - I guess to some degree too, you know, I - that exists. I mean that insensitivity exists. And I think we all have to, you know, speak up about it. But then also move on. Like, it's not the time to be highly sensitive. People do say rude things.

MARTIN: And I don't want to stereotype seniors here by saying that seniors are the only people who say these things but it is true that sometimes when people get to an advanced age they are more free with their remarks. The filter is not there. But that's not, you know, unique to...

GALANES: Yeah.

MARTIN: See, you know, I've been in situations where the senior diva in the room has been the one to put the foot down and say you will accept everybody or you will go.

COLE: Exactly.

MARTIN: So it's not all that. So, anyway, but is there - to that end, I wanted to ask maybe Phillip and Harriette - Phillip, I'll start with you - does the age of the person matter? I mean, does the age of the person - because one of the things about holiday gatherings is they tend to be more diverse in terms of age.

GALANES: Absolutely. And that's what makes them...

MARTIN: Of who's represented.

GALANES: That's what makes them so terrific and sometimes so possibly complicated. But I think it's, you know, I think it's also fine to tell your 90 year old grandmother that Alaska and Hawaii are part of the United States now too. So saying that colored is not how we refer to people is totally fine. I think it's almost dismissive to think that at a certain age it's, you know, too late to tell someone.

Or our respect or love for them means that we have to let some sort of whoppers fly.

MARTIN: OK.

GALANES: My grandmother is way too smart for that. She wouldn't have any of it.

MARTIN: OK. We have time for just a final thought from you, Phillip. Harriette, what about you?

COLE: Well, I think there's a difference between calling somebody colored and a pejorative about someone's religion. And so I think those are two different things. I do think if someone at a family gathering or anywhere else - but now we're talking about the holidays - if someone says something that is disparaging, is racist, is sexist, is any of the ISTs, I think someone should speak up in the moment and say that wasn't kind.

Whether it's to grandma or to a little kid, whether it is to the patriarch, because if you don't say something you're allowing it to perpetuate. You can say it with humor. You know, you don't have to beat them down but, you know, I didn't think that was kind and I think you should apologize is powerful.

And if someone speaks about another group, even, by the way, if nobody in the room is of that group, if someone says something disparaging or what I call the ISTs, someone should say something.

GALANES: Bigamists, especially.

COLE: Yeah.

GALANES: Especially bigamists.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Phillip, you want to have a final thought, very briefly?

GALANES: You know, yes.

MARTIN: About what etiquette is for, maybe, or something like that?

GALANES: Holidays are the absolute moment where I think people - we get locked into our idea of what is supposed to be, what's perfect, what our perfect family is supposed to look like, what it's supposed to feel like. And I would urge us as much as possible to let that go and love and find something to love and something in the family and the holiday we're having.

MARTIN: All right. Phillip Galanes is the author of "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today." He also pens a column by that name in the New York Times. He was with us from our bureau in New York along with Harriette Cole. She's the president of Harriette Cole Media and the author of "How to Be: Contemporary Etiquette for African-Americans."

Also with us from Costa Mesa, California, Firoozeh Dumas. She's a commentator and author of "Funny in Farsi." Thank you all so much and Happy Holidays to you all.

DUMAS: Thank you.

COLE: Same to you.

GALANES: Thank you, Michel and Harriette and Firoozeh.

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