Etiquette Answers in 'The New Basic Black'

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How do you set a holiday table? What's the polite way to decline a party invitation? NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates and her friend Karen Hudson have revised their etiquette guide for black Americans. They tell Ed Gordon about The New Basic Black, subtitled "Home Training for Modern Times."

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

The holiday season means lots of office parties and visits with the family. The holiday can be joyous, but also a little stressful: setting the table, when not to bring the kids, how to say you can't make that big gathering. The challenges of social etiquette are enough to make some folks just want to stay home. But writers Karen Grigsby Bates and Karen Hudson are here to help. Their new book, the new "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times," is a primer designed to help African-Americans in social settings and beyond. It's a fresh version of their previous etiquette collaboration, updated for the new millennium.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Karen Hudson and I both grew up with plenty of etiquette books around. But we thought that in the black community etiquette went beyond just sort of who sits where and when to send the thank-you note and where the fork goes--that there were a lot of survival skills that go into home training. And so we wanted, we were very forceful about wanting to call the subtitle of this book `home training' as opposed to etiquette for black folks.

KAREN HUDSON: But in this new edition, Ed, we've looked at the new millennium with a chapter called Life on the Fly. It's about all the technical things in the Internet, so I think that we've tried to cover the things that have to do with people's everyday life.

GORDON: What was the most fun in putting the book together and also updating it?

BATES: I think updating it--there's a lot that's happened in the past 10 years since the original "Basic Black" was published, and one of the huge differences is how technology has changed by leaps and bounds, so when we were first sort of looking at each other thinking, well, where do we see really egregious behavior sometime? I mean, my favorite example is going to a Tyler Perry play. The phone rang; a woman next to be had a cell phone. She opens it; not only does she begin talking on it, she goes, `Girl, this is so good; I wish you were here. You should hear this,' and she proceeds to hold the phone up so her girlfriend can hear the next 45 minutes of the play.

GORDON: Do some of the things that we find in this book simply come from conversations that you've had either with relatives or friends?

HUDSON: I think when we originally did it, it was clearly what we had thought about, what we had seen, what friends had said to us. And one of the other things is Karen's from Connecticut, I'm from California, and both of us have family backgrounds from the South, as most black folks do. So we knew there were cultural differences around the country, but it all came back to home training. And we tell people if they carry themselves like their grandmother's looking over their shoulder, no matter what the instance is, they're probably OK. And Karen and I only disagreed on one...

BATES: ...(Unintelligible).

HUDSON: ...excuse me, only disagreed on one thing when we were doing the book, and that was who pays on a date.

BATES: We still disagree on that, interestingly enough. We're both married, but we still disagree on that, and I remember dating days and I was one of those people where, you know, if I met you for the first time and it was a date and we were both sort of equally economically situated, I didn't necessarily feel it was your obligation to pay for my dinner. And I...

GORDON: Hear, hear. Repeat that. Say that one more time.

HUDSON: No, no, no, no, no.

BATES: Listen to the other Karen.

HUDSON: Lay, lay, wait, wait, wait, my brother. I believe not that a man should always pay, but whoever invites should do the paying. I don't believe that you invite...

BATES: I'm fine with that.

HUDSON: ...someone out for dinner and then say, `Ooh, you make more money than I do so pay your half.' It's not the Juliet Club.

BATES: But we do hear that sometimes, and sometimes we'll hear--I mean, I have heard men say, `When I took that girl out for a lobster dinner, she shook my hand and gave me a kiss on the cheek and shut the door,' and it's like, well, excuse me. You had a date. You didn't engage an escort service...

GORDON: Oh, yeah.

BATES: ...and she did the right thing. So it's not a quid pro quo, and those are things that people need to remember, and actually we were really happy at the response that we got from black men. I mean, they were really on board with this, which was very nice.

GORDON: Well, it is a fun read in the sense that it's easy to thumb through and find out what you need and how you need to act, if you've got some home training, and, ladies, we thank you so much for being with us today.

HUDSON: Thank you for having us.

BATES: Thanks, Ed.

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