At our live taping in the D.C.-area, a real former political professional (Rep. Barney Frank) and a fake current political professional (“Veep”‘s Anna Chlumsky) answered our audience’s etiquette questions, covering everything from our country’s right-handed bias to doggy toilets. The issues at hand:
How old is too old for birthday hoopla?
Alex: I didn’t get my friend a birthday gift this year, and now she’s upset with me, but I never buy birthday gifts for anyone because I’m terrible at it, and it’s a lot of pressure. Am I a bad friend if I don’t get her anything? And aren’t we too old for birthday hoopla, anyway?
Anna Chlumsky: Is this a friend who has gotten birthday gifts from you before?
Barney Frank: Did she get you one?
Anna Chlumsky: It sounds like she’s going through something else. To me, it feels like it’s some other stuff that’s she’s got to work out.
Rico Gagliano: Maybe as a birthday present, you could get her some therapy. That would be sweet.
Anna Chlumsky: See how mad she is after that.
Rico Gagliano: Would that be helpful? Also, I like the last thing here: “Aren’t we too old for birthday hoopla, anyway?”
Brendan Francis Newnam: When is the cutoff for birthdays being a big deal?
Barney Frank: For hoopla, I would think about 11.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s what I think.
Barney Frank: For presents, depending on the relationship. Yeah, but I’ve got to say, one of my TV shows I do watch and love is “The Big Bang Theory,” and there is Sheldon’s theory: He gets very angry when people give him presents because they have obligated him to reciprocate. I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
Anna Chlumsky: My father read that the Hobbits always gave presents on their birthday, and so, as a kid, he would give me a present on his birthday.
Barney Frank: I’ve got to say, the best thing I would do with this friend is remind her that it is better to give than to receive, and you didn’t want to be better than her.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I like it. There’s your advice, Alex.
Rico Gagliano: We finally came up with something you can use.
Accommodating the left wing
Nora: This question is for Congressman Frank: In an era when hosts are expected to accommodate for every possible food aversion or allergy of their guests, it seems odd that hosts don’t feel obligated to accommodate the needs of left-handed diners. You are a known and respected southpaw. So, my question is, in addition to arranging seating to minimize elbow bumping, what are other ways a host can accommodate left-handed guests?
Barney Frank: That is a very good question. One: Don’t expect us to open the wine because corkscrews are right-handed. You right-handed people don’t realize this, but toasters are right-handed. Pencil sharpeners — don’t have them anymore — but they’re right-handed. Scissors are very definitely right-handed. Doorknobs are right-handed.
Rico Gagliano: Change all the doorknobs in your house.
Barney Frank: The other thing is, when I sit down and there are place settings, have a little initial — I don’t need a place-card as to where to sit — I need to know: This is your cup. That’s your fork. Label my butter plate so I don’t grab somebody else’s butter plate because that’s the right or left. That’s seriously an issue. I would like to have the place settings clearly labeled.
Rico Gagliano: I wish you were still in Congress. You could’ve gotten a law passed where the plates have to be labeled.
Put the cell phone down
Leslie: It can be so distracting to have a meaningful conversation when cell phones are constantly buzzing and beeping and flashing around you. How do you politely tell your dinner guests that the dinner table is a cell-phone-free zone?
Anna Chlumsky: I’m always best having dinner one-on-one with people, so it’s a lot easier if it’s just one person, and you can say, “Oh, you know, do you have stuff to check?” Then the person’s like, “Oh, I do, I’m sorry,” and you’re like, “OK, that’s OK.” It’s a negotiation, but eventually, everyone puts it away because they realize this isn’t cool.
But I can’t imagine, if I’m hosting a dinner, to kind of lay down the law. I suppose if you’re hosting a dinner, it’s your rules so you get to say what you want.
Rico Gagliano: Barney?
Barney Frank: You said, “How do you politely tell people?” I think politeness is greatly overvalued. It is second in being overvalued only to patience. Patience is an invitation to have other people waste your time with trivia and repetition. Politeness is an invitation to misunderstanding, etc. Now, the opposite of politeness is not rudeness. It is direct. You say, “Please don’t use your cell phone.” On the other hand, I wouldn’t get too strict. Suppose somebody’s kid’s sick. You really don’t want her to use the cell phone?
Anna Chlumsky: Exactly.
Barney Frank: So, say, “Please don’t use the cell phone unless you have to.”
Anna Chlumsky: Let’s be judicious.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right, not being a revolutionary about cell phones. Barney’s advocating for …
Rico Gagliano: Incremental change.
Your adorable child is playing in filth
Tayla: New neighbors just moved in next door to our row house here in D.C., and there’s a shared tree-box out front. They have an adorable 3-year-old, who I’ve seen playing in it with his trucks. Super cute, but that tree-box is, effectively, the neighborhood dog toilet. Do I tell them this? There are a lot of dogs on our block.
Anna Chlumsky: But you see the three-year-old playing. Are they present?
Tayla: There was someone there who I think was not the parent, which is a further wrinkle.
Anna Chlumsky: What I would do — I mean, I would just wait for it to come up. I don’t think it’s a ring the doorbell, “It’s nice to meet you. By the way, you should know that there may be feces where your kid plays.”