Stuff I Screwed Up

There is no reader question this week. Instead, Helena has a few things she wants to put right.

People expect etiquette columnists to behave perfectly all the time. Guess what? I don’t. Occasionally I forget to write thank-you notes, even though I passionately believe in them. But there are times when I find myself not doing something I told others to do and suddenly realize I just gave bad advice. Sometimes readers are ahead of me in realizing this, as those of you who read my column know. In the spirit of learning from one’s mistakes, I dedicate this column to correcting a few Table Manners I’ve had a change of heart about.

In one column, I said not to put your elbows on the table, opining that it encourages you to hunch over your food like a caveman and makes it appear you’re not paying attention to your companions’ conversation. But I’ve come to realize that if a restaurant is loud, the only way to hear your companions is to lean forward, which often means planting your elbows. It actually makes you look more engaged in the conversation.

In another column, I argued that bringing your lunch to work can hurt your chances for promotion. There was a tsunami of dissent. Readers raged that it was “a new low for Table Manners,” “utter nonsense,” and “insulting drivel.” Well, first of all, I always bring my lunch to work, and did then, too. So, it was not only a bit hypocritical of me to suggest that toting Tupperware is going to blackball you from promotion, but wrongheaded as well. Particularly in today’s chilly economic climate, bringing leftovers can signal thriftiness and resourcefulness, both good qualities in an employee.

If you bring something unusual, it might be a conversation starter. A colleague of mine always lunches on such strange, colorful soups and salads that people can’t resist asking questions about them. And sharing food from home is a great chance to bond with your colleagues. Everyone likes homemade cookies. Just make sure you’re not the kill-joy who never goes out with the gang for lunch, or you could be left out of the loop on more important things than overpriced sandwiches.

Finally, in another column, I said if someone gives you a food gift or leftovers in a plastic container, you need not return the container. One reader emailed: “Helena, you are an idiot. Whatever happened to telling these frail women to pick up the phone and ask for it back? If these are friends and relatives they will GLADLY return your containers. To suggest that they steal their friend’s containers as well is unbelievably WRONG ADVICE.”

But in this instance, I stand by what I wrote. It’s annoying to remember to return a container. And if you do, it feels a little ungenerous to return it empty, and one doesn’t always have the time to make cookies or what have you. In any case, if I’m giving a gift of homemade food, I’d rather do it because I want to than because I owe the person.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.