Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Theater and Live Performance Etiquette

Hello Polite Readers!

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending a large dance festival and watching a whole lot of bellydance. It was a wonderful time, but it was slightly tainted by the horrible behavior of some of my fellow audience members. And I've noticed a lot of bad behavior at the movie theater and other entertainment venues. So this week I'd like to address some of the things I've seen, and the best polite way to point them out to the offenders.

1. Taking up more than your fair share of space. My main annoyance at the show was a man who was sitting directly in front of me. He kept stretching his legs forward, pushing his seat back and leaning back, sprawling in all directions. Eventually his chair was shoved against my knees and his head was well inside my bubble of personal space. Similar problems I've previously experienced have been people who lean way over a shared arm rest, or people who are taking up an extra seat with their belongings.

Solution: "Excuse me, could you please scoot your seat forward/move your bags/give me a little space?" I did ask this of another person at the show who pushed her chair back into my knees and she politely obliged.

2. Carrying on a conversation during a performance. So rude and distracting, and think of how badly it's going to reflect on you if someone catches it on their video, or if loved ones of the performers are nearby and can see/hear that you care so little about what's on stage or screen that you're talking through it. If you're not interested in a performance, take that time to go stretch your legs.

Solution: I actually usually don't address people like this because I feel like it will make more of a distraction. But if they're getting really loud, you can say "Excuse me, could you talk a little more quietly? I'm really enjoying this piece."

3. Making a mess. Ugh. One reason why I don't go to the movies very often anymore is I can't stand to see popcorn and soda spilled everywhere. It's disgusting how much trash people leave behind! Likewise, at the live show I was at, many people left their food and drink refuse under their chairs rather than taking it with them when they left, leaving the people who were there at the end of the night to clean up after them.

Solution: Smile sweetly and say "Oh, don't forget to take your plate to the trash!"

4. Moving around during the show. Obviously if there's no break during the show and you have to get up for some reason during the performance, there's not much you can do. But in a variety show with an emcee announcing each act, is it really so hard to wait 5 minutes for the next chance to get up? I got really tired of having to stand up and let people in and out of the aisle during really amazing performances.

Solution: Not much you can do when they're looming over you, sadly.

5. Blocking everyone else's view of the show with your camera/phone/tablet. Ok, look. One of two things is true in this situation: either video and photos are not allowed, so you shouldn't be taking them, or video and photos are allowed, so pros will be doing a much better job of it than you are. Want to snap a quick picture of your favorite performer as she takes the stage? Go for it. A lot of dance performances start out with a beautiful walk or pose to make it easy for you. But don't hold up your unholy phone-tablet hybrid (about the size of a paperback book, for pity's sake) and film the entire performance. Or several performances in a row. When the only way I can see what is going on on stage is through the screen on your device, something is wrong.

Solution: I actually saw some ladies a few seats down from me take action. They started tapping people on the shoulder and saying "Please put that down, you're blocking everyone's view" and things along those lines. I wanted to high-five them so hard.

Don't forget that in some situations, you may be able to enlist an usher or other employee to help you deal with especially offensive people. I generally think it's best to try to handle it yourself first, but if your polite entreaties don't work, or if you feel like the person in question is not just offensive but possibly unbalanced and dangerous, don't be afraid to get help. Remember that whatever event you are at, you probably paid money to be there and you deserve to enjoy the show. Don't let the boors of the world take that away from you!

Do you have a question for me? Please send it to and you could be featured in a future column!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I don't want to talk about it, but I kind of do

Hello Polite Readers!

This week's topic is a request from an anonymous friend. The issue is how to handle controversial areas of your life (work, hobbies, politics, religion) when they come up in mixed company and you know they might not be well-received. It can be really awkward when you don't want to seem like you're hiding something or that you're ashamed of yourself, but by the same token, you don't want to bring down the tone of an event by going into details.

I think there are two basic ways to handle this, and you can use them individually or combine them. One is to describe what you do in accurate but vague terms, and the other is to ask the person about themselves instead.

Let's use something from my own life as an example. I am a belly dancer. I'm not ashamed of it in any way, and I'm lucky to live in a city where it seems like most people are already pretty familiar with belly dance, have an accurate picture of what it is, and think it's really cool. But it's entirely possible that I could find myself in a situation where I wouldn't want to talk about it. Maybe I'm visiting family in a more conservative area, or I'm talking with a guy who's a real creep and I don't want him to imagine me in my bra. So if someone asks me what I do, I might say "Oh, I dance and I make jewelry. Did you see my Mom's necklace? I made that last week." By putting more emphasis on the jewelry-making aspect of my life, I've subtly shifted their attention away from the thing I don't want to tell them about (I do undulations with my belly! and sometimes people give me money!). You can use this in a lot of different ways. They ask about your job and you're a telemarketer? "I work in sales but work was really rough today and I don't want to think about it for another minute! I just can't wait until I get to go hiking this weekend." Someone wants your opinion on a divisive bit of legislature? "I haven't finished reading up about it. What do you think about <far less controversial issue>?"

You can see that I am already segueing into "Ask them about themselves." People love to talk about themselves. I'm a natural introvert and even I've had conversations that I've looked back on and realized that someone asked me about something I was passionate about and I gushed on and on and on about it without ever thinking to ask them a thing about themselves. So if I want to redirect someone from my belly-barin' ways, I might say "Oh, I dance. How about you? I see you're wearing a bike chain bracelet. Are you a cyclist?" Later on they might look back and realize that they never got to ask me what style of dance I do, because they were too busy talking about their favorite bike path. Success!

If you want to tell someone about it, but it's not the right time or place (for instance, you want to tell this awesome lady you just met about bellydance class, but not in front of the creepy guy who keeps trying to buy you both drinks), try to come up with a good excuse to talk about it later, ie "I'd love to tell you more about my dancing but it would be better if I showed you! Can I send you the link to my YouTube channel?"

If you want to gauge someone's reaction to what you do to decide if they might be cool with it, try using some comparisons. I might ask someone if they've seen certain local dance groups, and use that to judge how they feel about dance in general. If they respond positively, I can say how my work compares to theirs. If they respond negatively, I can shrug and say "You might not be into my style either, then."

I hope this helps you all navigate the tricky waters of socializing in mixed company! If you have your own awkward situation you need help with, please e-mail me at

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Hello Polite Readers!

We have a first today... A topic request from my husband! I could have just given him my advice in person, but I'm sure it's a subject many of us encounter far too often. The issue is, how do you deal with people who keep telling you things that you don't need or want to hear?

It's an all-too-common problem. Whether it's the friend on Facebook who posts the gross details of their medical problems, or the person who won't stop telling you about their relationship problems (even though you're friends with both halves of the couple), or the person who has to tell you every. single. thing. they did that day despite the fact that you're behind them in line at the grocery store and couldn't care less about their life. Some of us seem to just attract this sort of person no matter what we do (I say "us" and "we" even though I have perfected the "leave me alone" vibe).

One simple catch-all phrase for people who are getting way too personal is "I'm sorry, I don't feel comfortable with you telling me this." It also works well for gossip! Rather than attacking the person who is saying it, or the content of what they're saying, it puts it all on you... for whatever reason, you're not comfortable. You can elaborate if you wish, ie "I have a really sensitive stomach and hearing about your nausea is making me feel sick" or "I love you and Jim both so I really can't be involved in your arguments, I'm sure you understand." It doesn't work as well for the stranger in line, because you can really only elaborate by saying "I'd rather be alone with my thoughts and also your breath smells like cheese."

Some people are chronic over-sharers and you may need to use stronger tactics with them. You may need to be a little blunt. "Friend, I don't feel like we're really close enough for me to advise you on your marriage/diagnose your condition based on a Facebook photo/help you navigate your tricky family dynamics." This may prove difficult if you've been in the habit of helping them before, because they'll have come to expect it. It can take a while to retrain people to not see you as their personal therapist. You can soften the blow by offering them an alternative source of help (a counselor, a doctor, whatever), but make sure you're also polite in how you suggest they need professional help. "You're too crazy for me" is harsh. "I think this is a bigger problem than just a friend can solve, have you considered seeing a therapist?" is better.

If they insist on continuing the conversation even after you've said you're not comfortable with it, or they change the topic for a minute only to segue back to it, end the conversation! Either make a polite excuse about how you have to go, or if you're really trying to drive home the point, say "It's clear that this is dominating your thoughts. Since I can't help you with it, I'm going to let you find someone who can. Talk with you later." Don't let anyone force you to have a conversation that you neither need nor want to be part of.

Do you have an awkward situation that you need help with? Send me an e-mail at!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Don't Interrupt Me!

Hello Polite Readers!

Before I discuss today's topic, I'd just like to mention that it is my birthday! Hooray! If you're in a generous mood and want to give me a present, I'd love it if you'd share this blog on Facebook or Twitter, or e-mail it to a friend. Help me get the word out!

Now, on with the column! One of my loyal readers asked me for advice on a topic that she and a friend were griping about, and that is people interrupting you when you're in the middle of something important. Of course, important can range from working at your home office, or reading the crucial last few pages of a really good book, or putting the finishing touches on a really intricate art project. Anything where you are really in the zone and that interruption just pulls you right out and you want to just PUNCH the person who did it.

Sometimes I have to do a little mental roleplay to put myself in the shoes of my writer when dealing with a subject I have little experience with, but not this time. You see, my husband and I both work from home and we share an office. We have pretty different ways of doing things. He is a master multitasker and has no trouble working, carrying on conversations in several different IM programs, looking something up on Wikipedia, listening to music and eating lunch all at once. I, on the other hand, need to be really focused if I'm doing anything like reading or writing (although when I say "really focused" I usually mean that I read or write a paragraph and then switch over to see what is going on in my Facebook tab, but I'm really focused, honestly). I cannot stand to be interrupted to look at the pretty beetle he just found a picture of on a blog, even though I love beetles. I can't even tell you how many times I've cried "Leave me alone I'm trying to write a blog!!!" Likewise, forget going to a cafe to read a book... as soon as someone sits down next to me and starts talking, my focus is shot.

So, the most important thing to do is set boundaries.When it comes to your co-workers, spouse, housemates or kids, let them know what the rules are. For instance, when you work from home, make sure everyone knows what your hours are when you have to be on the clock and they can't just call to chat. If you share an office, perhaps having your headphones on can serve as a sign that you're doing something really important or involved. And for the avid reader, just tell everyone that as long as your nose is in a book, you are not to be spoken to. Obviously emergencies arise and can serve as exceptions, and you may have to train those around you as what counts as a real emergency, but this should help a lot. My husband now knows that if I am writing or reading something, he has to wait to ask me questions or show me things on his computer.

For spouses, kids, and housemates, you might also have an open/closed door policy. Growing up, I knew if my parents' bedroom door was closed, I wasn't supposed to bother them unless it was an emergency. For shared rooms, you could have some sort of other visible cue, like "If this teddy bear is sitting on my desk, I'm working. If he's sitting on the couch, we can chat."

When approached and interrupted by people who don't know the rules, or by those who should know better but are misbehaving, you can fall back on some simple stock phrases.

"Sorry, I'm on the clock. I have a break coming up in an hour, we can talk then."

"I'm almost done! Let me finish this chapter first."

"Hey, can you wait a minute? I'm really involved in this."

"I really need to focus. Let me get back to you when I'm done with this."

And above all, stand firm! Don't be afraid to say "I can't talk right now." You do not always have to be at everyone's disposal, you do not have to drop everything because your roommate wants to tell you about the funny thing that happened while she was at the store (it always turns out to not be that funny anyway). And remember that unless you politely spell out when you need to be left alone, the people who are interrupting you are not going to know they're doing anything wrong, and they'll think you're getting annoyed for no reason. Just spell out when you need to be allowed to concentrate, and they should understand.

Got a tricky situation of your own to deal with? Send me an e-mail at and you could be in a future column!