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January 23, 2003

How do you tell ....?

Dear Mr. Postmanners:

My question has to do with propriety. To wit: how do you tell if someone is pretty, witty, and gay?

At a recent party, I had reason to converse with a handsome, charming man. He sparkled, he was witty, I sparkled back, all was well. We talked in great detail about the latest musicals on the Great White Way. I thought this was A Clue. After all, in this day and age, what red-blooded heterosexual man would admit to knowing about musicals, let alone in detail?

Imagine my surprise as, just as I was about toask him for a date, a woman walked up, took his arm, and asked what we were talking about. He introduced me to her as his wife. His wife! I was shocked, I tell you.

Unfortunately, this situation has happened to me more than once. So my question to you, sir, is: in the absence of any proper code, how does one tell?

Yours in confusion,

Quandary in Quad Cities

Dear Quandary,

..... Oh, dear.

Well, really, the best way to "tell" is to simply ask.

Now, before you protest that this would be possibly a way to insure damage to your bodily integrity, please, hear One out. One is most emphatically NOT advising you to simply walk up to the nearest man that appeals and say, "So, you gay or what?" (Although, really, it would be a much more pleasant world if you could do that without fear, wouldn't it? But One digresses.)

Traditionally, people have used all sorts of coded approaches. People used to talk about "friends of Dorothy", but these days, not only will a great many gay people be clueless, a great many straight people actually do know what that means. Thus, it has fallen into disuse. People, as you well know, used to be able to assume that men who knew about musicals was "a friend of Dorothy". However, as you have discovered, knowledge of musicals is broader than one might expect. (One points out that, economically speaking, musicals couldn't survive on Broadway if more heterosexual people than homosexual people didn't go to see them. Really, there are very few sections of the economy that would survive otherwise.) Some have even tried quoting certain lines from old movies -- "Love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair!" or "Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy night," or even the two lines from Whatever happened to Baby Jane:
-- You wouldn't be doing this to me if I weren't in this chair.
-- But you ARE, Blanche, you ARE!
Tragically, this method has foundered on the shoals of the rapid expansion of film societies, and the availability of older movies in various video formats. (One's Social Secretary is egging One to point out that the first time anyone tried this line on Mr Postmanners, One's response was not the correct "But you ARE" line, as One had not yet seen the film in question. One actually said, "But I'm not doing anything to you, and you're not sitting down. What on earth are you talking about?" There was much confusion. Happily, One hired One's social secretary anyway, and he has done much to expand One's repertoire of old films.)

And, of course, there are Europeans, who confuse the entire issue. European men are very touchy-feely, by comparison with Americans -- except for the British, of course, who won't touch anyone without express, and sometimes strongly repeated, invitation. Strong American men have been known to suddenly bellow, "Stop touching me!" at the top of their lungs, and then to run off weeping after half an hour in the presence of certain Europeans. Even when they don't go to such extremes, it's sometimes amusing to watch manly American men get quite twitchy in the presence of European men who seem to have 67 hands. (No, One is not always nice. Although One is always scrupulously correct. Politesse, toujours politesse.) Europeans are also considerably less concerned with appearing stereotypically manly. Thus, confusion reigns.

In other words, there is no longer any sure code in the world. It is no longer possible to make assumptions founded in a shared, very small and specific knowledge base. Horrors! What is one to do? (That being you, of course, and not Oneself, as One does not need to worry about such things. One's Social Secretary keeps One heavily scheduled and thoroughly exhausted. But One digresses.)

So, you may well be wondering, what exactly is one supposed to ask, then? And One says, you should ask them about their lives. In general, especially in social situations, people really don't mind talking about themselves. If their interests appear to be congruent with yours, ask if their significant other shares their interests. (People seldom get horrified if you make the default assumption that they are heterosexual. Depending on the surroundings, of course. Making that assumption at a meeting of the local chapter of the Human Rights Campaign would just be silly. But One digresses.) Ask if they have children. (Given the recent explosion in gays and lesbians actually reproducing, this may be singularly uninformative in some ways. However, it's always good to know if someone in whom you are interested has children, isn't it?) Ask about their pet dog or cat, for heavens sake. Ask about their hobbies. Ask about their opinions of noncontroversial current events. At worst, you will run into a deeply closeted person who will give out no information at all ... and who wants to deal with them? At best, you will find a kindred spirit. And you may well find a straight person with whom you can have a friendship, and that's not a bad thing, is it?

One should note that this method may not work well with Europeans. For all their touchy-feeliness by comparison with Americans, Europeans are frequently appalled at the ease with which Americans, Canadians and especially Australians frequently share what they consider to be very personal information with complete strangers. Such questions are frequently met with polite horror. Tread carefully.

(One's dear friend Gabriel was reading over One's shoulder while One was composing this response, and advocated many more, shall we say, forceful methods of determining these facts. One will not be recounting these methods for you as every single one of them is unwise, at least three of them are possibly illegal, and one of them is anatomically improbable. Although given the recent prevalence of low-rise hiphugger pants, one of the methods could actually be excused as an accident these days, and how often would you think that would be possible?)


Mr Postmanners

January 21, 2003

what do you say in the receiving line?

Dear Mr Postmanners:

When you are in a receiving line at after a wedding, what exactly do you say to the bride and groom? What do you say to the parents of the participants? Is there some protocol for handling all of this? I had heard that there was a specific sex-defined way to handle this, but surely we're past that in this day and age!


Confounded in Connecticut

Dear C in C:

One must sternly inform you that when it comes to weddings, society will always and forever have forms and protocols divided by sex that will never make sense to the participants or observants. For example, why aren't women allowed to catch the bridal garter? Why aren't men allowed to try for the bouquet? Some things Simply Are. As it turns out, receiving line etiquette, up to a point, is one of these things.

Traditionally, you are supposed to give your "best wishes" to the bride and "congratulations" to the groom. The concept is that "congratulations" implies that someone has won a prize or caught something, and it is somehow impolite to imply that the bride "caught" her husband. Yet it is entirely polite to imply that the groom "caught" the bride. One has no idea why. (Although it may go some way to explaining the rather odd sense of tittilation people seem to feel at watching "The Bachelorette" where she is quite obviously doing the "fishing", as it were, and throwing back the small ones. But one digresses.) However, if you wish to be entirely neutral about the whole thing (and One can applaud such a desire), it is also entirely proper to give your "best wishes" to both the bride and groom.

As for the rest of the people in the receiving line, you should remember that one of the goals of such a line is to acknowledge everyone that has attended the wedding, and to do so quickly. Also, depending on your relationship to the bride and/or groom, a few of the people in the receiving line may not have the foggiest idea who you are. Therefore, the most effective sort of thing to say is, "Hello, I'm C in C and I work with Bride (or Groom) at Workplace/went to school with them/met them through friends, etc." They will respond with "How do you do" or "Nice to meet you" or "I've heard so much about you" or some such, and you smile, nod politely, and move on to the next person.