Ask a Fancy Person: Talking About Military Service, Finding Goodbye Gifts, Being the Broke Friend at the Wedding
Recently I met a gentleman on the Air Force Cycling Team during a statewide bicycle ride. I had a great time talking to him, and we covered a lot of topics, which was awesome during tough hills! Eventually he took off in a blur of blue spandex and quadriceps, and I realized that though I was curious, I never felt comfortable asking about his service as a member of the U.S. Military. And THEN I realized that I didn't know how to ask people about their service, or if you should, or if there are times when you should or you shouldn't!
It seems to me that this a pretty big and nuanced issue, but overall I just want to know when it's okay to say, "I'd love to learn more about your experience, if you care to talk about it." I care about our servicemen and women and the jobs they do (especially, if I'm honest, the ones that get to train dolphins to find bombs. Seriously). But on the flipside, of course there are hard parts (see: tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, disturbing memories for Vietnam vets, the difficulty of returning to civilian life, etc) and I don't want to hurt people with my curiosity.
I'm also aware that I'm a civilian, and that there are definitely things I can and can't ask.
So, can you provide me with some pointers on talking with former and current members of the U.S. Armed Forces about their service?
-Standard Operating Procedure
As you may or may not know, I grew up near Fort Knox, Kentucky. They don’t still keep the gold there though they do keep something there and the best guess I have ever heard is the bodies of the Roswell aliens. I am close to a lot of servicemen and servicewomen as a result (I’m even related to a couple!), so I am something of a civilian expert on this particular topic. You’ve come to the right place.
Since we don’t have a draft anymore and the American armed forces are the smallest they’ve been since before WWII, a lot of people don’t know anyone who is in the military at all and are pretty misinformed about how it works and what being in is like. Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize the diversity of experience and background in the military: they aren’t inherently heroes or villains, just people with a job that has a little more structure than yours. Some people will have entire careers without ever firing a weapon, some spend years in warzones with only brief interruptions. What I’m saying is you can’t know what they’ve seen or what their preferences will be just by knowing they served.
With this in mind, here are some good, safe questions you can start with: What branch of the military are you in? How long have you been in the Navy? What do you do for the Navy at Parris Island? Where have you been stationed previously? Have you ever done an overseas tour?
Those are some pretty basic things that are pretty much like asking someone what they do for a living and what places they’ve lived in the past. It’s neutral, and if they get upset at you for asking things that basic, they’re being needlessly difficult and you are not the problem. I have yet to meet anyone who is uncomfortable talking about things at that level. That said, some of them have jobs that are very secretive, so if the person with whom you are speaking is purposefully vague about their work, drop it. Most of them, though, have pretty normal jobs, like "being a dentist," or "doing HR stuff." I typically stay away from the word “deployment” because that is one that changes meaning and scope from branch to branch; "overseas tour" is more neutral and less risky.
If you’re reading an advice column on how to be mannerly, I probably do not need to tell you this, but it bears repeating: do not ask if they have killed someone. Do not ask if they have lost friends. Do not ask if they have been shot at. Do not ask about PTSD. This is incredibly sensitive, and you do not have the right to know, regardless of how curious you are or if you play a ton of Call of Duty. If you become close to a veteran, they may eventually want to talk to you about this aspect of their military experience, but that day may never come. I have friends who will talk freely about being “PTSDed out” and make cracks about how they’re afraid of garbage, dogs, kids, and traffic, and I have friends who have never, ever spoken about the things they have seen and done during times of war. Respect that. You do not understand and you do not want to understand.
The last piece of advice I have for you regarding meeting people who have served in the military is to not say, “thank you for your service.” A lot of people are taught to say this as children, and I think that while the sentiment has its heart in the right place, it’s actually a minefield. Some soldiers love this adulation (what I think of that is another topic; you can feel free to email me if you’re curious), but for many, they feel like they’re being thanked for committing acts of violence. Consider the very worst thing you have ever done, and then ask yourself if you would want to be thanked for that ceaselessly and by complete strangers.
At the end of the day, the military is a really important part of our structure as a nation, and we should all be grateful there are people who want to do those jobs. But we should also be grateful for the electricians who make city grids run, for teachers who help developmentally disabled kids learn to read, for doctors who take assignments on reservations to help underserved communities, and farmers who grow the things we just pick up without a second thought at the supermarket.
Yours in Heart and Mind,
I am wading through the emotionally complicated mush of helping my partner prepare for a year-long internship in a town 1,529 miles away from our home. I want to mark this exciting, terrifying occasion with a gift that will convey even a small amount of the hopeful anticipation, love and longing I feel when I think about this next step in my partner's career, but the ideas I've come up with thus far all seem trite. My partner is a sentimental soul, but he has a utilitarian philosophy when it comes to stuff, so I hesitate to saddle him with keepsakes. I have already begun to assemble postcard-writing supplies and recipes for our favorite meals, but I'd appreciate your advice on a more substantial gift.
Such Sweet Sorrow
Before I get to the advice-giving part of this, let me say this: you have three out of the three qualities that prime a long-distance for success. First, you have banked a substantial amount of time as a couple before being apart. Second, the separation is not open-ended. Third, you really like each other and are sure you want to make it work. Since you’re calling him your partner, you’re planning a going-away gift, and it’s just a year, congrats! You’re in the best position to make this work! I hope I get an email from you in a year telling me that you crazy kids are getting a puppy/fern/house/engagement ring.
Buying going away presents is such a weird thing. Buying presents is so much fun, but when the recipient is leaving you don’t get to see them enjoy your gift later, which is always a bummer. I love your idea of making him a little recipe journal of your favorite shared meals; that’s considerate, sweet, and will remind him of your shared home. If you’re close to the person to whom you are giving a gift like this and are so inclined, things of this nature (mix tapes, a map quilt, etc.) always go over big, even for the most utilitarian among us.
If you want to purchase something, I recommend getting someone something they will use often, is part of the culture of where you’re from, and is nicely made. That way, they’ll think of you daily/weekly/hourly, remember something positive about the place they have left, and have said object for a long time. For example, when my roommate decamped South Carolina for the Bronx, I got him a vintage oyster knife and had the handle engraved with his monogram. It was practical (can’t eat an oyster shell), topical (come R months, you can’t turn around without getting invited to an oyster roast in Charleston and the man loves oysters), and it was well-constructed (I bought an antique knife and fitted a new blade on it). It wasn’t too big to take to the tiny New York City apartment he, his girlfriend, and cats share, and it wasn’t too sentimental, but it was personal enough to say, “hey, guy! I’m going to miss having you around.” You might think about getting him a good messenger bag made by a local artisan—he will take it with him to the internship five days a week, it’s from your hometown, and it will be something he can point to in twenty years and tell your kids, “Mom got me that to take to Denver when we had to be apart and I’ve carried it every day since.” Free idea for you!
You know him better than I do, so your mileage with those two possibilities may vary. Think practical with a dash of sentimentality and you’ve got a winner for sure. Good luck, SSS! You can make it!
Yours from Coast to Coast,
I'm afraid and I need an adult.
I was happily planning on attending some upcoming weddings for my friends, when BAM! my co-worker also got engaged. Thus I have gotten a wild-eyed gaze into the crazy world of million party invitations and the look of a woman dealing with a million moving parts. It is terrifying. Now I know that wedding planning was hard the way dramatic leading men in cop shows know that evil exists. I have looked evil in its face, Fancy.
Here is my qualm: In the next 6 weeks I have 3 weddings and 2 bridal showers to attend. I work 3 jobs and go to school. I can't afford gifts and outfits and all of those little things that add up to make weddings so expensive. (I'm turning 27 in a few weeks and I asked my mom for a haircut and yoga pants for my birthday, because they are things I need.) I want to support my friends, and I want to be there and share in their happiness and support them and celebrate with them. Is there a fancy way to be a broke wedding guest?
Watching the work that my co-worker is putting into her wedding and hearing all the rules that she is following makes me think that my part as a guest at this wedding is to have behavior that reflects respect for all the work she put into planning her wedding, and I don't know how to do that.
Please accept this well-wishing in lieu of a ceramic egg platter,
Classically Fancy, Yet Unrefined.
P.S. My co-worker changed her wedding date from the day before my birthday to the afternoon I'll be getting back from the Denali Road Lottery. So I will have driven 3 hours away from one of the most glorious places on earth to witness her get married at a Baptist church on some Harleys on top of a choir human pyramid or something. Right now, my goal is to show up on time, vaguely clean, and without sticks in my hair.
Weddings, man. They’re joyous occasions, for sure, but they have this extra set of one-use-only etiquette rules that apply only for them and are a huge pain. There’s an enormous amount of pressure to do things correctly and decorously, and no one is really sure how to navigate these rules except wedding planners and people like Elizabeth Taylor who tie the knot scores of times. I’m a Southerner between the ages of 18-30, so I have gone to a wedding or shower once a month or more for quite some time, and have held the hand of many a girlfriend as she comes more and more undone. The struggle is so, so, so real.
You are correct in your assessment that the Wedding Industrial Complex makes even the coolest, lowest-key person into an absolute lunatic. You’d feel crazy, too, if your plan to have a backyard barbecue with an iPod and twenty friends ballooned into a seated, four-course dinner for 400 at a plantation house with a 20-piece brass band. Your mom is asserting that you are not really married if you don’t have foil-stamped custom cocktail napkins at the reception, and your sister-in-law to be is insisting that she be allowed to give a speech about how love is bullshit between the readings and your aunt keeps telling everyone that you shouldn’t even be allowed to have a white dress since you live in sin with that man anyway. It’s rough. It’s good of you to be patient with your buds right now, and I wish more people had your sense of respect that reflects the work (and joy!) that your friends’ weddings signify. Someone should send your parents a card! They did a good job with you.
Weddings are pricey for everyone involved, and people get that. Don’t worry about your clothes too much as long as you follow the dress code. I guarantee you, there is only one woman at this event whose outfit matters, and it isn’t you. Assuming you have a cocktail dress (or whatever is appropriate), you can wear the same thing with different accessories to all three nuptials. No one will notice, and you can save yourself buckets of money. If you do not, I recommend trying out a dress rental service like Rent the Runway or refer to the advice I gave someone in the past about attiring yourself appropriately and affordably.
As for the gift, you have two routes you can go. The first is to take a look at their registry and choose something inexpensive, like a set of four cloth napkins, or some picture frames. There’s no shame in this whatsoever, and it’s stuff you know they want. Brides and grooms, make sure to register for stuff like this, and be sure to register not only at really expensive places, but at more affordable places, too. Your friends want to give you a gift, but not all of them are investment bankers who can send a Vitamix without a second thought.
The other way you can go is something a little homier, but still very, very welcome. Get a basket, and fill it with nice snacks you know they love and a bottle of champagne you can afford. Wrap it up nicely and have it delivered to their suite on the night of their wedding (people forget to eat during weddings. It’s a thing), or to their home on the day they return from their honeymoon. Someone did this for my parents and my aunt and uncle for their respective weddings, and both my mom and aunt report that this was their favorite gift of all because they were ravenous and there was nothing to eat in the house at all. Enclose a note that says, “To Rob, Congratulations on getting the girl of your dreams!” or “Angela and Peter, may the best of your past be the worst of your future!” or whatever seems appropriate. To make this even more affordable, you could make things yourself—homemade brownies and some delicious trail mix go a long way. Unless your friends are total jerks, they will be really excited to have a present they can devour in their hour of need.
If your friends are your friends for real, they are thrilled you’re coming to the wedding and do not care about a toaster or if you have a professional manicure. Show up, dance with your buddies, mingle with the cute single guys, and compliment them on how happy they look. That’s what matters most. Enjoy your awesome bike trip, and have a fun time at all these parties you get to attend!
Yours in Wedded Bliss,
Ask a Fancy Person: Occasionless Gifts, Chemo Baldness at the Office, The "Thanks For the Birthday Wishes" Anomie
I am a woman in my 30's undergoing chemotherapy. As a result, I'm bald. It hasn't been so bad (well, the chemo sucks, but fashion-wise, I mean), because my friends have lent me many colorful headscarves to wear. I'm also fortunate to have a nice wig to wear for special occasions, but I prefer not to wear the wig all the time.
Sometimes, though, I'd just like to be bald, especially in the summer when it's so hot outside. Do you think it would be unprofessional for me to go bald sometimes in the office if I still dress well and pay attention to my makeup? I've only done it a few times in public and I've liked it, but I'm worried about working in the office bald.
First, let me say on behalf of my real self, my alterego Fancy, and all the ‘Pinners, we’re rooting for you and are completely positive you’re going to deal cancer a humiliating loss, akin to the one the Mighty Ducks dealt Iceland in D2.
But you didn’t write me to give you Gordon Bombay-style pep talks via the internet, so onto your question. Feel completely and totally free to do whatever you want. It’s dandy if you want to wear colorful scarves and a wig, and it’s peachy to go without, too. Professionalism doesn’t even enter into that equation. Cancer aside, if you chose to buzz your hair, you’re still presentable in a business setting. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, that’s unacceptable and you can tell them I said that. There are some kinds of styles that aren’t appropriate in all settings, but this just ain’t one of them. Looking the part of the teacher/sandwich artist/graphic designer/nanny/lawyer you are is more about not distracting from your work with a Pikachu neck tat, not about the specifics of the length of your hair. Dress like you’re at work, put on a touch more makeup than you might otherwise to play up your best features, and wear some pretty earrings and people will forget that you aren’t choosing baldness as A Look.
What I’m going to say next is likely not going to be popular, but I’m not here to make friends. Much like people love to touch the bellies of pregnant ladies in the deli aisle at the Piggly Wiggly, people love to talk to bald women about their lack of hair. If you choose not to wear your wig or scarves, you have to be prepared for thoughtless people both known and unknown to you to say galling things. You need to have a pat answer at the ready to keep it from wrecking your whole day and making you feel less confident. If you’re feeling glum, that might not be the occasion to go scalp out; having a lot of these interactions can wear you down.
So, I recommend against telling strangers you’re too busy roundhouse kicking cancer in the face to worry about dumb shit like their comfort level with your illness: it's the true response, but you’ll ultimately end up in an even longer, more galling conversation if you take that route. Tell them that you were tired of it drying weird after bikram yoga, pick up your dry cleaning, and exit stage left. There’s nothing to be ashamed of about losing your hair, but you probably don’t want to have a lengthy back and forth with anyone stupid enough to approach a woman they don’t know to ask about her prognosis.
For people you know but not well, don’t feel like you have to lie or divulge personal information or make an excuse. Say something like, "Well, Steve, I’m going through both August and chemo at the same time, and it was just too hot today to mess with my wig. Have you seen any Keurig pods? I’m not nuts about the Caribou ones and that’s all that’s left in that bin by the water cooler.” Don’t give them a point of entry into talking about your health because you don’t owe them that; be better than them by not making a scene when you easily could. Anyone who needles you about it is just being thoughtless, so surprise them by being thoughtful in return.
Yours in sickness and in health,
I’ve inherited a strange shopping habit from my mother and aunts, which is to buy things for my friends and family, regardless of occasion, if it’s cheap and I think they’ll like it. I do most of my clothes shopping at thrift and consignment stores, and I cannot control myself if I see something I think my roommate would look great in, or a good pair of shoes for my fashionably-challenged younger brother. Sometimes I get to the checkout and I’m buying more stuff for other people than I am for myself! Most of the recipients seem to enjoy my spontaneous “I-saw-this-and-thought-of-you” gifts, but sometimes I can’t tell if they genuinely like it or if they’re just humoring me. Is this a habit I should break, or am I doing my loved ones a favor by always keeping an eye out?
I’m Turning Into My Mother
We all turn into our mothers, and I think you should wholeheartedly embrace this direction you are taking so young. I, for one, would welcome any surprise gifts you have in your stores, so please contact Jia for my mailing address.
Your impulse for generosity you can afford is a plus in the “things people love about you” column, and I don’t think you should quash it, though it’s possible that your friends and family are both genuinely touched and humoring you. They’re glad you’re thinking of them and want to bring light to their days, but they’re also accumulating a lot of stuff that they may not need or already have. When you see a plaid skirt for two dollars at a yard sale and think, “Maybe Julia would want this, even though it’s a little short for work,” you should skip it. If you see a pair of mint-condition Red Wing boots at the Salvation Army and Josh the other day mentioned how cool he thinks those are, grab them! Keep in mind not only the sizes and styles people in your life might need or want, and don’t stray too wildly from that to avoid giving the gift of both a sweater and that feeling you get when you need to wear the sweater your grandmother got you because she’s coming over for lunch but orange is not your thing.
Make an occasion of these “just because” gifts by wrapping them nicely and writing a little note for the recipient. This is a little time-consuming, but it gives you pause: can you visualize them opening this up and being excited? Great! That’s a present to give them. And don't worry too much: who doesn’t love a unwrapping something on a day that isn’t Christmas?
Yours in Unbirthdays,
Like many people, I have the good fortune of having supportive friends who wish me happy birthday or write kind things on my wall at life milestones like graduation or engagement. Problem is, I never know how to respond to these messages. I've seen the general "thanks for the birthday wishes!" post, but that feels humble-braggy: like, hey everyone, I am very popular, and for those of you who didn't wish me a happy birthday, where were you? I've also seen people go through and "like" every nice wish they've received, but that seems both impersonal and time-intensive. Simply not responding feels rude, too. Are there alternatives? What do you recommend?
Congrats on being so well-liked, and a happy belated birthday, graduation, and engagement! Sorry to make you a victim of this, but now seems like a good time to share this GIF:
Do you remember your first Facebook birthday? It’s completely uncool to admit this now, but you loved it. It feels great to hear from people who are just letting you know, in the most basic way possible, they’re glad they know you and that you continued to draw breath since they last saw you. It’s fun to see what people are up to and to hear from them during happy times. Don’t lose sight of that in the crush of incoming messages you’re sure to receive.
Catching up with all these people, though, can be exhausting and time intensive, and with Jesse Eisenberg changing the settings every ten minutes, you have to figure out the best way to do it anew each time you have a major life event. This is both boring and a waste of time.
The solution to this has two parts, and it requires a change in behavior from you as a giver and receiver of well-wishes. You have 362-364 days a year to issue good wishes (let’s say a person graduates, gets engaged, and has a birthday in an eventful year, and just has a birthday in a more normal one), so start today. Use the most personal mode of address you have for each person’s events. Invite your neighbor down for a drink to celebrate his promotion rather than clicking “like.” Send a card, in the mail with a stamp, to people you are close enough to to have their address on their birthdays. Text or email your cousin or childhood friend when you hear news of the birth of their child. It gives your missive a chance not to be lost in a sea of canned, cloned shoutouts and takes very little time.
If you want to hear back from someone but don’t have those options, feel free to send a social media DM to tell them they looked really happy in their law school graduation photos and that you’d be happy to send their resume to your uncle the judge. Resort to a simple “like” or wall post for people you want to reach out to, but don’t have any pressing need to catch up with.
Facebook and Twitter are both permanent and ephemeral; you think you’re going to double back to the messages, but once they fall off the main page, you’re not ever going to see them again until you’re running for public office and some intern has been tasked to go through your digital garbage in 2035. Use either a more physical (in person, a note) or more immediate (email, text) medium to really convey good messages. We all get dozens of well-wishes on special occasions via Pintstaface, but the ones that stand out in our minds are the ones that took a little more doing on behalf of the sender.
As the recipient, I think you’ll notice that if you start passing along your messages this way, people will being to respond in kind to you. After I started using the approach, I noticed I got a lot more birthday calls, emails, texts, and cards and my Facebook wall post count fell substantially. For the stragglers, I recommend looking through and sending a message, email, or text to anyone on that list that you have been wanting to reestablish contact with. For the others, a simple comment on the post, “Thanks for the well-wishes! Hope all is great in Chicago!” will do just fine.
Yours in Celebratory Drinks and Snacks,
Ask a Fancy Person: First Parties, Working for Free, and What to Do When Your Gym Is Crawling with Children
I recently started working out at a new gym at a new time (lunch time), and apparently this is when oblivious parents exercise with their children in tow. There’s a staffed day-care room for them to use, but often, there are just children wandering through the gym: an 11-year-old who messes with the rowing machine while his mom treadmills, kids that keep running away from dad on the way out, gaggles of children toddling in everyone’s way. Is this just my child-averse, selfish need to focus at the gym or should I talk to gym management?
Related: what’s your take on leaving a group exercise class early? I think it’s rude and want to tell other people to stop doing it until I’m that jerk who’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time to stretch out or savasana.
I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what are the infractions that really count at the gym? I know I just need to get over my issues with people who jump-rope in a minorly crowded gym, but, for example, is it worth saying something if the super sweaty guy ahead of you neglects to wipe down a machine?
-Sweaty & Steamed
The gym, along with public transportation and movie theatres, is among the most lawless spaces in the civilized world. Between all the grunting and the lack of sanitary procedures, it’s practically the Wild West, with Pitbull dance remixes instead of player pianos. Frankly, I’m surprised we’ve all survived this long going to them, which is why I recommend staying put in your air-conditioned living room in a maribou-trimmed bed jacket, eating bonbons. But, necessary evils, no? We’d all enjoy our time in that hellhole six percent more if everyone would adhere to four basic rules of order at Planet Swoll. I’m going to number them for ease of use. Print them out and wave them about in the faces of offenders if you like.
1. Sounds: Keep them minimal. If you’re too busy to use the elliptical without talking on your Bluetooth, you’re too busy to be at the gym. If you can’t press your weights without making sex sounds, you’re lifting too much. If you can’t not fart repeatedly in Bodypump, you’re probably better suited to doing Jillian Michaels DVDs at home than in polite company, regardless of how smelly other gym goers may be.
2. Leaving early or coming late to group exercise classes: I don’t know the circumstances for their lateness or early departure and neither do you, so I don’t advocate snide comments, angry glances, or tattling to the management. If you’re the latecomer or early leaver, be courteous to those wanting to do a whole yogilates class uninterrupted. Move efficiently and quietly. Watch where you’re stepping, and don’t stop to chat.
3. Be clean and tidy: don’t leave your hair and empty hotel shampoo bottles in the drain of the gym shower, wipe down your machines with the knockoff Clorox wipes provided, don’t take up all the locker room benches, and put away weights, balls, and bands after you use them. Model excellent behavior and don’t sweat (har har) the more minor infractions, but go ahead and let someone know if they’ve left a mess in a nice, non-aggressive way that still says, “I saw you wipe your snot on the handlebar of that exercise bike and expect you to not make that my problem.”
4. Be spatially and temporally aware. Ask someone if you can “work in” (this is what bros say to each other if they want to use the leg press machine) rather than just charging right ahead. Keep an eye on where you swing your jump rope. Try not to crowd other people if it’s at all avoidable, and constrict your workout area if the gym starts to fill up. Don’t use the lone rowing machine for two hours if people are circling you like sharks hoping you get up.
Other than that, all you’ve got to do is be pleasant and reasonable, which means that it’s usually not worth it to police gym behavior in the case of bad wipe etiquette and early departures; gym staff is aware that these things happen, and you can take your cue from what they do, even and especially if it’s “nothing.” And don’t make fun of anyone else’s workout faces, because they can see your eyebrow contortions, too.
Before moving on, let’s address that question about rogue kids at the gym. If your gym has a facility for kids, you’ve got no excuse. Gentle reader, you are one hundred percent in the right here and this is absolutely a safety issue. Kid-havers, take note: either deposit them in the loving clutches of another trusted adult, or do not come to the gym.
In the immediate, you should address the parent. Keep a calm voice, and say something like, “Is this little girl with you? I was doing kettlebell swings and almost hit her! Would you mind to keep her a little closer? I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Smile, and be gentle: as a non-parent, I forget how hard it must be for working parents to eke out time for themselves, and the offender is probably just clueless and harried, not horrid. On your way to the showers, mention to a gym employee that there were unattended babes in the workoutland and that it made you very nervous. Emphasize that it seemed unsafe, and if it persists, ask to talk to the management. If nothing changes, you should find a new gym; this one isn’t making health and welfare of its patrons a priority.
Yours in Sweat-Stained Tank Tops,
I moved into an apartment with my serious boyfriend, and we finally got the point where our place is starting to come together as a, well, place. We're coming up on the one year anniversary of living here, and I'm interested in hosting our first party; I'm thinking hors d'oeuvres, cocktails, possible theme, something pretty fancy (which you know best).
The problem is, I've only been to parties of the "flip cup until you barf" variety, so I'm a little unsure where to start. Our place is only about 900 square feet with no yard space and we've NEVER had our friends over before, so I'm starting to feel really overwhelmed just thinking about it. What kind of advice would you offer for a first-time party planner? Any steps I should take to ensure this shebang is a smashing success and won't bore our pals to tears?
Sincerely, Party Pooped
The transition to “martinis with Nigel and Muffy” entertaining from Librarians and Barbarians at DKE is a tough one to straddle. At my alma mater, the dean tried to help us make the leap by having wine tasting classes for graduating students, but I don’t know how helpful that was (also, I want to take this opportunity to apologize for my comportment at that particular outing). All it did was make me realize Yellow Tail was pretty swilltacular, and most of my classmates still didn’t know how to throw a low-key party where no one vomits and the dress code isn’t “midriffs.”
To protect yourself from a total nervous breakdown, start very small. It’ll be best for the space you have and your experience level with entertaining. Once you have a couple successes under your hostess apron, it’ll be a breeze to get larger groups together for more intricate gatherings. There’s no need for this to be stressful, and there’s def no reason a less Animal House fete should be boring.
Your impulse to have a theme is a good one, though no one needs to know you have a theme (though if you do, please invite me. I love theme parties so. much. and solemnly promise to go balls to the wall with the costume). For example, decide you’re going to do a French night at your house. Invite six people you like pretty well and that’ll give you a nice little crowd. Tell people you’d love for them to come around nine, and do this about a week in advance. Nine tells people they should eat a dinner-sized meal beforehand but can also reasonably expect there to be snacks. Asking them a week in advance gives makes it known that it’s an occasion. They’ll ask what they can bring; tell them to bring nothing at all! This is for two reasons: one, this is your party and they’re guests, so you should be hospitable and anticipate what their wants would be. Two, you’re going to be really irked if someone flakes out last second and then you don’t have a bag of ice or any liquor or any paper napkins. They’re probably going to bring a six pack or some flowers to be nice, but it’s better to not depend on it. (All these tips I’m about to give you transpose easily to other parties: pick people you think will get along and should meet, then plan a grazing appetizer, a sit-down dessert, a cocktail, music, and some kind of fun game to play since games are awesome.)
Once you’ve got your RSVPs, go to Whole Foods or a local specialty grocery and search out the “bits” bin and pick out three cheeses. The bits bin is where you get the odds and ends pieces that weren’t perfect-looking or were too small, and it’s a great way to try new stuff for a fair price. Get a couple charcuterie things if that’s your jam, grab some olives and mixed nuts, and pick up a few baguettes. Voila! A meat and cheese plate. At the liquor store, buy about four bottles of inexpensive white wine and a bottle of creme de cassis for Kir Royales. Nip in to the grocery store, get some fruit and marshmallows and the other ingredients for chocolate fondue.
When you get home, clean your place nicely and tidy up. Put on the 60’s French pop Songza station. Dim the overhead lamps and light some candles: everyone looks better in low light and no one can tell if your wallpaper is a little peely in your rental if it’s kinda dark. Write down thirty or so charades clues on index cards. Assemble the cheese plate and do all the prep you can do ahead. Then, get dressed and pour yourself a cocktail. When your guests arrive, you should be as ready as you can be: it’s a bummer to be invited to someone’s house and for them to then answer the door in their bunny slippers like they aren’t excited you’re coming over.
As soon as people hit the door, get them a drink. My mom always said the secret to being a great hostess was getting people pretty drunk, and I completely advocate this approach. Everyone will think your food tastes oh my gawwwwwwd soooooooo gooooooooood and no one will notice that you forgot to empty the bathroom garbage after a couple refreshing adult beverages. Let people hang out, chat, graze, etc. Make sure your lovely friends all get introduced to each other and that everyone has stuff they need. They’re having fun, I promise. After everyone exhausts the snacks you’ve made, go get your dessert ready and bring it out. Everyone will sit down to hover over the melty chocolate, and you can play intoxicated charades. Since this is French night, feel free to get really stupid with the pronunciation of sha-rhaaaaaaad until someone puts you to bed because you’re clearly in your cups.
Bottom line: Present yourself, your home, and your snacks as nicely as you can, and be gracious. If you have fun and see to everyone’s basic needs, you’re doing a great job. Happy entertaining!
Yours in Hospitality,
I have an interest in working full-time in the fashion industry, but I've already graduated from college with a degree in another field. Going back to school is not an option, so I'm currently working to build experience in the field by doing freelance work via my personal style blog. The problem is, I've done some jobs pro bono in the past as favors to friends when I was starting out or done blog posts in exchange for items (which is pretty common in the blog world), but I would really like to start making steps to make this blog a money-making venture as I've seen other bloggers do. Unfortunately, these same friends or business associates keep expecting me to do this "free" or "barter" work without offering to pay me for my time and expertise, and their expectations only continue to rise as my readership grows; I feel like I'm being taken advantage of. My question is, what is the best way to ask for compensation for my time? At what point should I start saying "no" to unpaid opportunities, if at all?
Signed, Broke Blogger
Dear Broke Blogger,
Before you do anything else, consult this chart. Those are the circumstances upon which you should be working for free at whatever it is you do best. I’m an editor, so my wall-painting skills and basketball coaching are gratis, but I won’t just “read a couple chapters” of your sci-fi novel for you. You wouldn’t ask your plumber to fix your toilet for free in exchange for the publicity, so your fashion expertise is the same; this is how you make your living.
Talking about money with your friends is an uncomfortable task, and this is why I think it’s best to take your business to people who aren’t also the person you call crying when your boyfriend’s brother pees on your cat after too many Kir Royales at French Night. Spend your money with people you know and trust, of course, but always keep in mind that fifty bucks can ruin even the closest relationship forever if you aren’t careful.
Since you’ve already got this problem on your hands, though, it’s best to just start charging everyone right now. As you’re transitioning into making your blog a career, respond to any future offers of “portfolio building” work with a kind but firm email that explains your new situation clearly. Say something like this:
I’m so glad you want to work with me again! I had a great time doing that shoot with you with those alpaca wool nosewarmers last winter. Just to let you know, since we last did business together, I’ve made the jump to making my blog my full-time job, and left my position in sales at Wiglets, Inc. My page views are way up, I’ve purchased all new equipment, redesigned my layout, launched the e-commerce section, and so much more; I’m doing my best now to make this work sustainable. Since we’ve worked together in the past and are pals, I’m happy to offer you my friends and family rate of $65 an hour and to feature your product as my “Pick of the Week” from 17 September to 23 September. I’m excited to see your new line of dog sweaters and I can’t wait to help you promote them.
Keep the note upbeat, but don’t leave a lot of room for special cases. If these people are really your friends and not freeloaders, they’re going to be excited about your big move forward and eager to help you. Giving them a lower rate and something extra will remind them that you value their friendship and want to lend a hand on their project, but putting a price tag on it keeps the fact that this is now your livelihood center stage. Let them know that you’ve made a step toward a better experience for them, and be clear about what they can expect moving forward. Value yourself and your product, charge a fair price, and do great work. If you’re going to charge them, you have to extend the same professionalism to them that you would any other client.
All this aside, be open to the idea of the occasional freebie or trade. Say the friend in question is an accountant comes back at you with an offer to do your taxes in exchange for you taking a couple headshots for her for her website: that’s a totally reasonable barter to entertain. And of course Vogue magazine asks if they can excerpt your blog and credit you, that’s exposure worth having and you should take it.
Congratulations on your new career, Blogger! Knock ‘em dead.
Yours in Invisible Labor,
Photo via Manuel Sanvictores/Flickr
I recently began working in my first Big Girl job since graduating from college three years ago, and I'm expected to wear really nice things. Add to that my boss's casual age-ism related to wardrobe ("stop wearing that, you look like you're in college"), and I feel self-conscious about the wardrobe Broke Self was able to keep up. But the problem is that I'm not actually paid enough to start a whole new wardrobe from scratch. So my question is this: how do I build a new, work-appropriate wardrobe without breaking the bank? And how do you budget for that kind of thing?
Ask a Fancy Person is the Hairpin’s latest advice column, in which Kirsten Schofield takes your questions about deluxe behavior. READ MORE