Newport Manners & Etiquette: What Not to Say in Delicate Times

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


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What to say + what not to say in delicate situations.

What to say and what not to say to the those in mourning or chronically ill and be careful what you say to a pregnant woman. Wedding invitation etiquette when the bride's mother didn't change her name and whether or not to attend an ex-boyfriend's family funeral. All questions to Didi Lorillard this week at

Etiquette of honesty

Dear Didi,

What is proper etiquette when greeting someone in mourning or chronically ill? I'm always at a loss as to what to say and I ask, "How are you?" Well, yesterday, when I ran into my friend whose cancer has metastasized, he was obviously in bad shape, certainly not well and certainly not happy so it would have been a stupid question to ask him. I already knew the answer, but I didn't know how to comfort him. Terrence, Burriville

Dear Terrence,

Give people what they want, and need, to hear. Ask what you can do to help, but don't tell them to call you because they won't. Be sensitive and respect their answer. You want honest etiquette. Encourage them to tell you what you can do for them. Go and do what they need to get done and come back and do it again. The person may say, "I'm just not up to seeing anyone." Or, "Would you follow me home, I'm feeling a little woozy." Or, "Can you bring me a couple of bottles of seltzer water, please." Or, simply, "I'm out of milk and cat food." There is no timetable for bereavement. The time they may need companionship most is when they're all alone.

Is he shy about asking favors? Then lead with gentle caring questions. "I'm going to the super market and pharmacy, what can I pick up for you? Ice cream, comfort food (not just sweets), tissues, vodka?" Then make it clear you won't be intrusive by saying, "I can leave it on your doorstep so I won't disturb you."

As a greeting, "It's good to see you, what can I do for you?" When comforting, stay away from those ghastly cliches. You know what they are: God, only gives you as much as you can handle. Time heals all wounds. And never use the phrase, "At least, you had ....," or the word 'closure.' ~Didi

Pregnancy étiquette

Dear Didi,

My coworker and I tried out a new yoga studio after work today and the yoga instructor kept insinuating that my sweet, plump friend was pregnant by saying, "Now, lady with the baby, don't put your foot to your head," or some such comment directed to "the lady with the baby." We were the only two women in the class under fifty and the rest were all guys. Isn't it rude to assume someone is pregnant when you don't know her? N.W., Boston

Dear N.W.,

You're darn right it's cheeky to make such an assumption. Whether a woman is pregnant or not, you would never refer to a woman's body size or condition, unless you knew them well and you were being caring, kind or funny. ~Didi

Wedding invitation étiquette

Dear Didi,

My mother kept her last name when she & my father married. How do I write out their names for my wedding invitation? Also, my middle name is her maiden name. I can't find this anywhere. J.S., Middletown

Dear J.S.,

She has two choices and you need to talk to your mother about this. The same thing happened to me, however, my daughter had a somewhat traditional wedding and we used Mr. and Mrs. Robert William Cowley requests the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Vanessa Lorillard. It fit her wedding. My maiden name is Didi (Edith) Lorillard. My friends know who I am, so using my "social married" name wasn't a big deal.

If your mother wants to use her maiden name she should. That name would be on the top and connected with your father's with the word "and" even if you have to use two lines (centered on the card):

Ms. Edith Lorillard and
Mr. Robert William Cowley
request the pleasure of your company
at the marriage of their daughter
Vanessa Lorillard
Mr. ..............

Personally, I would have used Ms., but if your mother uses her maiden name, she may well choose the title Mrs. In etiquette, we're still trying to figure this all out. The key words here on the invitation are "their daughter" which means you needn't get too caught up on this. Everyone is going to know they are your parents.

All I can say at this point in time is that official and social language often brings forth different names for the same person. Socially, though, your parents are very much married. ~Didi

Attending the funeral of a former partner's daughter

Dear Didi,

I recently ended a relationship of 11 years with a man who just lost his adult daughter. I do not know whether or not to attend the viewing. I knew his family, children and grandchildren (who have now lost their mother). His ex-wife (mother of the deceased) never liked me (she actually barred me from attending a baby shower), although she has only met me once, and that was very briefly. I feel as though I should go to pay my respects because I too am grieving for my ex and all of his family; but would it be more respectful to stay away.
Damned if I do, Damned if I don't (Irene) Location withheld

Dear Irene,

In my opinion, your former partner's ex-wife will be grieving so deeply that she won't be thinking about you. If she sees you, you may be a blur. Viewings, memorial services, and funerals held in a house of worship are open to the public and you have every right to attend. If an area is corded off at the front "For Invitees," stay well behind it or on the side.

It might be easier for everyone if you attend the service where the largest numbers of mourners will be concentrated at the same time. You would probably have to go through a receiving line at a viewing, shaking her hand, and making small talk. That is a social encounter you may not want to engage in, if she blames you in any way for the break-up of her marriage. If, as you say, you wish to pay your respects, you should do so. But do so with grace and dignity by keeping in the background and not imposing yourself on the bereaved family at this time. Don't under any circumstances put yourself in proximity to a receiving line. So, just attend the funeral.

The short answer is that it is perfectly fine to pay your respects, but with the understanding that everyone will need to have a lot of space. Obviously, you don't want to be intrusive or you wouldn't be so concerned about offending anyone with your presence. ~Didi


Do you have a question for Didi? Visit her at We can withhold your name and location. Didi researches etiquette and all matters of manners for her book,"Newport Etiquette." Previous weekly columns may be found by typing in Didi Lorillard in the above righthand search.


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