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CONTEMPORARY COURTESIES

Etiquette column: Assuming a person's age can embarrass both of you

Friday, January 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at www.news-sentinel.com.

Q. Karen, several times since I've raised kids people have assumed they were my grandchildren. Each time it has bothered me probably way more than it should, but you can't help how you feel. I'll never forget at a garage sale when I was picking up a Barbie for my 2-year-old daughter and the woman said in a chipper voice, “You look like a grandma in the making!” I was so bummed.

Do you have any advice for the person whose age is misunderstood? I am not gracious in these situations.

A. Most of us, past a certain age, have experienced one or more of these uncomfortable and embarrassing moments. And yes, they can be stunning and hurtful. Unfortunately, we can't control what other people say and think. And often it is more about them than you. By that I mean, often people are so busy and caught up in themselves that they don't stop and think before they open their mouths to speak. That is what “foot in mouth” remarks are all about. Talking without thinking.

For anyone who has made one of those faux pas — and who hasn't — you do feel bad and want to take the remark back or hope a crack in the ground will open and swallow you up. For instance, asking a woman when her baby is due after she has already delivered. It is hard to rebound from that remark, but just saying sincerely that you are sorry and moving on is the best thing to do.

Being discreet in what you say and how you say it takes some attention to the situation and the ability to put yourself in the other person's place. It also takes some skill and, sometimes, maturity. Teenagers and very young adults often look at anyone past 35 as ancient because they are in their own worlds and age is very relative and their radar is not well-developed. Usually, the older we get, the less distance there seems to be between the ages, and certain ages seem to get younger to us the closer we get to them.

Today, people are having their children later than they did a few decades ago. So we do have parents at ages that used to be the typical age for grandparents. That makes some of the misconceptions more understandable, but not less hurtful. An awareness of what not to say can be very helpful in avoiding an embarrassing situation. Here are some tips:

•Never assume anything about the people you meet regarding age, gender, pregnancy status or the relationship to the people they are with. If you're not sure of how someone is related, ask what their relationship is to the person they are with, instead of assuming someone is a child or grandparent of the individual.

•Don't put people into categories, such as “seniors” (a favorite category today). If your store or company offers a discount to people of a certain age, put the responsibility on the customer and not the young person checking out the customer's groceries. Post something that can be easily seen that states you offer discounts to seniors or people over a certain age and let the customer ask for it. You will be less likely to offend someone, and you will relieve the people who work for you from having to make a judgment call about someone's age.

•Avoid phrases such as “at your age” we do this (a favorite phrase in health care today). Just say that you need to order a certain test before doing a certain procedure or surgery. Less is more.

•Train your staff and do role-play scenarios on some of the situations they might encounter in their job. If employees don't know a particular phrase or question is rude, they will have a hard time correcting themselves.

•Take control of a situation by introducing the person as your grandchild or child before anyone has time to mistake your relationship. Let them know up front that that Barbie is for your daughter.

•Respond politely if you feel the need to correct someone who has made an error or asked a rude question. It isn't essential, but correcting them may help them think the next time they are inclined to ask a personal question or make an assumption.

•Keep your sense of humor. This may be hard to do in some situations, but it may help. It allows you not to take what someone else says too seriously.

Karen Hickman is a certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy LLC. Do you have a question for her? Email clarson@news-sentinel.com, and we'll forward it to her.