As the new year sets in, a new optimism accompanies it. So why not let our Ms. Social Graces, Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., handle a few conundrums that might happen in today’s modern society?

Dear Ms. Social Graces, 

Some dear friends in our pod like to entertain, and we are often their guests for dinner, which we also reciprocate. The host asks us to arrive at 7:00 pm, yet we usually don’t sit down to eat until much later―9:30 pm. Since I don’t love eating that late, how can I express that we’d like to eat earlier, closer to when we arrive, or should we skip the invitation altogether?

Ready For Dinner

Dear Deserving Diners, 

Concepts of time vary across cultures. However, in the U.S., we tend to be a fairly prompt society. We have certain expectations when we receive and accept business or social invitations based on the invitation’s formality level.

Reciprocal dining arrangements, dining cohorts, or pods tend to develop an organizational culture of their own over time. If this pod consists of three to four other friend sets, it would be insightful to know how they handle drinks and dinner timing and formalities. The times for drinks and dinner are printed on the written invitations with formal dining, yet this differs from informal gatherings. However, even informal events may set a time for drinks, with a separation of an hour for the meal. 

Several options present themselves. You may RSVP immediately and graciously decline the next invitation without giving a reason. However, it would be inappropriate to tell them that serving dinner two and a half hours after arrival is too late. Another option to consider hinges upon whether or not several friends in your pod share the same mindset. If so, consider collaborating with them to develop a workable cocktail hour at 6:00 pm, with dinner at 7:00 pm or 7:30 pm. Then, reinforce this culture among the group. The late diners may then get the message and follow course. Or not. These kind folks may just be night owls… 

Dear Ms. Social Graces, 

On Zoom or other group video calls, how can I present my best self as the pandemic continues? Does lighting or background matter in the scheme of things? 

Ready For My Close-up

Dear Close To Technology,

Presenting our best selves online is essential, especially when screenshots of all the participants pop up on other platforms like LinkedIn. There is a myriad of factors to consider. However, we will address the two you have inquired about when on a Zoom, Skype, or other group video call.


  1. Background: Stage your video area and limit distractions
  • Since our homes are inherently less equipped for professional meetings than our workplace, scout out the best location for calls. 
  • Remember, when dialing in, other participants closely observe more than just your appearance―they’re curious about your personal space and home design. So before joining the meeting, confirm your camera doesn’t capture stacks of unopened packages, piles of unwashed clothes, or a home office in a state of complete disarray.
  • Avoid being an exhibitionist. Using video as a venue to showcase an art collection or wine cellar is inappropriate. Consider selecting a solid color background, such as blue.
  • When you can’t alter your home environment, discreetly hide your room using Zoom’s virtual background feature. Consider taking advantage of their option to upload a personal photograph or create virtual backgrounds with Canva templates designed for Zoom.
  • Limit distractions. Silence or turn off mobile devices, ringtones, and applications running on your desktop. Avoid disrespecting yourself and others by not constantly averting your eyes to check messages. Mitigating distractions keep the virtual meeting focused and interruption-free. 


  1. Lighting: An extremely important factor 
  • Natural light from a window close by that shines on your face is the first and best option. A light accentuates and brightens your skin and features creating a flattering video image.
  • If it’s cloudy or there’s no sunshine, place a lamp with a bright bulb in front of you and above your tablet or laptop to avoid casting a shadow. There’s also the option to invest in a lighting source online―there are numerous reasonably priced products.
  • Turn off any light source behind you and close any window treatments or blinds. The goal is to avoid backlighting.
  • When wearing glasses, avoid the brightest setting on your laptop or monitor to prevent a reflection in the glasses, which can be distracting.


Avoiding political discussions at family gatherings is like playing a sport; you must always be in prime condition. To do this, consider all the possible plays, according to our Ms. Social Graces Sharon Schweitzer, J.D.


With the holidays here already, to avoid family discussions that often turn too political, I recommend several ways to be a part of the conversation and still enjoy yourself during these special gatherings. As the host or hostess, be prepared with conversation starters. Know your guests and their latest endeavors. Who is writing a screenplay or a new book? Hiking or kayaking in West Texas? Participating in a virtual symphony or opera? Part of a virtual book club? What movies and films are recommended online?


As a guest, arrive with questions for others. Be sure to compliment the chef, especially if it’s mom, and ask for recipes from those who brought or made dishes, inquire about new pets, ask about last year’s travels, offer to share a book you just finished. Keep in mind the Thanksgiving or holiday table is not the place to bring up politics or pandemics. Thanksgiving is usually a reunion of family or friends. Politics can be one of the most polarizing conversation topics. It is difficult to predict how your family or friends will respond to a political matter, so try not to initiate. 


If a political discussion occurs, remember the most productive conversations are fact-based, so only engage if you have done your research. Cite specific research journals, such as the Harvard Business Review or SAGE Journals, rather than stories from partisan news networks, which may have some bias.



If you must discuss the latest twist in the global pandemic with a family member, consider a private conversation. Avoid doing so at the dinner table. Productive political discussions are all about diplomacy. Avoid singling someone out to ask for their opinion in front of a group. Not everyone is comfortable openly sharing their political leanings. Even if everyone seems to initially agree on the topic, quieter guests might hold back opposing views and feel isolated. 


On the other end of the spectrum, some might be quick to debate and form two opposing groups. Despite temptations, avoid taking sides. Instead, try to acknowledge the importance of the debate and be the peacekeeper. If you are inclined to become defensive or upset in political debates, politely step away from the conversation and ask the host what you can do to help with preparations. With sensitive subjects such as Covid-19, the upcoming election, and climate change, avoid engaging in a heated debate to make your point. Intense approaches may alienate your family and make them feel attacked.


If you do begin spiraling, take a deep breath, and remind yourself of the occasion: Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks. Thank others for offering different outlooks on the topic at hand. Agree to disagree. Do not be afraid to address the fact that you are having trouble remaining civil with this political topic. Instead,  suggest that Uncle Joe share photos of his new kitten. Opinions do not change in one conversation–they often don’t budge after dozens. Even if you have presented the facts and research, and engaged with diplomacy–your family member is unlikely to change their opinion. 


Cognitive Dissonance is the psychological theory that the mental discomfort that arises when a person is presented with a fact that negates their opinion, it ironically strengthens their belief rather than causes them to call it into question. We all want to share facts and open our dissenter’s minds–but it is not as simple as sharing proven facts. Psychology experts explain that clues come from two areas of study: Self-Affirmation and Cultural Cognition. Both areas suggest people cling to their viewpoints because the walls of their opinions are like battlements. These battlements keep the good people inside us safe from the enemies outside―those with differing opinions.



Here are a few more tips I recommend:


Prepare before your arrival: Get your game face on just like pro athletes do. Tell yourself that you will not engage in a destructive argument. Decide to enjoy the holiday and tune out the acerbic rhetoric. Your host and hostess will thank you.


Listen more than you talk: Respectfully listen to your family’s opinions 80% of the time. Then if you must speak, plan to ask questions 20% of the time. Allow your family to express themselves without judgment or argument.  Thank them for sharing their thoughts about the political climate. 


Respectfully ask them to read your research.

For example: “Aunt Megan, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on ___. It is true that the ______. Please read about the role of ____ and ___  in your research. I can email a great article from __. Thanks for listening.”


“Uncle Ryan, I appreciate your criticism of the _____ position. However, have you read the latest ____ statistics report for the ____  rate in the U.S.? The rate among ____ is ____ to a ____%. Thank you for listening to my point of view. I appreciate you.”


Use discretion when discussing politics with family.

For example, avoid using recent pandemic deaths, tragedies, shootings, and massacres as evidence for a political position. These tragedies are emotionally charged for many people, and best avoided during family gatherings. You want your relationships to last longer than the pandemic.

PG 2 PRESENT IMAGE #2 NovDec2020


In our ever-evolving world, we are all seeking more guidance on modern behavior, aren’t we? Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., our Ms. Social Graces, is here to help resolve your most pressing issues.

Dear Ms. Social Graces,

Lately, I’ve noticed that some people, who are doing carry-out to support their favorite restaurants, are confused about tipping. What do you recommend to help the service industry during these trying times?

Inquiring Tipper


Dear Terrific Tipper,

The best way to help the service industry during these trying times is to consider your many options. While tipping is a personal choice and discretionary, it has been a U.S. custom for decades. There are ever- changing standards and rules for different job positions, and sometimes it’s difficult to say what is best. However, tips have always been important, and during a global pandemic, they are crucial–making a significant difference for many service workers and their families. 

Avoid tip-baiting, where a generous tip is promised on an app and then reduced or deleted entirely after the delivery is completed. Maybe not in the past, but today we tip 15-20% for takeout, curbside, and pickup orders because of the extra time and effort involved with anti-viral precautions for the customer. Deliveries require more time and involve someone coming to your front door or high-rise elevator who has not only the risk of personal exposure but also the potential to transmit the virus to their family at home. 

Guidelines for how much to tip different workers, if you choose: 

  • Baristas: $1 per drink (more if customized)
  • Bartenders: 20% plus
  • Restaurant servers: 20% plus
  • Takeout, curbside, pickup: 15-20%

In closing, my advice is to remember that 25-30% is the new 15-20% when tipping. 


Dear Ms. Social Graces,

Due to the pandemic, we all know that community giving seems to be off. I support many fine organizations already, yet how do you recommend I address the new ones looking for support?

Give, Give, Give


Dear Giving Largesse,

When charitable organizations seek support, think about these guidelines:

  1. Set a budget and respect your own boundaries.
  2. Set monthly, quarterly, seasonal, or annual limits.
  3. Define charitable objectives by selecting a primary charity, then making a prioritized list of favorites. When and if your financial situation changes, you can adjust accordingly.
  4. Give considerable thought to and create an annual, a 5-year, and/or a10-year charitable donation strategy with your partner. Consider your legacy, if appropriate.
  5. Donating to whoever is asking often means losing track of how much you’re giving. It can also distract you from focusing on the great work that your primary charitable organization is accomplishing.
  6. Philanthropic giving is a highly personal decision, so avoid the guilt when deciding not to contribute.
  7. It’s always appropriate to advise others that you and your significant other have an annual charity budget–just as any well-run business operates with a yearly budget.
  8. Consider these six polite ways to decline giving to a good cause without guilt once you and your partner agree on a budget and charitable donation plan:
  • Empathic: My spouse and I admire your organization. Keep up the excellent work. However, for 2020-21, we’ve already allocated our charitable funds to [fill in the blank organization].
  • Short and direct: Thank you for thinking of us. However, we’re committed to the charities we are currently contributing to and must decline at this time.
  • Loyal to a different cause: We’ve been donating to a different organization to make a difference in the lives of [fill in the blank]. We appreciate their accomplishments with the funds we’ve allocated and plan to continue our support.
  • Financial change: We’ve supported your cause for many years, but unfortunately, this year, we have to decline. We hope to continue our support next year.
  • Future possibility: We’d consider donating; however, we are already committed to support [fill in the blank]. We’ll review [your organization] and consider it next year.
  • Supportive decline: Congratulations on your success–it is great you’re making a difference. We’ve already made our contributions for the year, so we must decline.


Our world of modern social interaction has recently been challenged with everything we knew before it. Luckily, our Ms. Etiquette Expert, Sharon M. Schweitzer, J.D., is here to the rescue to solve the challenges that are happening at this very moment

Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,

We have been reading so many different opinions. Just what is social distancing, and can I attend an outdoor event with eight people if it’s in the park with a breeze and lots of fresh air? What about after this situation resolves and we move to a new normal?

                                                                                                                                                       Confused in Texas

Dear Texas Curious,

Experts in the infectious disease community have defined these pandemic terms, and we follow their clear guidance. Even after the pandemic, experts predict that the new normal may require some adjusting to because individuals will continue to social distance until a certain comfort level returns. 


Social distancing means creating physical distance between individuals that don’t reside together. In society, it involves the closure of primary and secondary education facilities, non-essential businesses, and postponing large scale musical and artistic events. When in any public space, people must stay six feet apart and avoid all physical contact with people  whom they do not live.


Avoid the confusion about whether it’s okay to gather outdoors with less than ten people. Currently, everyone should limit close contact, indoors and outdoors, to family members only. Unfortunately, this translates to no birthday soirees, no dinner parties, and no playdates. When invited, graciously decline with:  While we would be delighted to attend, we are playing it safe until the current situation resolves, and we can all celebrate without social distancing. Thanks for your kind invitation, but we must decline.


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,

We received an updated invitation to a password protected video wedding for a well-known philanthropist. We’re just not sure how to respond. It’s still scheduled for August 2020, only not at the original venue. How do we handle this change with social savvy?

                                                                                                                                                         Wondering Wedding Guest

Dear Well-Prepared Guest,

It appears as though the prospective partners have the best interests of their guests at heart. At times, the nuptials must go on. Is there an elderly grandparent, aunt, or uncle who wants to witness the ceremony? Perhaps the best man or matron of honor is undergoing medical treatment or chemotherapy, and end-of-life is near.


We never know what others are enduring, do we? Handle the change with grace by confirming your video presence, purchasing a gift from their registry, or contributing to their wedding fund. Best wishes and congratulations!


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,

We’re traveling to England to stay at the estate of friends of friends once all the travel restrictions are lifted. For someone who has everything, what in the world should we bring, or send, as a host gift as a gesture of thanks for their grand hospitality?

                                                                                                                                                             Travelin’ Light


Dear Light Traveler,

Social graces require house guests to learn and know the personal preferences of their hosts. As citizen ambassadors, give appropriate and thoughtful items that are made in the U.S. Elegant gifts for the home, especially from your favorite premium boutique, are always in good taste.


If your hosts enjoy spirits, bring a U.S. brand that they will recognize and appreciate, from a black, blue, red, or gold label. Avoid giving a gift made in England or the U.K. since they can purchase this themselves.




As we begin the spring social season, it is the perfect chance to master more social opportunities. Our Ms. Etiquette Expert, Sharon M. Schweitzer, J.D., is always on the scene to lend stellar insight into any modern conundrums that may arise.


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,
What’s the best way to pay a genuine compliment to a colleague without it seeming like I am too friendly, or worse, a participant in sexual harassment?
Gent at The Office
Dear Gentlemanly Behavior,

Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,
What’s the best way to pay a genuine compliment to a colleague without it seeming like I am too friendly, or worse, a participant in sexual harassment?

Gent at The Office                                   Dear Gentlemanly Behavior,

An unintended consequence of the #MeToo movement is that many men are unsure of how to interact with women in the workplace. The headlines highlight all the wrong behaviors without mentioning any positive actions. In a perfect world, men will compliment women for their work accomplishments, as opposed to their appearance. Until we reach that pinnacle, the workforce is left in a conundrum with questions about whether it’s appropriate to compliment a new hair design or jacket. So, consider this approach: “Great plaid coat.” or “Slayed that new haircut.” It’s best to avoid commentary about someone’s body, wardrobe suggestions, or your emotions and feelings about their looks.


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,
Since its spring gala season, can you please settle a bet? I say that if we are guests at a host’s table at a non-profit event, we are obligated to buy a silent or live auction item to support our host’s cause. My wife says no. What say ye?

Gala Going                                                          Dear Gala Goer,
One theory supports your wife’s position that hosts invite guests to charitable events with the hope that they will develop an interest in the charity that blossoms into building a donor relationship–without an expectation, that guests will buy an auction item or write a check that evening. When a host invites someone, there isn’t a fee for accepting. The host’s gala table covers all guest costs unless a prior agreement is made to purchase the table seat. The charity may request a contribution with an auction or compelling verbal appeal. However, a substantial portion of their revenue is earned through table sponsorships. As a guest, if you’re feeling generous, contributing will please your host. Consider the alternative: if an auction item purchase is always expected, then potential guests may be tempted to decline fundraising invitations, or worse yet RSVP yes and then decide to stay home the night of the event.

The alternative position is that accepting an invitation obligates the guest to donate at the charity event. Some argue that the donation was already made, and the guest is offered the tickets as a “gift” because a percentage of the ticket price covers the event costs. Therefore, the host has the right to expect the guest’s support with a donation for the ticket value (or an amount they can afford.) These hosts believe that the guest’s contribution demonstrates the guest’s thanks and good faith and allows the guest to secure a reciprocal opportunity to call in the favor later for their own cause. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,
My dear friend, who is on a tight budget, yet loves to support the community, often asks to borrow and switch gowns. Not only do I not want to, since we’re close, yet different sizes, but also want to retain my individual style. How do I politely refuse?

Gowned & Ready                               Dear Gowned For Glory,
Setting healthy boundaries with friends and family is a life-long endeavor. New requests seem to arrive daily to borrow clothing, attend expensive soirées, or host events. Remember that people-pleasing is also known as “the disease to please.” Saying yes when it’s healthier to say no can cause resentment that undermines a friendship. Avoid doing this disservice by saying no since gowns are investments to you. By declining, one can protect the gown’s investment. A stained gown can ruin a friendship. Consider responding to her request with “thanks for the offer to exchange gowns, what a compliment. However, I don’t lend my clothing to anyone.” Offer an alternative such as shopping online or going gown shopping together. Avoid implying a lack of trust–instead remind her that you’re typically a generous lender of sporting equipment (“Yes, absolutely you can borrow my golf clubs”), but gowns and clothes are off-limits.




As we begin the new decade ahead, we can all brush up on our skills to make every social situation as seamless as possible. Our Ms. Etiquette Expert, Sharon M. Schweitzer, J.D., is on the scene to lend sage wisdom for any modern conundrum that may arise.


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,

My fiancé and I just became engaged.  My mother is insistent that I register for good china, and I know we’ll never use it, making it seem like a waste. How should I proceed, since my parents are also paying for the wedding? 

Bride To Be


Dear Future Bride,

Best wishes and congratulations to you and your fiancé. Consider this advice:

  1. Encourage open communication with both sides of the family early in the engagement, especially with your parents. Set a time to explore your mother’s insistence on registering for china. Highlight the family customs you and your fiancé are honoring in your wedding, clearly explaining your thoughts. Showing parental respect goes a long way, especially when your family is paying for the wedding. Remember, you will be sharing holiday meals for years to come.


  1. Compromise. Graciously coordinate with your family. Respectfully state that although this is your wedding, you plan to honor the important customs of your mother during the wedding. Summon up your best diplomacy skills, compromise, and remember, you can’t please everyone, all of the time.


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,

How should my younger children address new adults that they meet? By their last names, like Mr. Van Huntzel, or by their first name, using a prefix, like Miss Caroline? 

Naming Honors

Dear Naming Necessity,

Younger children learn how to acknowledge and address all adults properly when they practice at home with you through role-playing. Use proper titles with your younger children, such as Mr., Mrs., or Dr., and first or last names. In the south and southwest regions, using the first name with a title is common. For example, Ms. Kristin or Mr. Jason. Pretend to be different people and ask your children to respond to an introduction with correct titles and pleasantries such as “Hello, Mr. Thompson. How are you, Ms. Aldrich?” The next time your children meet an adult, encourage them to use the greeting. Some children are hesitant near adults so gently prod with “Courtney, remember Ms. Kristin? Will you say hello, please?”


Dear Ms. Etiquette Expert,

Can you please share your top three, interesting-as-heck, conversation starters that are appropriate for dinner with just-met dinner partners?

Budding Conversationalist

Dear Dining Companion,

A meal is such a wonderful way to spend an evening, and if we are seated next to someone we don’t know, it’s a terrific opportunity to learn more about the world. How about if we go with three categories from which to choose that will enable completely comfortable conversation with just about anyone…



What’s your favorite travel destination?

If you could pick one country to travel to, which would you choose and why?

Do you have travel plans? Will you share your destination?

Would you rather travel during a vacation or have a staycation?

What’s your favorite part about travel?

If you’ve  traveled a lot, has it changed who you are? How?

Are you someone who likes group travel? Or, solo travel?

When you travel, do you follow guidebooks or blaze your own path?



Do you think we as humans will invent anything that makes time travel possible?

What do you think will be the greatest invention in the next 25 years? 10 years?

Do you think technology makes our lives simpler or more complicated?

What discovery do you think has transformed our world the most?

What’s your favorite invention of all time?



What are you currently reading? Who is the author?

What’s the last book that you read, and what did you think of it?

Who’s your favorite author? Why?

Do you read fiction? Or do you prefer nonfiction?

Do you read paper books? Or, use an e-reader, or listen to audiobooks?

Have you built a library in your home? Do you gift books to friends and family?