Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006


Ask Miss Whozit

A formal place setting, complete with place card bearing the Whozit logo and the words, "Miss Whozit."

From the Editor: From time to time Miss Whozit answers reader questions about etiquette and good manners, particularly as they involve blindness. If you would like to pose a question to Miss Whozit, you can send it to the attention of Barbara Pierce, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. Here are several recent letters Miss Whozit has received:

Dear Miss Whozit,

For the first time in my life I have my own home. I am shopping and cooking for myself, and I am keeping my home clean and relatively neat most of the time.

I would like to begin to do some entertaining. My parents did not do much when I was a child, so I do not have past experience to draw from. I know that, if I do not do things right, my guests are likely to assume that I can't do better because I am blind. Can you give me some pointers about preparing to entertain, setting my table, serving food graciously to guests, and generally being a welcoming and poised host?

Eager to Entertain

Dear Eager,

Believe it or not, Miss Whozit well remembers all her firsts--first home, the pleasure of shopping independently the first time, cooking in her own kitchen the first time, and beginning to learn the art of keeping a home and entertaining special people the first time. The very fact that you have asked all the right questions indicates to Miss Whozit that you are on the right track and will probably do well at entertaining. It is obvious from your letter that this is something you want to do. Desire is the necessary first step.

Miss Whozit suggests that starting with small numbers and keeping your plans simple would be best. Ask two or three of your best friends for dessert and coffee or tea on a Sunday afternoon. Miss Whozit would prefer that the dessert be lovingly prepared by the hostess, but given the pressures of life today, a selection from the bakery would be acceptable. Or perhaps you could prepare a very nice pie or cake and serve it with ice cream. You can use everyday dinnerware or make it a tea party and use a few silver pieces and bone china (if you have them). Cloth napkins always add to the civility and formality of the occasion, but some attractive paper tea napkins are available in better shops if you prefer. Do whatever feels best to you. Continue to do this kind of entertaining until you are comfortable and ready to move to the next level. (By the way, consult the Independence Market catalog for ideas concerning pieces of equipment that are available--like liquid level indicators and slicing knives, to name a couple.)

Another, slightly more demanding kind of entertaining is a small luncheon party for four. A simple casserole with a salad, bread, and dessert would be very acceptable. Plan the menu and do your shopping several days ahead. Don't wait until the last minute. Do as much of the preparation as you conveniently can the day before. Take some time to set your table with clean, fresh linens and good dinnerware. The point here is for your guests to know that entertaining is something you enjoy and that you have taken special care to prepare an attractive table just for them.

The next level might be a more complete and formal dinner party for four or six. Again your best linens, dinnerware, flatware, and crystal (if you have it) are in order. Of course candles are nice, as are fresh flowers. But you can use a pretty plant that you already have in your home or an arrangement of interesting, attractively colored fresh vegetables with an African violet. Needless to say, Miss Whozit would recommend that you use your best of everything for your dinner party. This does not mean that you need the finest of everything--just the finest that you own. The most important part of any entertaining is that your guests feel welcome and believe that you have done something special for them. Fine crystal, china, etc., are not necessary. Cleanliness and sparkle, good conversation, good food, and the art of making folks feel welcome are the most important ingredients for successful entertaining. Whether your guests are blind or sighted, it is imperative to prepare your entertaining rooms and table in such a way that they are visually and tactilely pleasing to everyone. Miss Whozit is certain that she is not the only blind guest to have encountered soiled hand towels, an empty toilet-paper roll, gritty floors underfoot, or paper towels substituting for napkins.

Remember that you should test the recipes you plan to serve ahead of time and take into account any allergies your guests may have. All the good recipes one needs are available in Braille, on tape, or at hundreds of Web sites on the Internet. But don't forget family favorites and the Braille Monitor recipe section. It is nice to begin to collect your own favorites that will eventually lead to a few signature recipes.

Table settings can vary from quite informal to extremely formal. If you are inexperienced on this topic, consult an etiquette book from the library. Try to make every occasion just right for itself. Don't overdo.

One important thing to remember: everyone has an occasional mishap. If something goes wrong, don't mention it. Keep it behind the scenes if possible. If this is not possible, do your best to make the problem part of a new plan. Stay cool, go with the flow, enjoy your own party! Your guests will so love being invited out that almost any lemon can be turned into lemonade. Miss Whozit believes that confidence comes only with practice. It won't take very many entertaining experiences to make you an expert.

Role models are very important to all of us. Think about the homes to which you have been invited and what it was that made you feel good about being there. Then model your own entertaining on those things. Setting the table, serving food graciously, and being a welcoming and poised host have nothing to do with blindness. They have to do with personal training, preparation, desire, and self-confidence.

Dear Miss Whozit,

Lately it seems that all of my girlfriends are dieting or at the least hyper-conscious about their carb count. For this reason we constantly seem to have lunch at salad bars. Another frequent occurrence is my family's visits to all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. Both of these restaurant choices make for uncomfortable dining experiences for me. "Why?" you may ask. "Don't you enjoy salads? Or is it that you simply don't have enough room in your stomach for all that's available to eat?"

The answer is neither. Rather, when I go out to eat, I am unsure about how to identify salad dressings and the like at the salad bar. And I consider buffets simply nightmares waiting to happen. How do I handle these social situations? Eager for your response,

Buffet Baffled

Dear Baffled,

Learning to maneuver through a buffet line with grace and ease can feel overwhelming, but, once armed with accurate information and good skills, you too will be able to take advantage of the convenience and selection provided by this vast array of dietary indulgences. Remember that anticipatory anxiety of the unknown is often more unpleasant than the actual event.

We live in an interdependent society. Sometimes asking for assistance is necessary or prudent. As Federationists we have learned the truth of Dr. Jernigan's speech, "The Nature of Independence," in which he defines independence as doing what we want to do when we want to do it without inconveniencing ourselves or others. In that speech he also spoke about the importance of accomplishing tasks efficiently rather than always insisting on doing them alone. Going through a buffet line is one instance in which these two concepts merge.

Once you have made the decision to navigate a buffet line, it is essential to request assistance from someone. If others in your party are going through the buffet line, you can ask one of them to provide the visual information and any necessary assistance, or you can ask your server if an employee is available to assist you. Which decision you make depends on the circumstances. If you are the only one in your party going through the buffet line, solicit the assistance of someone on the restaurant staff. If you feel at ease asking a member of your party for assistance, it is quick and easy to adopt that solution.

Once you are ready to make your selections at the buffet, instruct the person providing assistance about your preference of the best way to move through the line. If you know ahead of time that you are looking specifically for salad items, provide this information. If you decide that life is really too short and you want to eat dessert first, say so. Let the person providing assistance know how you would like the items identified.

If you plan to plate your own food, ask that the items be identified in a column format going from back to front so you know where each item is located when you serve yourself. Be sure when serving your own food to keep extra napkins handy to wipe your fingers if you accidentally come into contact with stray food items or sauces. It is important to maintain good hygiene when handling serving utensils in a public place.

Miss Whozit wants to emphasize at this point that you are responsible for carrying your own plates, glasses, or bowls. You have requested assistance learning what items are on the line and perhaps placing the food on your plate, not providing service as a personal butler, carrying your selections from the line to the table.

One gentle reminder, if you are dining during peak customer hours and you realize that a line is forming behind you, make your selections as quickly as possible and keep moving. The beauty of a buffet is that you are often allowed to return for seconds. So be sure to ask your server ahead of time whether you are dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Miss Whozit recommends that for your first attempt at negotiating a buffet line you go at a time when you will feel at ease so that you will begin to gain confidence in the techniques you devise. If you have a blind friend who is comfortable handling buffets, you might invite him or her to go with you so that you can ask for advice along the way. Remember when embarking on any new challenge, the most important thing is to believe that it is possible and gather as much information ahead of time as you can. Then just do it. As Laing Burns says, "You've got to believe if you want to succeed."

Dear Miss Whozit,

I am newly blind and grappling with a question. I am often interested in learning how other people have come to the blindness community. I have tried asking, "Are you blind from birth?" or "How much sight do you have?" While I fear that such questions may be perceived as inappropriate, I am trying to learn. Is there an acceptable way of making such inquiries? If so, how? If not, how does one learn and grow in dealing with this new experience?

Nosy Neophyte

Dear Nosey,
It occurs to Miss Whozit to wonder just what it is you expect to learn from knowing whether a new acquaintance has been blind from birth, blind for many years, or fairly recently blind. She suspects that your curiosity about the amount of useable vision someone has is part of that almost universal assumption that the more one can see, the more competent he or she is likely to be. But if you have been a member of the NFB for any time at all and if some of your blind friends have answered your questions accurately, you know perfectly well that no reliable correlation exists between the two.

If you are aware of this psychological assumption and are asking in order to prove to yourself that residual vision is not required to function efficiently, Miss Whozit approves of your research. If, on the other hand, you are hoping to find excuses for lowering your expectations of yourself, she has little sympathy for your investigations. Only you can assess your motivations, and it is important that you honestly examine why you are curious about other people's blindness and what you hope to achieve with the information.

So perhaps you do have good reasons for asking these personal questions, or at least for wishing to gather such information about blind people you have met. Everyone with much experience of blindness has been asked these questions more times than we can count, and usually out of a motive of pure curiosity. Mostly blind people have settled on their own ways of coping with impertinent personal questions. You may find that, even when you seek such information in an effort to expand your own expectations for yourself, people may respond with unsatisfactorily brief answers or refusals to respond seriously. But most of the time experienced people will be courteous and factual, though they may take the opportunity to suggest that the information is not very important or useful. Miss Whozit suggests that you refrain from asking such questions widely. Choose people whose answers you believe will be truly helpful to you as you struggle to accept your personal visual acuity. Be clear and honest about why you are intruding with such questions. Miss Whozit believes that most people will be happy to assist you if they can.