Braille Monitor                                                                 December 2006

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Ask Miss Whozit

A formal place setting, complete with placecard 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 <bpierce@nfb.org>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. Here are the most recent letters Miss Whozit has received:

Dear Miss Whozit,

I wish to inquire about your comments in your July 2006 column in response to the question raised by Buffet Baffled. The question was how to maneuver through a restaurant or party buffet line with dignity and good manners.

You began by saying that asking for assistance in gathering food is "essential or prudent. We live in an interdependent society." Dr. Jernigan wrote in "The Nature of Independence" about the importance of accomplishing tasks efficiently rather than insisting on doing everything alone. Negotiating a buffet line, you said, is one of those situations in which hygiene and efficiency combine to make asking for information or even assistance from a sighted server or dinner companion advisable.

But then you reminded Baffled that, once through the line, "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." My question has to do with how one would carry plates and drinks to a table from the buffet line, especially if the plates are breakable. It seems to me that you are setting a double standard about when it is permissible to request assistance.

Miss Whozit, your expectation seems draconian. Nobody wants a personal butler just to make things simple. First you say that it is preferable to ask for assistance in the name of efficiency and cleanliness, and then you say that asking someone to carry china and liquids is inappropriate. While I would love to know how to carry plates and glasses independently, I also recall your stressing that we live in an interdependent society.

I have always admired the National Federation of the Blind for fighting the unrelenting discrimination that blind people face and for urging us all to demand training in the skills we need and to push ourselves to be independent so that we can live up to our full potential. But your conflicting advice here confuses me. Please explain.

Challenging Assumptions and Breaking Rules

Dear Challenging,

Dearie, dearie me, you have certainly caught Miss Whozit cutting corners. She assumed, gentle reader, that everyone would understand her implied distinctions, and your confusion demonstrates again how dangerous such assumptions can be.

Miss Whozit will try again to make a distinction which is important to understand but which does change from person to person and even situation to situation. As you say, the buffet line is not an appropriate place for tactile exploration, which means that most blind people must recruit sighted assistance to negotiate it quickly and neatly and without offending other diners, who do not appreciate watching someone handling the food they are about to eat. For some blind people, assistance carrying food and drink back to the table is every bit as necessary as help in the line. If the blind diner has only one hand, which will be needed for using the white cane, or must use a support cane or crutch as well as a mobility cane, or has problems with balance, carrying the dinner plate safely or at all is impossible, and requesting assistance is the only sensible course of action.

But you will note that all these extenuating circumstances imply an additional impairment. Miss Whozit was thinking and speaking about the diner with no additional complications to independent mobility. Blind people are told all of our lives that we cannot carry trays levelly or glasses without spilling the contents. Yet many blind people have worked out personal methods for doing so. Developing these techniques takes a bit of practice--precisely the experience that is hard to acquire if you never take the opportunity to carry a filled plate, a glass or cup of liquid, or a loaded tray. If you are serious about mastering this skill, it is pretty easy to gather a tray and plastic dishes and cups at home and balance the tray on your forearm while you walk around the house.

Late in his life Dr. Jernigan discovered that it is easy to carry a mug of hot coffee or a glass of liquid without spilling by grasping it from above with the thumb and index finger. In this way gravity helps one carry it level. He explains this method in the Kernel Book, Old Dogs and New Tricks.

When blind people are developing and practicing new skills either on their own or at a good training center, it is very important for them to push hard against their perceived limitations. Once you know to the center of your being that you can complete a task that people usually assume a blind person cannot do, you no longer have to prove to yourself that you can do it. Then you are free to do what seems most convenient in any given situation. But that is the reason I urged Baffled to carry her food herself. She seemed uncertain that she really could do it. She did not suggest that there were reasons why she was inherently unable to do the job, so I gently encouraged her to carry out the part of the task of gathering food from a buffet that would not compromise the cleanliness of other people's food.

Each of us is responsible for conducting ourselves considerately, courteously, and as independently as circumstances permit. Learning how to decide upon the appropriate behavior in accordance with these standards takes a lifetime of thoughtful effort and the support and advice of our Federation family.


Dear Miss Whozit,

As I sit down to write this letter, fall has come and the holiday season will not be far behind. For me this means that it is time to begin worrying again about how to dress for various functions.

In my office the dress code is what is known today as business casual. I think I have mastered this standard: slacks (not jeans) and nice sports shirts or sweaters for men and slacks (not jeans) or skirts and blouses or sweaters for women. T-shirts, tube tops, halters, cut-offs, and shorts are out. That's fine with me and clear enough to make compliance easy.

I begin feeling uncertain when it comes to receptions, holiday parties, and even my state convention. I can never decide how casual is too casual and how dressy is too formal. I may be making the right decisions, but I may not. So I always feel insecure and uncertain for fear I am conspicuous, and that's before we come to the white cane and people's uncertainty about what they should be doing to help me.

Please, Miss Whozit, I need some guidance.

Stuck in my Closet

Dear Stuck,

Miss Whozit pines for the days of yesteryear when gentlemen donned clean collars and ties with their suits each morning, ladies wore house dresses for cleaning, morning dresses for making calls, tea gowns for late afternoon, and evening gowns for dinner; and everyone wore hats and gloves as a matter of course. But that standard of dress was time-consuming and expensive, and those days will never come again. But at least people knew what was expected of them at any hour of the day and in any setting.

I believe that you are correct in your statement of the requirements for meeting the business-casual standard. Offices that require more formality demand suits and ties for men and suits with pants or skirts or business-style dresses for women. For women this means leaving one's contours to the imagination of others--not too tight and not so much skin visible that your grandmother would be shocked.
These standards are fairly easy to establish and to understand, and they probably also hold for most receptions that are business-connected, particularly since they usually bump up against the workday. If the reception precedes or follows an arts performance, performance attire will govern dress for the reception. Remember that the performers will probably be dressed formally, and while audiences today are not required to follow suit, Miss Whozit prefers to appear only a step below them on the formality spectrum--a suit or dress jacket and tie or ascot for men and dressy to semi-formal attire for women.

Parties do not lend themselves to rigorous standards. Dress is dictated by the time of day, party activity, and preference of the host. It is always proper to enquire how formal or casual dress is to be. Unless one's dinner host says that dress is casual, Miss Whozit always pays him or her the compliment of dressing up at least a little. Appearing in black tie when everyone else is in shorts would naturally make one feel inappropriately dressed, but arriving a step or even two above the dress of the other guests is perfectly acceptable and indicates respect for the host and the occasion.

A decision to dress below the accepted standard for an event makes the opposite statement and will result in one's standing out even more painfully.

The discussion so far about what to wear has avoided the problem of making certain that one's clothing is clean, pressed, and free of stains and spots, which requires extra effort if you do not live with someone who can check for and treat problem areas before clothes are washed or dry cleaned. Making a good appearance requires not only that one be dressed appropriately, but also that one's clothing be in good repair and look and be clean. This means retiring the items that have seen better days.

In closing Miss Whozit wishes to make a few comments about convention attire. We try hard to make everyone at a convention feel welcome, no matter how casually or even grubbily dressed. We understand that many blind people have not had good advice about appropriate dress and many have little money to spend on clothes. But part of what we can do for each other is to raise our expectations of what is expected in the general social circles that we are coming to inhabit. Therefore, though etiquette demands that all attendees be graciously welcomed at conventions no matter how they are dressed, chapter, state, and national leaders and those who aspire to leadership should make a point of according respect to the convention by dressing with care and good taste. Those who present on the agenda should certainly be dressed for business. (Some of us are old enough to remember how insulted we felt when Larry King appeared on the NFB convention platform in a jogging suit and called attention to the fact by excusing himself on the grounds that he was addressing blind people.) Those seated in the audience can get away with business casual dress, but everyone should aim at a neat, well-groomed appearance.

The banquet is another matter. Miss Whozit regrets to report that many people no longer bother to dress for this event. Perhaps they do not realize that a number of the gentlemen at the national convention head table wear black tie and all of the ladies are dressed in cocktail- or evening-length gowns. Many in the audience as well dress appropriately (coats and ties for the men and very dressy dresses for the women). But, alas, many others cannot be bothered to part from their jeans and T-shirts, and some, Miss Whozit is pained to report, have not even bothered to put on clean T-shirts and jeans. State convention banquets need not aim for the level of formality of the national banquet, but everyone at the head table should most certainly wear a coat and tie or a very dressy dress or evening pants and top. Miss Whozit would hope that banquet guests would also demonstrate sufficient respect for the organization and the occasion to make an extra effort to dress as well as possible for the event.

I am aware that I have set the standard for personal appearance higher than some people might prefer. Unfortunately we are all judged by our appearance, and if poorly or slovenly dressed blind people are not dismissed as inappropriate, it is only because as a class we are not held to the same standard as the rest of the community. This is a sad commentary on how far we still have to travel to reach first-class status and be held to general community standards.

If your wallet does not stretch to purchasing a new wardrobe from department stores or even outlet malls, remember that every city or town has at least one thrift store, and every metropolitan area has resale stores in which very fine, almost new clothing is sold at a fraction of its actual value. Invite a friend or relative who likes to shop to go with you to such an establishment. It is possible to create a wardrobe for a very small outlay of cash and have fun in the process. Just check beforehand to be sure that your proposed shopping partner understands style, color, and clothing quality. A quiet conversation with a third person about his or her taste and fashion sense may put your mind at ease before you raise the question of a shopping spree. Anyone who shops with you should agree beforehand to be honest about what styles complement your coloring and body type. You may even find it useful to read up on this subject or watch the Learning Channel program, What Not to Wear, which will quickly convince you that blind people are not the only ones who need constructive advice about what to wear and what to avoid wearing.

Let us all make a New Year's resolution to build the self-confidence we have when we know that we are appropriately dressed. This does wonders for one's ability to face the world with poise.

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