Braille Monitor                                                     December 2007

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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,
You may think this is an odd request, but I wish you would talk about the location and use of napkins in restaurants. I regret to say that my family did not use napkins when I was a child, so I sometimes forget to find and use my napkin when I am in public. But part of my problem is that the wait staff put napkins in such odd places. So please review napkin etiquette.

Napkin Challenged

Dear Napkin Challenged,
Congratulations on recognizing that dealing with your napkin is important. You are quite right that the first challenge is to locate it. If it has been wrapped around your knife and fork, you have an obvious reminder about placing it in your lap. After all, when you unwrap your tableware, you have to do something with the paper or cloth napkin after it has been unrolled. Form the habit of placing it across your lap even before you place your fork or forks to the left and the knife and spoon to the right of your place at the table. If you wish to tuck the napkin into your waistband, that is probably acceptable. But Miss Whozit discourages the practice of using the napkin as a bib by tucking one corner into your collar.

At a fine restaurant the waiter may offer to place the napkin across your lap for you. Simply lean back as soon as you are seated so that this service can be performed. If the napkin does not materialize in your lap, you must go looking for it. You can place your fingers gently along the edge of the table to identify any flatware that is in place. If you find none, it is safe to hypothesize that it is rolled up in a napkin someplace on your side of the table. It is wise to make a surreptitious investigation. The left side of your place, perpendicular to your edge of the table, or across the top of your place setting (if you only had one) are the first two places to touch. If you do not encounter a rolled napkin either place, it is likely to be anywhere. On the pretext of identifying and adjusting your water or wine glass and your butter plate, you can search a bit further. If this reconnaissance fails, quietly ask a dinner companion or server for directions. It is always possible that your napkin and silver are missing altogether or at another diner’s place.

If in your investigation you discover that flatware is lined up together at your place, it may well be lying on your napkin. You should rearrange it, placing forks on the left, knives to the immediate right of where the plate will be set, and spoons to the right of all knives. It is perfectly appropriate to carry out this reorganization since the wait staff have clearly been excused by management from setting the table properly.

If organizing your place setting does not uncover your napkin, it may be fanned out or otherwise folded at the top of your place, where sometimes dessert fork and spoon are laid parallel to your edge of the table. The napkin is sometimes displayed folded decoratively where your plate will be placed when you are served—all the more reason to find and dispose of it properly before someone has to prompt you to remove it so that your meal can be placed before you.

If your napkin is absent from all of these locations, check your water glass. This has become a popular place for servers to tuck napkins, but you must remove it soon after being seated because one of the first visitors to the table is likely to be the bus boy pouring water.
Do not be discouraged if searching in all these locations is unsuccessful. Quietly ask a sighted dinner companion or the server where your napkin is lurking. The answer may be in a dispenser on the center of the table, or you may not have been given one. In either case your query will result in your receiving the missing napkin or at least the information you need to find one yourself. Once you have it, just remember to place it in your lap and use it appropriately.

Before leaving this subject altogether, I think a few remarks are in order on the subject of disposing of your napkin either temporarily in the middle of the meal or at the close of the meal. If you leave your seat for any reason, fold your napkin with the soiled side tidily out of sight in the center. Place it on the seat of your chair. This indicates that you intend to return. When you are leaving the table, place the napkin, soiled-side-in, to the left of your plate. One school of thought advocates dropping the napkin in the plate as a definitive statement that you are finished. Let us have none of that nonsense. Servers face sufficient unpleasantness clearing tables without being asked to dispose of gratuitously soiled napery or dripping paper napkins.

Dear Miss Whozit,
I am a blind mother of sighted children. My older child has recently started asking to have other children come play at our house and sometimes stay the night. I am delighted by this request of course, but quite often, rather than letting their children come to my house, the other parents ask if my child can come to theirs. I can't help wondering if this is partially due to my blindness and their assumption that I will not be able to look after the children properly.

Along the same lines, as my daughter gets older, I find that complete strangers often comment that she must be a big help to me and that it must be nice to have my own personal guide. How do I handle these ridiculous and quite erroneous comments? Similarly, picking up on the comments of strangers, my daughter has begun to try to lead me around and make comments about how she can show me where to go. How do I gently yet definitively set the record straight?

In Charge but Uncertain

Dear In Charge,
I fear that I know of no indirect, tactful, and sure-fire method for solving your various difficulties. I agree with you in suspecting that they all stem from the fact of your blindness. Nothing but dealing directly and effectively with this issue will educate other parents, strangers, and even your daughter. This said, Miss Whozit believes that honesty and tact are not incompatible goals in resolving such matters. For example, when you call another parent to work out a play date, only to encounter an invitation for your daughter to go to the other child’s home to play, you might say, “I understand that you may have reservations about my ability as a blind person to provide a safe and well-supervised environment for your child. The fact that my children have never had anything more than the usual mishaps that occur with all children can hardly reassure you without knowing me better. But it is also true that my daughter wants to be hostess sometimes, and it is important to me to shoulder my part of the responsibility for supporting the girls’ friendship. Perhaps you could come with Cindy this first time, and we could get to know each other over coffee. I think you may be much more comfortable once you see how things work at our house.”

Unless the other parent is beyond hope, the combination of honesty, maturity, and understanding in a comment like this will require her to accept your invitation. Then it will be up to you to convince her by your competence and good management that her fears are groundless. You might give her a copy of Mary Ellen Gabias’s article, “The Play Date,” from the January 2005 issue of the Braille Monitor. It speaks directly to the problem you are having.

Dealing with the attitudes of strangers and your own daughter requires less tact and more clarity. Rudeness in your response is certainly uncalled-for, but in both these situations you aren’t seeking permission for something you wish to do, simply telling others how things are and are going to be: “In our family the adults make the rules and take responsibility.” You could go on to say to your daughter, “I may ask you to read a street sign or building number from time to time, but I will keep us safe as we walk.” If you are pleasant, faintly amused at the idea that a child should be in control, and firm in your rejection of a topsy-turvy world in which children are in control, you will calmly demonstrate being in charge and gently reject as absurd the notion that you are dependent on your child. The more clearly you project this attitude, the less other people with sense will make silly assumptions. It will not silence all the fools, but it should arm you against their nonsense.

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