Braille Monitor                                                    December 2009

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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: 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, 200 E. Wells, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <>. 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 have learned over the years that being totally blind presents a unique set of challenges not experienced by those with some vision. Of course the converse is true as well. For me one of the biggest places where I believe I could improve is spacial awareness. I'm curious to learn your tips on ways to be better aware of one’s surroundings. How do you effectively and consciously avoid intruding on other people's personal space when talking or walking from place to place?

A lot of these situations come up at parties when it's sometimes difficult to figure out the best place to stand or sit and hold a conversation without appearing awkward. Of course, when a blind person tries to walk around and talk to people, some sighted people will just start asking where you are going or what you are looking for. Surely there must be ways to fit into the group.

Finally, some of these challenges apply when trying to network at a conference with unknown people. Do you have tips about how to start a conversation politely and effectively or break into an existing group conversation? I'm thinking of the various networking receptions that are held by companies or take place at conventions and other events.

Thanks for any help,

A Would-Be Mingler

Dear Would-Be,

Miss Whozit is a great proponent of remaining in one’s own personal space during conversations. For totally blind people this means careful listening and may require discreet use of the white cane to check on distances. Men especially should stay two feet away from others unless they are in mutually agreed-upon close contact, typically of a romantic or clandestine nature—these latter Miss Whozit has no intention of discussing.

If you are not certain whether you are conforming to the two-foot rule, slide your cane tip until it touches the shoe of the person facing you. If you are not certain of what a two-foot distance sounds like, practice with a friend or family member until you can walk up to that person, contact a shoe with your cane tip, and stop two feet away. At the moment of contact, note the angle of your cane so that you can remember how near the vertical it is when you are at an appropriate distance. Of course you can always stand farther away, and, if you are coping with lots of background noise, it is appropriate to lean in a bit closer than two feet, but lean in, don’t step in.

Talking companionably with someone while walking introduces the complication for cane users that, for a blind person with little or no useable vision, there is no such thing as reliably walking in a straight line. Miss Whozit presumes that those who are partnered with guide dogs have already worked out their preferred methods for walking with or following another person. Miss Whozit can suggest two solutions for cane users. The first is not to try to walk beside the other person. This allows one to shoreline and count walks or other landmarks, crossing from side to side of the path as necessary. The second is casually to ask permission to maintain contact with the person’s arm. The first alternative makes it simple to keep tabs of one’s location, but conversation may have to be conducted at a slightly higher volume to be heard, and the sighted person will be somewhat preoccupied with moving back and forth to dodge out of your way. Maintaining contact with a sighted companion’s arm in order to talk comfortably should not be confused with using him or her as a sighted guide. The blind person continues to use the cane and walks side-by-side with the other person, not a step behind. The disadvantage of this method is that the blind person may miss some of the useful landmarks in determining his or her progress. Both methods are useful in certain circumstances. You will have to determine which makes you most comfortable and decide when to use which method.

As for parties, mixers, and networking gatherings, if only there were some simple strategy that would solve the difficulties. The problem is the number of variables—personality of the blind person, size of the group and the room-friendliness of the crowd, etc. The more information you can gather about the size and configuration of the space, the better off you will be: are small tables scattered around the room? How about chairs, against the walls or in conversation groups? Where is the bar? Is there a buffet table? Are people wearing name tags? Do you know any of the people in the room? Such bits of information will help you make sense of the situation once you step into it.

The way a blind person conducts himself or herself almost always affects and often determines the way the person will be treated. So summon all the confidence and self-assurance you can as you enter the room. Keep your ears open for familiar voices belonging to people you might enjoy speaking with. Everyone in such social situations slides into and out of conversations. If you know nothing about the arrangements, you might do well to ease into a group close to the door. Listen for conversational clues that you would not be interrupting. If the conversation is general or preliminary, you are safe insinuating yourself. Try not to let the conversation be diverted to blindness. Your job is to persuade the others that you can hold your own on any topic that might be under discussion. Avoid the how-about-them Giants sports talk if you know nothing about baseball or football. With luck you will be able to establish yourself as a full partner in the discussion and can then enquire for directions to the bar or buffet table. You should probably resist letting someone bring you a drink or a plate. If directions are beyond their ability to provide concisely and someone is going there, you might consider going along and then drifting off after you have your drink or plate. You are aiming to demonstrate that you do not need a babysitter.

Blind people often feel conspicuous and perhaps intrusive when they slide into a conversation. But mixing is what everybody is doing. If you do not cling to one person and you follow the social rules of respecting personal space and listening with attention to what others are saying before asking intelligent questions, you are likely to find yourself moving around and meeting others.

It is likely that you will not move or meet as much as the most outgoing of the other guests, but if you refuse to let yourself be rounded up and deposited in a chair in the corner, you will do as well as the quieter guests.

Dear Miss Whozit,

If silverware is wrapped in a napkin, where should it be placed on the table?


Dear Searching,

The short answer to your question is that this way of handling silverware should be limited to buffet tables and restaurants. If one is setting a table, one’s guests deserve a place setting of the standard type with the folded napkin and fork to the left and the knife and spoon to the right. On a buffet table it is convenient for the guest to pick up the napkin-wrapped packet of silver and take it to the dining table, probably unrolling it as he or she sits down. So the question of utensil placement belongs to the guest. Restaurant servers will drop the rolled up utensils wherever they please. Management may dictate where they are to be placed, but this is not a matter of etiquette.

For the blind diner it may be a matter of searching, but saying that Miss Whozit thinks placement of napkin-wrapped silver to the left of the plate makes most sense will get you nowhere. Alas, restaurateurs are not likely to listen to me. The best I can suggest is the discreet tactile investigation of the geography of the place setting. Slide your fingertips along the edge of the table in front of you. This is almost unnoticeable and quite acceptable behavior. In such a sweep you can identify the plate, napkin, and utensils (if they are present in positions you can touch). If they are not there, it is reasonable to reach further away from the edge, delicately searching for the water glass. You can take a sip of water or adjust the glass’s position slightly to explain your apparent search for something. Then glide your fingers toward the midline of your place, searching for a rolled napkin of utensils. If it is not there, draw your hand back to the table edge. With luck the napkin and silver will be in the center of your place, where you will encounter them as your hand returns to your lap.

The only other obvious place for them to be is on your butter plate. With your left hand reach toward the place where that plate should be, to the left of the fork and above where a napkin would be laid in a reasonable world, and the butter plate (if you have one) should be in the neighborhood. If no utensils are there, it is probable that they have not yet been put down or that they have been thrown haphazardly into the center of the table. Plaintively enquiring of your dinner companions or the server where you can find your napkin and utensils is your final resort. I hope that you manage to find them.

Dear Miss Whozit,

I have been blind since birth, and I have been told that I do not have an expressive face. I have asked people to describe to me what anger, sadness, incredulity, joy, and the like look like, but I have not been successful in translating these descriptions into recognizable expressions. I have the same problem with gestures. I suspect that getting these things right is just as important as dressing appropriately when I want to represent myself or the NFB effectively. Can you help me?

Straight Faced

Dear Straight,

You are quite right: even in this day and age with its bent toward the casual, those who wish to be taken seriously and represent themselves effectively had better take the time and trouble to dress to the expectation of those they are trying to impress. Miss Whozit has done no research, but she suspects that those, sighted or blind, with wooden, uncommunicative faces find themselves at a disadvantage when attempting to communicate with others who are watching them.

Both sighted and blind people vary tremendously in their expressiveness. If people have mentioned this matter to you, it is likely that you fall on the inexpressive end of this spectrum. Do not assume, however, that you are alone in being unable to produce a natural and charming smile on demand for a photographer, for example. Almost always the best photos of people are taken when the photographer has caught them when they are reacting naturally with a laugh or smile. This is why models, who can produce natural-looking expressions on demand and hold the expression for minutes together, are so well paid.

Here are some tips that have helped people learn what various expressions feel like. Try to make your voice express the emotion you wish to communicate with your face. Experts tell us that, in order to sound warm and friendly on the phone, you should smile before picking up the receiver. You might find it possible to work this formula backwards. Concentrate on sounding warm and interested when you pick up the phone, and you are likely to find that you are naturally smiling. The trick is not to concentrate on the smile.

Actors learn to generate the emotion they are trying to mirror on their faces because in that way they can be confident that the expression will ring true. Find someone who is willing to give you feedback. Practice raising your eyebrows and opening your eyes wide. This is a simple way of expressing surprise, skepticism, or incredulity. Notice what happens to your face when you laugh. You will have to note what various expressions feel like when you are told that the emotion is convincingly reproduced on your face. And remember, plenty of sighted people have the same struggle. This is an issue that is worth working on but not losing sleep over.

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