The Braille Monitor                                                                        November 2005


Ask Miss Whozit

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

From the Editor: For several months now Miss Whozit has been answering 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 <[email protected]>. 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:

Over the years, even at NFB conventions, I have observed people, particularly those born blind or without families who taught them how to handle themselves in public. I have just enough vision to notice inappropriate behavior and sometimes correct myself when I observe the way sighted people behave. I can then ask for advice about how things should be done. It is often embarrassing but also rewarding.

One thing that should be addressed when people are ready for employment after going through our training centers is habitual rocking or other repetitive motions. Several sighted friends who have worked in the corporate world have asked me about this behavior, and frankly I cannot think of an adequate answer.

Why do people who are blind, particularly those who have been in residential schools, rock? I was helping in a booth in the exhibit hall one year, and my partner was sitting Indian fashion on a folding chair, rocking back and forth, swinging a keychain from side to side in front of his face and shaking his head. I do not know how he kept from falling out of the chair. In the course of conversation I discovered this man had been to college and had several degrees but had been unsuccessful for years in finding a job. I asked him if he had figured out why, and he said that he did not know. He said he wore clean jeans and t-shirts to the interviews and made sure he had showered that morning. I asked if he had ever taken a job-readiness class in college, and he said that he didn't need one. All he had to do was present his résumé and recommendation letters. Setting aside the question of inappropriate dress for an interview, he is not the only person I have seen rocking or exhibiting unusual behavior.

Should I have tried to say something direct enough to make him recognize his unacceptable behavior without making him angry or embarrassing him? Whether we want to admit it or not, the majority of people in human resources are sighted and extremely dependent on first impressions. I worked in an office for almost thirteen years and had to maintain a certain level of decorum. Aren't these subjects addressed at our training centers? What about the importance of good posture and appropriate body language?

Decent Impression

Dear Decent Impression:

You have raised a very important yet sensitive issue that often falls into the category of the elephant in the living room that everyone studiously avoids mentioning. It falls into the broad category of behavior often called "blindisms"--idly or vigorously rocking front to back or side to side, twisting the head from side to side, rubbing the eyes, fluttering fingers in front of the eyes to make sure they still work, twisting hair, and other equally odd mannerisms. The second part of the equation is the reaction of sighted people to any unusual, different, or even unacceptable human behavior.

Miss Whozit wishes to begin by pointing out a truth which should be self evident but nevertheless needs occasional repeating: sighted people can see! Strange as it may seem, some blind people apparently forget this reality from time to time and engage in activities in public which are disgusting or embarrassing to those watching. Any human being, blind or sighted, may well engage in activities in private which are simply unacceptable when the behavior is or may be observed by others. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan wrote extensively on this topic in his article "The Barrier of the Visible Difference" in the Kernel Book, Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses. Blindisms have been discussed and written about widely. Miss Whozit is sad to report that some people propound deep psychological and philosophical foundations to explain this phenomenon, and perhaps they are right. Unfortunately such explanations do not provide an excuse that lets the blind person off the social hook. Miss Whozit is convinced that the reasons for such behavior are simple. All small children engage in a variety of behaviors that are universally unacceptable. If little Suzie is sighted, her parents and other relatives will say, "Stop picking your nose [or whatever]! You may not do that. That is a nasty habit." Moreover, the concerned adults will keep at it until the habit is broken.

If little Suzie is blind, however, many parents and other adults seem to be reluctant or even afraid to hold the blind child to the sighted standard. When the parents listen to the faux experts in the field rather than the authentic experts (the organized blind), the expectation for normal and appropriate behavior becomes obscured. When this happens, what begins as a petty little habit eventually becomes a hard-wired characteristic which is nearly impossible to reverse.

These unacceptable mannerisms then run head long into the social expectations of sighted society and reinforce the minority-group status of the blind. If a sighted person engages in some activity which is not the norm (some do), those around him or her dismiss the undesirable habit as the actions of a weirdo. Other sighted people are not tarred by the weirdness brush and are certainly not placed in that category just because of the odd behavior of one weirdo. When, however, a blind person exhibits such behavior, many in society judge all blind people by the unacceptable or bizarre behavior of the one. Like it or not, we blind people are already thought of as different and are scrutinized more closely. Adding the unacceptable behavior compounds the novelty of blindness and the attention it draws.

In his book Freedom for the Blind, Jim Omvig devotes an entire chapter to the topic of blending in and endeavoring to behave in such a way that one is acceptable to others. Miss Whozit pleads with parents of blind children to read this chapter and also to be relentless in their effort to stamp out overtly bizarre behavior or even silly little habits. What can and should adults do to combat such behavior in themselves or those they care about? If one recognizes personal blindisms, he or she should ask friends and family members to offer quiet, private reminders when the old habits surface. If friends or family members care about a person who is not aware of blindisms, they should go quietly to that person and ask if they can help. In either case a private plan should be devised to give a signal to the blind person as a reminder that he or she is engaging in the activity and should stop.

The sad truth is that until and unless the blind adult with such habits recognizes them and wishes to be rid of them, no one else can help very much. What we can do is to make clear to these friends just how much of a problem the behavior is and at what a disadvantage it will put the person socially and professionally. We do nothing but harm our children or friends by pretending that everyone else will understand or that the peculiar behavior will not be as much of a roadblock to social acceptance as poor grooming or disgusting table manners.


Dear Miss Whozit:

I realize that this column is chiefly concerned about points of etiquette focusing on blindness. My inquiry deals more, however, with the etiquette of setting boundaries and practicing good manners between guest and host. I have some vision, and I need advice about what to do about a totally blind guest who has been with me one weekend and who will be back.

To what extent may I as the hostess set boundaries? This guest will be coming to my city for five more weekends because she is taking a computer class. Let me say to begin with that this housing arrangement was not my idea, though I did agree to it when this person asked for a place to stay since she lives out of town and does not have the money to take a hotel room for the weekend of each class meeting.

The first problem results from the fact that I try to eat healthily; my guest does not. Does Miss Whozit think etiquette demands that the hostess should go out of her way to prepare unhealthy meals (which, by the way, would require purchasing totally different foods), or should the guest eat the healthy dishes served in the hostess's home in order to be courteous? When I tried to find a compromise, my guest indicated that she didn't wish to order out or go out to eat because she didn't wish to spend money. Complicating the situation is the fact that I am recovering from major surgery. Although I am now back to work, I am far from energetic and able to prepare special meals for her. The disconcerting thing about preparing a meal for this woman is that it is not at all uncommon for her to declare that she doesn't care for what has been served.

What boundaries can a hostess set without being rude, and, on the other hand, to what extent can a guest call the shots without being perceived as insulting to her hostess? Another complication is that the guest in this situation is totally blind, has deformed hands, and seems to have a wretched sense of direction. As a result she is often very demanding. For example, she frequently asks others, in this case me, to take the dog guide out for relief. She also often expects that the hostess will treat her to meals when they are out.

Shouldn't the guest treat once in a while, considering that she is not paying for a hotel room? Would Miss Whozit consider discussing these matters with the guest to be inappropriate or rude? If not, how can I raise these problems without insulting my guest?

Last Saturday evening three of us had dinner together, each buying her own meal. At my suggestion we then bought coffee and went to my apartment to drink it. My guest clearly said that she thought the third person would prefer the hostess to make coffee rather than buying it. I responded that, because I was still recovering from surgery, the friend would have to make do. I think it was really my guest not the friend who wanted brewed not bought coffee. As usual with this guest, we had to repeat this exchange of suggestion and refusal several times before she gave in. I think she believes that if she restates her position enough times, other people will cave in and do things her way.

As you can probably tell, I have come to feel that this whole arrangement is a grave imposition on me. Would it be rude to suggest to this guest that after her class she simply go home? Then my entire weekend would not be monopolized by a nagging, demanding guest who is pushy and self-centered. Thank you for your courteous attention to this matter.

Being Pushed Around and Tired of It

Dear Pushed Around:

Miss Whozit has almost been forced to dab her brow after reading such a list of catastrophes between hostess and guest. Except for the specific details, which have to do with blindness, the issues you raise really have nothing to do with visual acuity--other sorts of acuity, yes; etiquette, yes; but not vision. Nonetheless, you obviously require assistance, and your guest needs advice, so in the name of civility Miss Whozit will undertake to remind you both of a few of the facts of polite society.

In all candor and with deep respect for your generous impulses, why, my dear Pushed Around, did you ever agree to have a house guest while you were still recovering from surgery, especially one whom you did not know well? I recognize that you did not spontaneously issue the invitation, but you did agree to the arrangement. It is never uncivil to refuse such a request when you are recovering from surgery, have a new baby, are preparing to move, or face other personal complications.

But if you think that you again might consider having someone stay in your home during six weekends, I trust that you have now learned the hard way the necessity of making some inquiries and laying down some guidelines. Most people making such a request of an acquaintance understand the difference between using a bedroom and bath while taking a course in a distant city and accepting an invitation from someone prepared to entertain one during a visit. Your current guest apparently does not perceive the distinction.

In the circumstances Miss Whozit feels compelled to review the responsibilities of host and guest in this social interaction between rather distant acquaintances. Before beginning the series of visits, the two should agree on what meals are included in the arrangement. Usually this is at most a continental breakfast. If the hostess cooks her own breakfast and is willing to prepare more food, the guest should decide if she wishes to join in the meal. Because this convenient-bed arrangement is not the usual host-and-guest relationship, the guest can simply decline the meal or even make a request to bring in a few staples for preparing her own meal or meals.

Lunch or dinner can be shared if the hostess clearly invites her guest to join her. A statement such as, "I am having stir-fried tofu and vegetables (or fried chicken and mashed potatoes) this evening and could easily count you in," would signal to the guest what kind of cuisine is to be expected. Making any such offer is not required in the name of civility, given the terms of this housing arrangement. Miss Whozit does insist, however, that, if the invitation is accepted, the meal should be graciously served and graciously eaten. No announcements about not caring for the food one has been served or requests for alternative dishes should ever pass a guest's lips. If what is offered is completely inedible, one must as lightly as possible pass off the uneaten food with a face-saving fiction such as, "It smells delicious, but I have a strong allergy to peanuts (or something else in the dish), and neither of us wants the consequences of my eating them." This should be followed by an assurance that one is not hungry or that the salad will be plenty or anything to make the hostess feel less that she has sent her guest to bed hungry.

A conscientious hostess who has had such an experience will wish to find something within the range of her cooking style and skill that will be more acceptable the next time a meal is shared at her table. Sometimes this is impossible, and civil people will not make the experiment often, but under no circumstance is it appropriate for a guest to announce that he or she does not care for a dish or meal and demand something different. Likewise a gracious host or hostess never insists that a meal be eaten. Polite fictions have their place in civil society.

If a guest is staying without charge in the home of another person, even if no meals are included in the invitation, inviting the host or hostess to a meal out would certainly be a gracious gesture. If the host has reason to believe that accepting the invitation would cause financial hardship, it can be tactfully refused.

If a guest who uses a guide dog breaks a leg or sprains an ankle while staying in someone's home, the host should certainly make arrangements for someone else to take the dog out while the guest is incapacitated. This was not the case with your guest; she presumably was trained with the dog while her hands were impaired, and she takes the dog out when she is at home alone. She should certainly not expect that someone else will relieve the dog for her just because that person happens to be at hand. Therefore refusing gently to do the task, perhaps with a pleasantly stated reminder that the responsibilities of caring for the dog, however inconvenient, belong to the owner, is absolutely appropriate and perfectly civil.

As for your dinner out with coffee to follow at your home, it is usual for the host to offer refreshment to a group spending an evening in his or her home. Considering that you were still recovering from surgery, however, it was perfectly appropriate for you to suggest that everyone grab a cup of coffee and maybe a dessert before returning to the apartment. You might have saved yourself the barrage of hints about your providing refreshments if as part of this suggestion you had made reference to your still weakened condition, perhaps with an apology for being unable to fulfill the usual responsibility of a hostess. If this disclaimer did not head off the hints altogether, it would at least have put you in an unassailable position. On second thought, with a guest more or less tone deaf to the subtleties of social interaction, such an explanation might well have made no impact at all.

The real question is what to do to extricate yourself now that the two of you are enmeshed in a pattern of behavior that makes you, at least, feel angry and pushed around. Miss Whozit regrets to say that she fears nothing but a frank discussion can alter your difficult position. Pointing out the many incivilities in your guest's past behavior would probably do little to improve her manners. On the other hand, trying to reduce the number of points at which your lifestyles and notions of appropriate conduct come into conflict seems to Miss Whozit a sensible course of action. In the long run, however, Miss Whozit hopes that you have learned to establish the ground rules and limits of such housing offers.

Blind people are not naturally less capable of behaving with tact and consideration than the rest of society. Some people allow themselves to become self-centered and inconsiderate when their lives are complicated by poverty, disability, or misfortune. When faced with such a person, others must try to be understanding without becoming doormats. Happily, civility and graciousness cost nothing but a bit of self-discipline and development of consideration for others.