17 May 2023

It's not about you...

It is reasonable to presume, when you are out in the world and socialising, that you will show your best face to the world. Especially if you are enjoying hospitality, the expectation is that you will be positive, amenable and enthusiastic. It is a social obligation to behave well and to do your utmost to be polite and engaging at all times.

However, this expectation may be undermined when we feel aggrieved, overlooked, or patronised. People who have, for whatever reason, taken umbrage often resort to passive aggression – conveying their negative feelings by disengaging, radiating discontent and signalling their unwillingness to be convivial. People who behave in this way can completely change the social dynamic, transforming a happy occasion into something much more troubling and highly charged.

This form of manipulative behaviour will be familiar to all of us from childhood, when it is frequently deployed in a comically histrionic way, and it is disturbing how persistent and subtly effective it can be amongst some adults. Passive aggression is much displayed in familial and romantic relationships, and can set up disastrous patterns of behaviour, where the sulker enjoys the upper hand, wielding his/her discontent to the consternation of concerned loved ones and creating a poisonous atmosphere.

When it comes to social relationships, this tendency is also much in evidence. Small slights and setbacks – an overlooked acquaintanceship, a sub-standard meal, a remark that is taken the wrong way – can upset the social equilibrium, and a person who is determined to revel in feelings of being hard done by and sulks can blight social occasions for everyone.

At times like this, it is vital to remember that it is not always about you – your feelings, wishes, or disappointments. When you accept an invitation to a social event, you are entering into a social contract. The assumption is that you will discard egotism, put your best foot forward and make a meaningful contribution. If you are unwell, overtired, stressed or in any way debilitated, then it would be sensible to politely refuse the invitation, on the grounds that you cannot guarantee that your presence will enhance proceedings.

 If you are going to a restaurant as somebody’s guest, or for a special celebration such as a birthday dinner, you will need to adjust your behaviour to the occasion. It is not appropriate to make a fuss about the menu, the service or the quality of the meal. While you are quite entitled to complain about these things when you are the person who is picking up the bill in everyday circumstances, if you are going to a restaurant to treat somebody else you must ensure that your behaviour does not impact negatively on them.

You may find the menu choice inadequate, the service poor, the food mediocre. But you must do your best to appear to be enjoying what you are served. Don’t upstage your companion by a display of ‘power ordering’ (making special off-menu demands) and if the food is inedible, take a couple of bites and then put it to one side saying you’re not particularly hungry. Under no circumstances should you complain, sulk, or become grumpy. In this situation it is advisable to park your gastronomic priorities and concentrate on fully engaging in the social event – that means being positive and upbeat and focusing your attention on your dining companion. Even if you are picking up the bill on a special occasion, for example your guest’s birthday, remember that complaining vociferously may well tarnish the experience for your guest, making them feel responsible for your dissatisfaction. If the meal is so disastrous that even the person who is being treated finds it intolerable, then you can complain without inhibition, but you must always wait, observe your companion’s reactions to the food, and amend your behaviour accordingly.

Good manners are about focusing on other people, and doing your best to ensure that your own behaviour does not have a negative effect on them. Many social occasions are about celebrating big events in other people’s lives, or recognising their achievements and you must remind yourself that, on these occasions, you are merely a member of the supportive chorus not the person with the starring role.

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