It is hard enough to know the ins and outs of proper etiquette in good times, but now -- during the worst recession since the Great Depression -- it can be almost impossible.
What is the right thing to say to a friend who has just been laid off? How do you say no to a dinner invitation when you can't afford a night out? And what should you do if it's your best friend's birthday, but you don't have money for a gift?
To find out how to handle these sometimes sticky situations, we turned to the expert -- Nancy Mitchell, otherwise known as "The Etiquette Advocate."
Question: How have the rules changed when it comes to how we deal with each other?
Nancy Mitchell: The golden rule of etiquette has always been that we put the needs and the comforts of other people before our own, and now that is just doubly important. We need to be more sensitive, we need to think before we speak, we need to think before we make plans, and just consider the circumstances that some of our friends and family are in right now.
Question: What's the biggest etiquette mistake people make in this economy?
Nancy Mitchell: I think the biggest etiquette mistake in this recession is when people are not sensitive to the feelings of someone who is in a bad situation ... and are being too obvious about the charity that they're giving someone. Often people don't want to accept charity; they don't want to be considered the charity case. So I think you really need to read the signals of friends and family members who may be in that situation. You don't want to come out and say something like, "Oh, come on, don't worry about money. I'll pay for this." That makes people uncomfortable. What you might do if you have a reluctant recipient is to go out and buy a gift certificate. Put your own name on it, call that friend and say, "I have a gift certificate to a great restaurant. I've always wanted to try it, come along with me. Please, be my guest."
Question: How should we approach a friend or family member who has lost their job?
Nancy Mitchell: You do want to approach someone who has been laid off in bad times by not ignoring the situation. Don't pretend that you don't know if you do. You don't have to say how you heard, you don't have to go into great detail, you'll just say, "It's so good to see you, I just heard about what happened at your company, I want you to know I would be happy to help in any way I can." Just open the door to the discussion and then leave it at that. That's when you start reading signals. Does the person want to talk about it? Are they very open? Are they very private? You'll get signals from people. You either continue with the conversation or it's dropped like a bomb.
Question: What is the number one thing people who are unemployed should remember when it comes to etiquette?
Nancy Mitchell: I think it is not to cut themselves off from other people, not to be embarrassed about their situation, not to hole up somewhere and just expect they will come back out of the hole once they are re-employed and expect everything to be the same. They have to maintain relationships, they have to stay in touch and frankly, the more people who know about someone's situation, the better it is for them. They're networking.