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What Happens When You Drink, But Everyone Else in Your Family Doesn’t?

Navigating booze and weed at the Thanksgiving dinner table with the help of Emily Post’s great-great grandson

The last name Post is synonymous with good manners. Since 1922, when Emily Post published Etiquette, her groundbreaking self-help manual, Post and her family have been identifying rules of modern-day manners and suggesting how best to follow them. Of course, such rules are always evolving — Etiquette is currently in its 19th edition — and today certainly has brought a new set of rules for a new era.

For example, now that 25 states have some form of legalized marijuana, is it cool to step outside and smoke a joint before dinner or bring edibles as a hostess gift? Is it appropriate to drink booze in front of your teetotaling in-laws? And what about having sex in their guest room?

To to find out, we consulted with Daniel Post Senning, Emily Post’s great-great grandson and current torch bearer for the family business. Post Senning co-wrote the 18th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette and co-hosts the podcast Awesome Etiquette, answering listeners’ questions about traditional etiquette and newly emerging issues in the modern world. We recently asked him to offer some best practices on vice management at Thanksgiving in 2016. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Let’s say you’re going to Thanksgiving dinner with people you know aren’t drinkers — they’re recovering alcoholics, Mormon in-laws or some variation of teetotaler. Should you refrain from drinking, too?There’s a good chance if you’re attending a gathering hosted by someone who doesn’t drink that alcohol isn’t going to be served. The old expression is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The version from our kids’ etiquette program is, “Tommy’s House, Tommy’s Rules.”

Either way, I think you’re wise to remember that people don’t drink for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s religious. Sometimes it has to do with health. Sometimes it’s personal. Sometimes someone just doesn’t like alcohol. My expectation would be that I’m going to follow the lead of the host. If alcohol isn’t being served, I’m not going to produce my flask and pass it around. It’s a day; it’s a night; it’s an evening. Even if you’re someone who enjoys a drink socially, you probably can survive a night without one if that’s the way your hosts are approaching it.

So if you show up with a bottle of wine and realize it’s now the only bottle of wine in the house, you probably shouldn’t ask for an opener?Exactly. I’ll take it one step further and raise a point of etiquette here: We advise people not to expect that the wine you bring will be served. Certainly not in the scenario you present, but for all sorts of other reasons, too. The host might already have wine plans for the meal. Or maybe there’s another guest at the party who doesn’t drink. Maybe it’s a health reason and someone recently had a heart attack. Maybe someone is pregnant and isn’t talking about it yet. Never expect that someone’s going to serve the alcohol you bring unless they requested you bring it and it’s been discussed ahead of time.

If you do end up drinking, are there best practices on how to moderate yourself to make sure you’re not overindulging and avoiding familial triggers?
It’s funny, I usually get this question in the context of a business holiday party. I’ll modify it a bit for the family affair. It can be easy to get overly enthusiastic or celebratory. Oftentimes that’s the nature of these gatherings. Maybe there’s a Bloody Mary bar. Or spiked eggnog. There are all sorts of subtle ways that alcohol can creep up on you in these environments. My advice is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In a business context, we strongly recommend a one-drink rule. The other thing to keep in mind is your role in the gathering. This can be tough because we live complicated lives. Ask yourself: Are these my closest, most intimate friends who have known me forever and are going to give me a bit of latitude? Or are these people who I don’t know as well and who are going to judge me on my behavior on this one night?

How about the reverse? Say you’re not a drinker, but you’re going to be with extended family for Thanksgiving where alcohol is central to any gathering. Is it okay to abstain?
Absolutely. There’s definitely a social convention to participate in what’s going on, but that doesn’t necessarily have to involve drinking. We often get the question, “Isn’t it rude to toast without alcohol?” No. That’s crazy! It’s a libation and about honoring someone. You can toast with any beverage you want to toast with. It’s not about drinking alcohol. That’s not the purpose of the toast. You’re not failing to participate in the toast by failing to drink alcohol.

What if you’re the host, though? You don’t drink, but your guests do. Are you still expected to load up the house with booze?
Emily Post didn’t drink. She claimed alcohol never crossed her lips, but she thought it was ridiculous for people to manage other people’s consumption and worked actively to end Prohibition. She always used to say, “The heart of good etiquette is ethical behavior.” So if serving alcohol is an ethical line you don’t feel comfortable crossing, you’re not obligated to serve it. You’re obligated to think about the comfort and enjoyment of your guests and being hospitable. But that can take different forms, and you can be creative about it. I had a relative, for example, who used to throw the biggest sober pig roast on the East Coast; 500 people, including large sober biker gangs, would attend. You can have a wild party without any alcohol.

On the flip side, I also know many nondrinkers who are comfortable providing alcohol for other people. I’m one of them. I have a less-than-zero problem with other people drinking. In fact, my wife and I were the guests of honor at a baby shower recently. The hosts had a Bloody Mary bar, and the whole family loved it. It was simply one part of a very festive affair.

What about other vices such as cigarettes and weed — particularly weed? Since it’s legal in a lot of states now, is it okay to bring it to a family gathering the way you might bring beer or wine?
Etiquette changes and evolves. If you were to pick up a 1970 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, there would’ve been a reference to having an ashtray on the dinner table so that guests who enjoy a smoke after dinner can do so. Now, there’s a whole courtesy around how you smoke when you’re at someone else’s home. That courtesy for me is that you excuse yourself, and at the very minimum, go outside. For many people it’s both outside and away from entrances. You might even want to be aware of how you smell when you return to the party because some will frown on those who smell like cigarettes.

The question about marijuana really has to due with liability. Any time I’m talking about serving alcohol, it’s important for me to also say that people need to know they’re liable for anyone they’ve served alcohol to and what that person does after they’ve been drinking. Our mantra is “safety trumps etiquette.” Take someone’s keys. Invite them to stay over. Drive them home and tuck them into bed yourself. Again, safety trumps etiquette.

Emily Post, courtesy of the Emily Post Institute.

So does that mean I can serve weed during Thanksgiving dinner provided everyone uses it responsibly?
That’s definitely a gray area these days. While it’s absolutely true that there are varying degrees of legalization across the country, it’s still something you want to be cautious about and acknowledge that different people feel differently about it. In other words, I wouldn’t assume it’s socially acceptable behavior, even if you’re going to a dinner party at your best friend’s house in Northern California. That said, I would give the same type of caution to someone who’s approaching this topic from the perspective of being taught since elementary school that marijuana is bad. At an intimate gathering of close friends, a shared recreational pastime like marijuana might be the thing that connects everyone together.

Last one: If you’re staying with family or friends over the long Thanksgiving weekend, should you also abstain from sex — either with your partner or someone you meet while you’re there?
Respecting people’s privacy is fundamentally important. And part of respecting someone’s privacy is not subjecting them to the intimate details of your love life. Far be it for me to tell someone not to have sex quietly and discreetly in the privacy of their room, wherever they’re accommodated. But if it’s something that becomes a question with other people, you’re starting to get into territory that’s not good houseguest behavior.

Another thing that comes up around the holidays is people who are coupled but unmarried long-term partners staying with a family where co-habitation isn’t allowed until marriage. Again, my rule of thumb is that you respect the rules of the house.

Tommy’s House, Tommy’s Rules?
Exactly. I’ve had cousins who were older than me who were fully functioning adults who my grandparents didn’t let sleep in the same bedroom at their house. Instead, my cousins and their partners would stay with an aunt or an uncle from a generation down where it wasn’t a problem. That’s not the only way you can handle these things, but it’s a good way to respect the rules your host has set. Even if their rules feel arbitrary to you, they still apply.