How to share in a religious celebration - while avoiding awkward moments

The Globe and Mail

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You may not believe in God, but your Aunt Marge does. So when she invites you over for a holiday meal, should you participate in the family’s religious rituals and prayers, or risk offending your host?

Whether it’s Easter dinner, Passover, a wedding or bar mitzvah, certain gatherings can get awkward when guests and hosts don’t share the same faith. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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We asked authorities of good behaviour how both guests and hosts can happily celebrate without embarrassing themselves or infringing on each others’ beliefs. Here, they offer their advice:

FOR GUESTS

Do your homework: If you don’t know what’s appropriate or what to expect, find out before you go. On certain occasions, for example, it may not be fitting to bring gifts. On others, it may be frowned upon to show up empty-handed.

“It’s like if you travel to another country,” says Suzanne Nourse, founder and director of The Protocol School of Ottawa. “You have a responsibility to do your homework, so you don’t go to the Middle East in short shorts and a tank top.”

Have an open mind: You may never become a convert, but be willing, at least, to explore what others’ rituals and beliefs entail, says Margaret Page, founder and director of Etiquette Page in Vancouver.

“Obviously, you have something in common because you’ve been invited,” she says.

Besides, Ms. Page adds, you never know. You may come away with a different perspective, or a better understanding of a particular belief system.

Keep your objections to yourself: “Silently respect the host’s observation,” says Toronto etiquette expert Karen Cleveland. “That’s a hard rule.”

Someone else’s event is not the forum to tout your religious differences, she says.

And don’t just keep your comments to yourself, Ms. Nourse adds. Eye-rolling and hostile body language are no-no’s as well.

“If you feel so strongly against something, then don’t go,” Ms. Nourse says. And if you do decide to go, consider it an honour.

Know the difference between active and passive participation: During prayers, go ahead and bow your head as a sign of respect, Ms. Cleveland says. But you needn’t go beyond that. “You’re not doing anything active. You’re not repeating words, you’re not saying a prayer, you’re not participating in any sort of religious activity.”

Should you fake it? “I think to each their own,” Ms. Cleveland says, noting that she has attended various weddings in the past, in which she’s been moved to repeat a prayer, just because it felt convivial. “I suppose it just depends on where your convictions lie.”

FOR HOSTS

Make it easy for your guests: If you know your guests aren’t familiar with your customs, prepare them for what to expect, Ms. Nourse says. They’ll appreciate it if you give them a heads-up about any dress codes or taboos.

Don’t be pushy: “Where we see challenges is when people become forceful, when they want this other person to see things the way they see things,” says Ms. Page.

Let your guest determine how much they want to know about your beliefs. Give them the opportunity to ask questions, she says. Don’t bombard them with what you’d like them to know. “Otherwise, [you]scare them.”

Let guests choose how they want to participate: If a guest wants to be a silent observer, so be it, Ms. Cleveland says. “I think an excellent metaphor might be if you’re having vegetarian dinner guests, would you insist on having steak?”

At the same time, she says, carry on with your plans and with how you celebrate the occasion. There’s no need to go out of your way to accommodate. For instance, when drawing up the guest list, she says, “I wouldn’t worry about doing a mental tally of various sects to make sure [no one feels left out]”

If you’re having overnight guests, and you don’t know what to do with them when it’s time to go to church, synagogue or the mosque, let them know your plans. “Say, ‘Look, we’re headed to Mass at 10 a.m. if you’d like to join us. If not, we’re going to round up for brunch here at noon,’” Ms. Cleveland says. That way, you’ve put out the invitation and have still given them an opportunity to bow out.