Observing the Word of Wisdom—Politely

Dealing with the problem of protocol when entertaining and being entertained by those with standards different from our own.

Because I’ve spent many years mingling with nonmembers, entertaining and being entertained by them, I’m often asked how a member of the Church should respond when confronted with a conflict of standards, particularly in regard to the Word of Wisdom. Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to relate some of the ways I’ve handled the problem and share some of the principles I’ve learned from my experiences.

Let me first address the problems a host may face when entertaining nonmember friends.

Today, my wife and I simply request that visitors in our home observe the Word of Wisdom. We have no ash trays, and serve no coffee or alcohol. I even ask friends not to smoke in the car I drive and the small planes I fly. None are offended. But it wasn’t always that easy.

I remember a tough time when we were just married. I was barely back from my mission and had accepted a position with one of the most important international banks in the world. They sent us to South America, where we were expected to entertain friends of the bank and many dignitaries. I learned something fundamental about different cultures during those years. Every culture devises social forms and rituals to communicate hospitality, friendliness, and acceptance. Some of these rituals fit comfortably with the Word of Wisdom, but others do not. We found, however, in nearly every situation, as both hosts and guests, that we could modify the content of these social rituals and come up with something that would still let us participate warmly and sincerely in the friendliness implied in the ritual.

For instance, there’s the ticklish business of formal champagne toasts in traditional champagne glasses. When I was a guest, I would ask the head waiter for juice instead of champagne. All you need to do is talk to him when you arrive. Do not wait until the moment of the toast because you cannot ask the whole party and the host to wait for you. A tip to the head waiter helps him remember who you are. It also helps to tell him where you will be standing if there is a large group of people.

When an LDS member is the host and needs to offer a toast, the problem is more conspicuous. I solved the problem successfully for the first time in Paraguay, and used that formula from then on. At a major banquet in which I had to offer a toast to the president of the country, to his cabinet ministers, and to Paraguay as our host country, I decided to use water. In many Latin American cities the water is not pure, but in Paraguay one of our clients was the new municipal water system, which for the first time in that country’s history produced a pure, fine-tasting uncontaminated water. At the appropriate time, I lifted my champagne glass full of water and announced to the assembled important people, “I don’t know what you have in your glasses, but in mine I have the purest of liquids—water from the municipal water system of Asuncion—and I lift my glass in a cordial toast to his Excellency, the President,” etc., etc. The compliment was sincere, and it worked very well. They laughed, and no one ever forgot that “Mormon Toast.”

As hosts, we had two styles. According to our agreement with the bank, we entertained “bank style” for business purposes when they paid the bill—the waiters, the caterers, etc. But there were many occasions when business friends would drop in unexpectedly and we would invite them to dinner. We would say, “You’re here as our friends, and we want to treat you as family.” We would serve them only what we were serving the family—no coffee, no drinks.

At other times, when it was a special affair of our own, such as a party for relatives or visiting Church dignitaries from the States, we would tell our guests in advance that this was to be a “Mormon party” and they would understand what was expected of them. Nearly always, if some smoked, they had simply forgotten and would go outside when given a gentle reminder.

Being a host has a different set of problems than being a guest in a nonmember home. It’s a lot easier to be a guest. Our hosts bent over backward to make us feel comfortable, and we tried to help them. We found that juices, not milk, are the easiest substitute for coffee. I found that when our hosts asked, “Coffee?” they really wanted us to feel comfortable and were perfectly happy to take care of us if we answered, “No, thanks, but do you have any juice?” If they didn’t have any juice, we simply reassured them that we really didn’t need anything. But the next time we were in their home, or the next time a Latter-day Saint came to their home, they always had some juices on hand. In most countries there are now hot cereal-based beverages or herb “teas” that are easy substitutes for coffee or tea.

I sometimes used the same approach with wine at formal dinners, asking for unfermented grape juice instead. They usually didn’t have it the first time, but they did the second time. We found out that almost everyone wanted to try our unfermented grape juices with their dinners. We didn’t try to be furtive about it. We just made it part of the enjoyable dinner conversation.

Hostesses who were inviting us to their parties usually called to ask if we had any preferences of juices; if there were other things we couldn’t eat, such as ham; or if we were vegetarians. We always explained at each opportunity what our Word of Wisdom was, and they were usually relieved that it was so simple.

Tobacco was never a problem. People don’t smoke to be sociable. There may be some societies where there is a tobacco protocol, but I have not encountered them. Abstinence is a sign of wisdom in the international social circles I have been in.

There is one occasional moment of very high protocol, however, which is a bit of a problem unless you are forewarned. That is in those very elegant homes where they serve high tea, a ritual usually reserved for intimate family members and close friends of the family. The tremendous formality and protocol of the whole affair are most impressive, almost symbolic. The tea service is ornate sterling silver, dating back hundreds of years. The cups and saucers are of the most delicate imported bone china. The hostess has her place, and a matron of honor is chosen to help her pour. The tea bags are arranged, the boiling water is poured, and the hostess looks at you and says, “One sugar or two?”

One answer is just to say, “No, thanks, but a lovely hot lemon tea would be nice.” That makes it easy for them to just pour the boiling water over the lemon slice always available, and you could enjoy it and the delicious pastries arranged on silver platters in front of you.

In my experience I have never found it necessary to avoid a social situation because of the Word of Wisdom. If there wasn’t an easy way or a humorous way, there was never anything wrong with the direct way: “No, thanks.” No one ever said anything other than, “Can I get you something else?”

I have never found any cause for uneasiness or embarrassment in observing the Word of Wisdom. I have never found a host or hostess who was not totally interested in serving exactly what we wanted. No one ever questioned our standards; in fact, I do not remember a social occasion in which we were not asked to explain our religion, and most of the time it was the Word of Wisdom that started the conversation. As I perceived it, we always had the respect of our friends and colleagues for our position.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Observing the Word of Wisdom—Politely,” you may want to discuss the following questions.

1. How does a person’s attitude toward the Word of Wisdom affect his attitude toward those with standards different from his own?

2. Which of the author’s suggestions seem particularly valuable to your own situation?

3. What other ways have you discovered to let others know politely what your standards are in regard to the Word of Wisdom?

4. Under which conditions could an LDS host appropriately ask his guests to observe his own standards? Under which conditions would he not?

5. Why can deciding now how to respond to the kind of social situations the author describes help you avoid embarrassment or difficulty when you find yourself in such situations?

[photos] Photography by Michael M. McConkie