Like most advice columnists, I get far more questions than I can use, and the only ones that get answered are the ones that are published in my column. (I wish more people understood that about the nature of advice-column writing, but that’s a topic for another day.) I think perhaps once or twice I’ve written a person back directly, not for publication. One of these happened last week, and it’s fairly obvious why the following question would have caught my eye:
My partner started a new job, and colleagues have been inviting us to dinner parties to welcome us. This would be great except that I have a digestive disorder and have strong reactions to dairy, red meat, fried food, shellfish, chocolate, and alcohol. It feels like a big imposition to give hosts this long list, especially when we barely know them and they are already being so kind. I don’t want them to feel obligated to serve some dreary menu lacking all these yummy things, or feel they need to cook extra things for me.
I need to make a good impression, not be a pain in the neck. But I can’t eat those foods; if there’s alcohol in something, I get sick pretty rapidly.
Is there a graceful way to inform hosts about my health issues but not make them feel they must go to extra trouble? Or is it better to say nothing, show up, and just eat the carrots? Or should I just stay home? Thank you!
The LW signed the letter with the initials “IBS.”
I wrote back:
I almost never e-mail directly to questions, but I’ve got a lot of food-related q’s coming up in the column, so this one won’t make it in.
I also have the digestive trifecta: IBS, gastritis, and GERD. You and I could have a good time together drinking our herbal tea (with no mint!) and playing “Forbidden Foods Bingo,” so I’m really feeling where you’re coming from.
Here’s what I’d do. I think you should go. We’re not living in the “Mad Men” era where the proper corporate wife was an essential part of her husband’s career, but still, it’s good to get to know the folks your partner will be working with. Bail on a couple of dinners, if you need to, but do try to make most of them.
For the ones you’re going to attend, call the hosts. Tell them something like, “I’m so looking forward to meeting you. Unfortunately, I am dealing with some digestive issues at the moment, and I’m on a ridiculously restricted diet. Can I bring a side dish? It would make things easier for me, and I don’t want you to have to change your menu.” Then you make your side dish, bring it (along with some non-alcoholic wine or sparkling cider), and eat that and whatever else you can have. If they protest, laugh and say, “No, believe me, I can’t eat X and Y and Z and A and B–you’re not the Canyon Ranch Spa, I don’t expect to be catered to! Besides, my partner loves all those things, and it’s not like s/he gets them at home!”
If the colleagues become close friends, you’ll work it out together over time. And I don’t know why telling people you have digestive issues “at the moment” makes them more comfortable (and less likely to tell you about the magical cure that worked for their sister-in-law) than admitting to a chronic condition, but it does.
“IBS” wrote back, thanked me for my advice, and said things had been going well so far.
I’m still questioning myself about that “at the moment” thing, though. I’ve been saying this a lot about myself, but that’s because I’m still working out exactly how much margin for error I have in my diet. IBS clearly knows, and doesn’t have much margin at all.
So was I going against my own principles of body acceptance, and acknowledging our “sicks,” by suggesting that IBS elide the actual nature of her condition? (It’s not a lie, per se: she is dealing with IBS “at the moment,” after all.)
Yet I find people are more comfortable, and also much less likely to pry/sympathize excessively/suggest cures, when you frame your condition as temporary. So if “I have a chronic illness and I’m not ashamed of it” is something that a person is militant about, there’s going to be the psychic cost involved of constantly dealing with the clueless. (Obviously, whether you frame an illness as short- or long-term depends on how visible it is. You can’t see that IBS and I have diseases. People like the woman with trichotillomania don’t have the luxury of this debate.)
There’s also something known as the “primacy effect” that comes into play here. People tend to place greater weight on the first pieces of information they receive. If you lead with your illness, which IBS would have to do if she’s calling people she never met to ask about their menus — that’s going to be the main thing people remember about you. By downplaying the illness and, er, up-playing her willingness to bring a side dish and enthusiasm to meet her husband’s colleagues, IBS can shift her initial impression from “the sick lady” to “the friendly lady and creative cook.”
What do you think? Was my advice good, or too namby-pamby?
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