A reader writes (and reads, and writes again)

April 13th, 2011

To my surprise (this has happened perhaps two or three times since I’ve been writing the column) I got a letter from the first Letter Writer from this Sunday’s “Miss Conduct”! She wrote:

Hello again Miss Conduct, this is LV from Walpole (the hysterical woman married to the boor). Painful as it was to read your response this Sunday, my husband and I agreed that you are right. To our surprise, you helped us. You are good at what you do.

But we now have another question: what did you mean with the second sentence of the “looking a gift horse in the mouth” response? You wrote “I’m getting a sense of the kind of person you are.” I interpreted that to mean “I sense that you are a thoughtful person who is trying to make life easier for others.” My husband interpreted it as “I sense that you are a controlling, condescending person.” Just wondering.

I replied:

Dear LV–

How nice to hear from you! And I’m delighted to hear that you and your husband are working things out. I’m glad my words were helpful. I found the dynamic you described rather familiar, I have to admit.

The statement about the second letter writer was deliberately ambiguous, because I wanted her to reflect a bit. Have you noticed that sometimes people who start off like your interpretation (i.e., helpful, wanting to make things easy for others) often turn into the kind of person your husband was describing? I’d hoped to prompt a little self-examination with that comment.

I won’t know if it worked, because most people never write me back. I’m awfully glad you did, though! Best to you and husband–

That second dynamic, of helpfulness curdling, is one I am familiar with as well. I wrote about it here, in response to the Torah portion about Rebecca and Isaac.


4 Responses to “A reader writes (and reads, and writes again)”

  1. Jerry on April 13, 2011 1:19 pm

    My closest co-worker, usually a wonderful person, does this sometimes and ends up not-speaking to other employees for a few days. I have intervened a few times (typically too late) but normally I stay out of it since I do have to share an office with her forty hours a week.

    It’d be nice to know what the warning signs are. Seems like no one expects the Jan-ish Inquisition.

  2. Shulamuth on April 13, 2011 2:01 pm

    My friends and I differentiate between “helpful” (which is) and “helpy” (which is, in fact, not) comments. I don’t know who brought it into the group, but it’s certainly a useful distinction. It’s not quite the same thing you are describing because one can be helpy without attempting to be controlling, in situations where the other person just doesn’t want help, but it covers the territory.

  3. Robin on April 13, 2011 5:37 pm

    Brilliant distinction, Shulamuth! Like Colbert’s “truthiness.”

  4. Shulamuth on April 15, 2011 12:40 am

    Yes. I’ve found it very useful in deciding how much attention to pay to what other people suggest.

    And (maybe thanks to Colbert) it makes enough sense to people that sometimes you can use it to get through to the folks who are being sincerely helpy and get then to understand that you don’t need help here, really.

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