Let’s start off by saying I really, really love writing the “Miss Conduct” column. Getting this gig has been the best thing that has ever happened to me, professionally. All my life, I have pondered odd questions both large and small. I have studied and practiced all sorts of things, from improvisation to organizational change management to Judaism to psychology to applied ethics to mixed-media art, and I never in my life thought I’d have a job where I could bring it all together in a big glorious mix like the column allows me to. Also, being Miss Conduct gives me an excuse to wear fancy clothes and do fun things, like be auctioned off as a lunch date at theater galas. And now and then I think I, and you, manage to help someone along their way. This is an amazing blessing.
But hey. Our spouses, children, pets, and friends are all blessings as well, but life wouldn’t be worth living if we didn’t bitch about them from time to time, eh? So let me get a few “Miss Conduct”-related gripes off my chest. And, if any of you have tips for dealing with said gripes, I am all ears.
1. This is actually a comment I wrote about post: “I’m realizing more and more how many people write to me asking for ‘A polite way to ask/tell someone X,Y,Z,’ when in fact they mean ‘A way to get what I want without making anyone mad at me.’ Which has nothing to do with etiquette.” These folks aren’t always selfish, mind; often they’re concerned with the feelings of others. But there are no magic words. There are polite ways to tell people that their fly is down, that you’d like them to remove their shoes, that you’d prefer not to discuss your IVF, that you have run over their cat, that you won’t be able to attend their wedding. But politeness isn’t a prophylactic against other people’s emotions. They will still be embarrassed, annoyed, self-conscious, grief-stricken, disappointed.
2. The people in #1 are overly optimistic about the Power of Politeness, and they make me sad and frustrated, because I know I won’t be able to give them what they really want. I generally find them well-meaning, and I’m also quite aware that my feelings of having let them down probably say more about me than anything else. (I once explained to my therapist that I didn’t feel any party I hosted was a success unless everyone left with a new lover, a lead on a job, and/or a book contract. She suggested that was putting a bit too much on myself.)
The #2 people, though, are the ones who write in essentially asking me to condone their bad behavior. “I did this and it’s okay, RIGHT?” I hate letting the #1’s down, but these people can be sort of amusing … until I remember that they’re real. And they are actually out there living their entitled, self-centered lives, and treating the rest of the world like supporting players.
This wasn’t a question I received — it’s from Emily Yoffe’s chat on Tuesday — but it sums up the attitude in a breathtaking fashion:
My husband and I are approaching our 50th wedding anniversary. This is very important to us, and we think it should be important to our children, too. Our oldest son, however, seems completely indifferent to such things. At 41, he has a good (if insecure) job and just ONE child to support, so I think he should be footing the bill for some kind of celebration (perhaps a cruise?). Admittedly, he’s preoccupied with career worries, he and his partner don’t splurge on themselves, and since they’re not married, they don’t even celebrate their own anniversary. Still, is it wrong for me to drop hints that something more than a late card would be appropriate this time around? After all, I brought this boy into the world, so I feel like he owes us some gratitude.
Um, yeah. Happily, Ms. Yoffe shot her down good, but still. Dismantling a good #2 can be fun, except you know deep down that they won’t listen to you.
3. Being “Miss Conduct.” Yes, it’s fun sometimes. Most of the time. And I get a kick out of telling people about it, and most people, once they get over the initial “OMG you’re an etiquette columnist I have to be TOTALLY PROPER around you or you’ll judge me,” find it interesting and a good conversation starter. And after about two minutes in my presence, most people grasp that the notion that I require, embody, or even approve of TOTAL PROPRIETY is pretty much a joke, and after that the good times start.
However. I don’t like getting a question at 11:00am on a Sunday asking for a prompt response because the baby shower that the question is about is at 2:00 pm that day. I don’t like it when friends ask me for advice on basic etiquette questions they could just as easily Google. I don’t like being asked to “play Miss Conduct” and solve people’s personal dilemmas at social events.
And this, too, is to some extent about me. Because I really wish I could solve all the problems. But I can’t. And I’m not Miss Conduct the way Peter Parker is Spiderman; I’m a writer. I write a column and two blogs and chat twice a month and if your question doesn’t get in to one of those forums, chances are good that I’m not going to answer it.
I wish people understood that about advice columnists, how it really works. How we don’t answer every question we get.* How far in advance we write the columns. I hate knowing that people are looking to me for help and I’m not giving it to them, and they don’t understand the structural reasons why. (Even more frustratingly, because of the setup of the Globe e-mail, I can’t generate an automatic response that would explain to people that their question may or may not be answered.)
When it comes to being “Miss Conduct” around people I know … that’s an odd one. It’s probably as awkward for my friends, sometimes, as it is for me: obviously, friends share stories, and ask advice, from each other all the time. It’s clear when you’ve crossed the line with a friend who’s a doctor, or a computer person, or a lawyer, but an advice columnist? And the fact is I’ve always been a huge yenta. So it’s a grey area.
Anyway, those are my complaints. Minor, but ongoing. If anyone has any advice about how to handle a guru-like profession while maintaining a normal social life (do I have readers who are clergy? life coaches? therapists?) I’m all ears — but hey, you’re off duty. So don’t write about it if you don’t feel like it.
*Ann Landers used to, but she had a staff.