Why I won’t say “He bites”

June 30th, 2011

During yesterday’s chat, the following dialogue took place:

lovemydog:
I have an elderly dog who has always been leery of strangers. Is there a kind way I can convey to people we see during our nightly walks that I’d prefer they not pet him when/if they ask? He’s cute but cantankerous and has had some health problems recently. I don’t want to sound rude in any way.

MissConduct:
Position yourself somewhat between the dog and the person and say, with a regretful smile, “I’m sorry, but he’s old and a little cranky and unpredictable, so I try to keep him away from strangers.” People will understand. I have to do that with Milo, too, sometimes.

McDinkus:
I’d just say, “Careful, he bites”.

MissConduct:
No, then people can get all flippy on you about having a dog who bites. Besides, as a dog owner, you feel bad when you libel your dog like that.

I realized today why the “Careful, he bites,” recommendation bothered me. It’s because I don’t like to encourage people to think of dogs — either individual dogs or breeds — as categorically “dangerous” or “safe.” For the same reason, a few weeks ago, I criticized parents who forbid their children to be around pit bulls:

The pit bull ban is remarkably stupid and short-sighted, and not likely to protect the kid at all even if pit bulls were more dangerous than other dogs. Children should be taught the signs of danger, not the corollaries of danger. Tell your kid that she can’t be around pit bulls and she’s going to take away not only the message that pit bulls are a menace, but that other breeds aren’t. The fact is, all dogs can bite, and all dog bites can do damage. If you want your child to be safe around dogs, you teach them proper dog etiquette and how to recognize a dog’s aggressive intentions. Crude profiling techniques don’t keep individuals safer; paying attention to what individuals (dogs and humans) are doing, and developing a good sense of intuition, do.

No, I’m not cavalier about the prospect of children being savaged by pit bulls, as the Misreading Brigade among my commenters seemed to think. But there will always be some breed that tops the “most bites” list, and thinking that dog safety begins and ends with avoiding that breed is like thinking that auto safety means never riding in whatever make of car has been in the most accidents. Saying “he bites” about Milo is as accurate as saying “it crashes” about my car. I’m not really concerned about libeling my little guy*, but I don’t like sending the message that as long as you avoid the bad dogs, you’ll be safe. All dogs are potentially dangerous, and all dogs — like all people — have moods, and circumstances, in which they don’t act like themselves.

*The dog’s self-esteem is not a problem. As a friend of mine said today, “Milo never doubts that he’s the lead in the movie.”

Meant to say …

June 27th, 2011

I’d meant to post a follow-up bit of advice after my “mediocrevore” article two weeks ago. The best answer I’ve come up with when people ask me why I’m eating light or not drinking is, “I have way more energy if I eat a lot of vegetables/stay away from sweets/avoid alcohol.” It’s true, but it’s not overly specific and doesn’t offer anything another person can argue with, offer unwanted advice for, or gossip about. It’s also an answer that doesn’t seem to make other people feel defensive and guilty the way mentioning a weight- or fitness-related goal woes.

If you’re a healthy eater who gets a lot of questions, try this sometime. Let me know if it works!

Theater ethics

June 17th, 2011

No Twitter feed this week, as I’ve not been in a tweeting state of mind. However, take a look at this wonderful “Code of Ethics for the Theater,” circa 1945 (brought to my attention by Alison Klejna of Central Square Theater). We should all have such a sense of honor and teamwork and dignity in and about our workplaces:

Since I respect the theatre in which I work, I shall do my best to keep it looking clean, orderly and attractive regardless of whether I am specifically assigned to such work or not.

I shall handle stage properties and costumes with care for I know they are part of the tools of my trade and are a vital part of the physical production.

I shall follow rules of courtesy, deportment and common decency applicable in all walks of life (and especially in a business in close contact with the public) when I am in the theatre, and I shall observe the rules and regulations of any specific theatre where I work.

I shall never lose my enthusiasm for theatre because of disappointments.

This list, adjusted for the industry, is also excellent advice for those going into their first jobs. Who wouldn’t want a co-worker who followed the advice above?

My friend will put me out of business

May 26th, 2011

My friend Jennifer House wrote this the other day:

I am thinking of going into business – creating greeting cards for shy neighbors.

“Are your enthusiastically amorous neighbors keeping you up at night?”
Poetic ANSWER – slip this under their door:

“Life without love is no life at all —but please move your headboard away from the wall.”

I’m a good advice columnist, but I’m no poet. Jennifer is.

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.

Direct communication, a follow-up

April 11th, 2011

After my e-mail interview on times when politeness is not a major concern, I was asked some follow-up questions:

What’s the best way to address someone being a public bully?

Develop your instincts for how to deal with the bullies themselves. (I recommend self-defense training for everyone.) But the person often overlooked is their victim. Praise the bullied person for handling the situation well (whether she did or not), and help her recover her poise.

What’s the best way to address someone who’s putting down your parenting skills?

Same as you would your child if he called you a “poopyhead.” Thank the kibbitzer for her advice, inform her calmly that you don’t find the advice particularly helpful in the moment, and either excuse yourself or redirect the conversation. Use your words. Just because someone calls you a poopyhead, doesn’t mean you are one.

What’s the best way to address awful customer service? Is it best to not leave any tip if service is not good?

No, because the server will interpret that to mean that you are cheap, not that he is incompetent. Bad service should be addressed when it is happening. Then, if the server shapes up, leave an above-average tip. If she does not, leave a minimal tip, and let the manager know as well.

Also, in the comments section, Stephanie mentioned having “been told while in public with my girlfriend, by strangers, that I am a bad influence on the children around me. Usually this is in the ?politest? way possible ? as though surely if I had realized children were around I wouldn?t have held hands with the person I love, because obviously they?ll catch my horrible gay disease.”

UGH!

Here’s my take on why you still want to be polite in this situation. No, it is not because the person deserves your courtesy. However, pearls sometimes shine the brightest before swine. You want to respond in a civil fashion for your own sake, to retain your sense of power. Like the criticized mother in example #2, you want to take a gentle, in-control, oh-so-vaguely-patronizing tone toward your attacker. You’re bigger than they are. Act like it.

The second reason is for the child. Talk about a teachable moment — behave in a dignified, boundary-setting fashion (my specific recommendation was “I’m afraid that’s your problem, not ours”) and you are scoring a direct hit against the bigotry this kid is being raised with.

Direct communication

April 7th, 2011

I did an e-mail interview last week in which I was asked “to come up with a couple situations, in your experience, that don’t necessarily require the most polite response. It would also be great if you could comment on how to handle them … This small piece is going within a larger piece about etiquette, so we wanted to highlight the situations where you shouldn’t allow yourself to be walked all over.”

There was more to it than that, but this was the basic idea. Which I found a frustrating question, because I think that’s a misreading of what “politeness” is. Here’s what I wrote in response:

Politeness is always important, but you can assert yourself while being civil and kind about it. Some people think that “good manners” means being terribly euphemistic and fancy all the time, but it really doesn’t. A well-mannered person is a person who can change her style to suit the occasion. Here are some times when direct communication is the best:

1. When you are in charge. When you are the boss (whether at work, hosting a party, or running a community event), act like it. This doesn’t mean barking commands — but it does mean giving clear directives and feedback. You aren’t being “polite” by making other people read your mind or reassure you that you’re really in control.

2. When “subtle hints don’t work.” As an advice columnist, I am constantly amazed by the number of people who write to me about clueless co-workers, spouses, roommates, or neighbors, whose behavior drives the Letter Writer righteously batty, and who don’t pick up on “hints” to change.

If hinting doesn’t work, stop hinting! There’s nothing wrong with asking a co-worker not to microwave broccoli because the smell bothers you; or telling your spouse that silly as it may be, Valentine’s Day is important to you, so get some game next year; or asking a roommate not to use the last of your milk.

3. When the answer is “No.” A “no” can be final and commanding (to a pushy stranger at a bar) or sweet and regretful (to a friend who wants you to volunteer yet again to organize the school auction), but when “No” is the answer you need to give, give it. Apologize only if necessary, and never offer excuses.

Dining out etiquette

March 25th, 2011

I did a print interview for the WBUR “Public Radio Kitchen” blog, which appeared during Boston’s Restaurant Week (and which I just now found online). In it, I brought up the concept of “dining local,” given that local eating has become so fashionable. At times, I feel that Mr. Improbable and I are awfully boring, returning over and over to our favorite neighborhood haunts. But the sense of a local place, of a relationship between the diner and the, er, diner (I didn’t say we went to fancy haunts), gives the experience a home-like quality. When you’re in a place where they know your name, or at least your face, all food is comfort food.

There’s an appetizer for that …

March 15th, 2011

I was having coffee with a friend last week, and she pulled out her iPhone to take a picture of me for some reason that seemed compelling in the moment. (I used to absolutely hate having my picture taken, and I still don’t like it, but I can relax about it much better than I used to, and even look pretty good most of the time. Which of course leads me to relax even more, which makes my pictures even better, and so on. The opposite of the cycle I was on for most of my life.)

Her phone had a see-through gel case around it, and on the back of it, beneath the case, she had inserted a half-dozen fortune cookie fortunes that had struck her fancy. She held the phone close enough that I could read them while she took my picture, and my smile was unforced. It was a cute bit of personalization, and if you often use an iPhone to photograph a reluctant subject or subjects, putting an amusing slogan or picture on the back of your phone can break the tension.

Learning social skills

February 23rd, 2011

A friend of mine posted a link to this article on Facebook last week. It’s about a program to teach social skills to kids who don’t naturally pick that sort of thing up:

Yet until now, it’s always been assumed making friends is something that young people should learn to do by themselves — even if some are naturally better at it than others. Now that idea is being turned on its head by a new approach that treats problems forming social relationships in the same way as a learning difficulty, like dyslexia … But in the same way as techniques have been developed to help with those with academic learning difficulties, there are now skills that can aid children with poor social interaction, according to American child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner, who first devised the Social Thinking programme to teach “bright but socially clueless students” at high schools in California.

Take a look. I think it’s brilliant that such skills are being taught, although it’s not quite as groundbreaking as it might seem: old-fashioned “charm schools” had a similar curriculum, without edifying jargon about “theory of mind” or “mirror neurons” to validate it.

There’s a tendency, I think, to consider social skills indicative of the kind of person you are, of one’s essential nature or moral quality. The idea of learning social skills has an unpleasant whiff of manipulation, of Becky Sharp, about it.

I know I would have benefited from this kind of training when I was a kid. As I’ve written often before, I tend to be good at analyzing social situations precisely because I don’t have a “natural” sense of it. (I have a natural sense of balance, and I couldn’t teach another person how to take a fall without injury if I had to.) I discovered etiquette books when I was in my early teens, and devoured all sorts of self-help and tips and tricks for the next decade or so. Studying theater helped even more.

What about you? How did you learn to make sense of the social world when you were growing up? How do you coach your kids — do they only need instruction in “manners,” or do they need help with some of the deeper, more tacit, aspects of the social dance?

Should we blame “Mad Men” for this?

February 22nd, 2011

This is annoying. An article on “Brokelyn” about “How to Survive as a SAHG (Stay-at-Home-Girlfriend.” The author lost her job shortly after moving in with her boyfriend, and her article — illustrated with a woman in a French maid outfit vacuuming while daydreaming about martinis — is a retro riff on the joys of staying home cleaning and cooking for one’s man.

The annoying bit is that the article is actually really good advice for a person who is in the difficult situation of being unemployed and living with someone who isn’t. It’s advice men and women, straights and gays, could use. Or, for that matter, people who have had to move back in with their parents. (Except for the part about having lots of sex with the person who’s putting a roof over your head.) The author suggests getting up when the employed person does, which keeps you on a regular schedule and reduces the other person’s resentment; take good care of yourself physically; get out of the house at least once a day; make a contribution such as cleaning the house or cooking; make physical pleasure a priority in your relationship.

This is great advice. It’s hard to be provided for. It’s hard to be the provider. Straight up, it’s hard for relationships between adults to be unequal.

So why couch this good advice in such “oooh I’m so daring by being a 50s housewife” language?

Is it because a straightforward article on how to cope with unemployment and the relationship strains it inevitably produces just isn’t sexy enough? Not edgy?

I mean, French maids’ outfits and martinis. Oooh la la.

I don’t even think it’s sexism that’s underlying this. Sure, sexism gives this article its shape. But I think, deep down, it’s pure economic terror. Unemployment is fun if you can say breezily, “The thing is, even though I?ve gotten the whole domestic thing down to a science, the idea of being an actual housewife is not at all appealing. I still fully intend to have a career of my own. Until I land that new job, I?m doing the best job I can as a stay-at-home girlfriend.”

But what if it’s not a fun, erotic power game any more?

What if you never find another job?

If we can pretend it’s all a game, it will go away. Playing house until the next $70K gig lands in our lap.

When it gets real — when your boyfriend wakes up in the night wondering if he still loves you, or merely feels obligated to support you until you get back on your feet; when your contribution isn’t fixing martinis and meals from the Whole Foods deli section for your hot boo, but cleaning out your mother’s sewing room; when the friends who used to so happily give you manicures start to smell that whiff of desperation that comes out of your pores — that’s not so very much fun.

The hell with the sexism. I started writing this post because that part made me angry. The more I think about it, the more I think the article’s worst sin is in the way it whistles past the cemetery.

For some people, unemployment means something other than a chance to engage in regressive fantasies.

Staying sane on the internets

October 22nd, 2010

Is it me, or are the internets wearing a lot of people out these days? It seems that a number of blogs are shutting down, and I’ve been feeling a lot of angst among my Facebook set as well. Those of us who have computer-centric jobs can feel continuously bombarded with upsetting news, most of which we can’t do anything about. (I don’t know which I find more depressing, really: the opinions of my FB friends whom I disagree with politically, or the constant links to an ongoing litany of outrages shared by those on my side.) All of which led me to post this a few weeks ago on my Facebook page:

A crazy idea: for every one thing you read on the internet that makes you sad or angry, commit one act of love. Sign a petition. Post a funny video to a friend’s wall. E-mail the manager of your local Starbucks and tell them about the excellent service you got. Introduce two people whom you know would enjoy each other. Ask for other people to share their stories on your blog.

I’ve been practicing this without being consciously aware of it for a few weeks now, and it has, I feel, made a huge difference to my head and heart and soul. Try it.

I’ve been keeping it up since then, and it’s continued to work. And then yesterday, I was catching up on some back issues of New Scientist, and read an article about happiness by Dan Jones. Much of what he said I was already familiar with, but I learned about Barbara Frederickson’s “broaden & build” theory of positive emotions for the first time. According to this theory, positive emotions — joy, affection, curiosity, playfulness — lead to a broadening of our ability to imagine different ways of thinking and acting. And the actions that these emotions prompt us to take — expressing kindness to others, getting physical exercise, exploring the environment, learning experientially or through books or dialogue — build long-term health, social, and cognitive benefits.

I found Dr. Frederickson’s link between immediate good feeling and long-term rewards intriguing, because in the past couple of weeks since I’ve been trying my little “use the internet for good instead of evil” routine, I genuinely have felt better — not just cheerier, but more satisfied with life and my place in it, and even more optimistic about human nature.

(Not, of course, so optimistic as to have lost my basic faith in Murphy’s Law. I know this advice is likely to be read and followed most enthusiastically by exactly the sort of person who shouldn’t: the sort who finds LOLcats to be the very apotheosis of internet humor; who considers sending a chronically ill friend a link to a new alternative-medicine treatment a good deed; who assumes that everyone’s spiritual life, and therefore taste in inspirational quotes or art, is more or less identical; who considers availability and heterosexuality the only qualifications required to be a candidate for matchmaking. But what can I do? I seek to empower, and this at times means empowering the clueless as well.)

A dry white whine, or perhaps a “venty” latte

October 14th, 2010

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.

Yet more good advice

October 13th, 2010

Another reader wrote in with a helpful suggestion in response to Sunday’s question:

Here’s another idea for the college administrator who’s asked to do a lot of informational interviews – group interviews.

Many physician’s offices are offering shared medical appointments, where small groups of patients with similar medical issues meet with their physician and often other members of the medical team. Patients get their “face time” with clinicians and clinicians maximize efficiency.

Perhaps the administrator could set aside a few hour-long slots (near the end of the semester?) to accommodate interview-seekers. While this may not be the ideal situation, at least the administrator might feel less guilty while still providing a valuable service.

Good idea — and also facilitates that peer-to-peer networking I wrote about.

The thoughts of a reader who was less happy about my original advice can be read here.

From the archives

October 12th, 2010

I’m working on a column about how to ask guests to remove their shoes when they come to your house, and looked back to the Miss Conduct blog, where I knew I’d done a question about it. Sure enough, 132 comments. Including this gem from Harriet Warner, which I somehow missed the first time around:

Anybody who lives with dogs should accept guests with shoes. Dogs do not remove their feet when they come back inside.

UPDATE: Oh, and this one from Marcus:

Learn to mop and vacuum your floors. It’s nearly as rewarding as clutching one’s pearls and exclaiming, “Think of the children.”