One of those moments

May 12th, 2011

Have you ever done something you didn’t mean to?

Of course you have.

Have you ever, once you or other people became aware of it, then kept doing that thing, because even though you didn’t want to be doing it, somehow stopping would be even more awkward?

Maybe.

A friend of mine posted a story about the first situation on Facebook today:

OK, so when I kicked open my front door and yelled “Peekaboo!” it was directed at my two-year-old, who was hiding on the front porch. But I don’t think the burly, bearded guy from the DPW saw it that way.

… and his story reminded me of one about the second situation. (I prefer doing this story in person, for reasons that will become obvious.) Several years ago a friend of mine was home one night when the phone rang. Assuming that it was his girlfriend, who was working late, he whimsically answered the phone in a Muppet voice.

It wasn’t his girlfriend. Instead, her father was on the other line. And because her father was extremely agreeable and more than a little Aspie, he replied in a Muppet voice. Which made my friend feel obligated to continue in said voice, because to stop doing the Muppet voice is to acknowledge that you have been doing the Muppet voice in the first place.

So two grown men, enmeshed in an already-awkward relationship, conducted an entire phone conversation (“Do you know when she’ll be home?” “Probably late, do you want her to call tomorrow?”) … in Muppet voices.

To the best of my knowledge, they never discussed the incident.

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.

Apologizing with style

December 3rd, 2010

We all make mistakes. And sometimes, dreadfully, we have to be told of those mistakes by other people. It’s awkward to be the person who has to tell someone they’ve screwed up, and it’s worse to be the person who’s done it. But if both parties take to their roles with enthusiasm, grace, humor, and goodwill, the results can be … surprisingly delightful.

My Cousin Dan has a good relationship with his dentist and their whole office — he’s even personal friends with some of them. Cousin Dan, also, although an extremely organized person, can let things slip occasionally. Like bills. Like dental bills. As he wrote me yesterday:

Anyway, this is embarrassing, but I’m really overdue on a payment. Rather than turn it over to collections, they wrote me a letter and reminded me of the Christmas party…and that I’ve been a guest there before…and that without my payment, there will be no Christmas party this year for anyone..no merriment..and on and on.

He felt terrible, of course, but genuinely appreciated the fact that they gave him a chance to make it right on a personal level, not just a business one, and handled it with a humorous touch at that. “I think the only way to respond to this is to go to the office tomorrow, wearing a paper bag over my head, carrying the payment and an arrangement from Edible Arrangements,” he continued.

And so he did:

“I told him I couldn’t find sack cloth so the brown paper bag on my head would have to do.”

Now this is the way to call someone out, and to make amends. It’s the antithesis in spirit to the Lady Who Hit My Friend with the Door. I sent Cousin Dan a link to that piece, afterward, and he told me it’s long been one of his favorite things I ever wrote.

Guess it runs in the family.

To the man who stopped to let us cross the street

August 10th, 2010

… thank you.

Today, I decided to combine Milo’s morning walk with a trip to the library to return a book. This meant that I was juggling, in addition to Milo’s gear, a rather weighty hardback.* So I appreciated your stopping to let us cross the street.

I gave you my usual thank-you wave, and only subsequently realized that because of all the things I was carrying, I waved at you with the hand that was holding a fat, bright blue poop bag.

Although I am not an anthropologist, I am a social scientist, and I do not know of any cultures in which waving dog excrement at someone’s face is a sign of friendly gratitude. That is, however, the spirit in which it was intended.

I hope you understand.

*The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, if you’re interested. It’s remaindered now for less than the amount of the fines I have undoubtedly racked up on it. It’s a bit of a slow read.

One of those moments

July 15th, 2010

Yesterday I went to my health club for a massage, and I got there a bit early to shower and take a sauna. In the steam room, I started up a conversation with a woman who, it turned out, was a career counselor with whom I shared a lot of the same interests, professional and intellectual. We agreed to get together in a more formal and less humid venue sometime. I told her my name and “Miss Conduct” and how to reach me through the Globe, and as I always do after finishing up a friendly and interesting schmooze, automatically stuck out my hand and shook hers.

Now, I am not going to go into the lurid details of my past, but I am a twice-married woman, and suffice to say I have done many things with naked people, but I do not think I have ever shaken the hand of one. It was surprisingly discombobulating.

Although, it occurs to me now, if it struck the other woman as strange at all, it probably seemed much more strange to her. Your first naked handshake with a stranger is one thing; your first naked handshake with a stranger who is an etiquette columnist is probably another thing entirely.

Academic etiquette

May 6th, 2010

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, e-mailed me with the following:

What do you do when you need a bathroom break while you’re teaching a class? As a student, of course, I would just slip out quietly, but I can’t exactly do that when I’m leading a discussion. I also have IBS, which has happily been in a bit of remission lately, but I worry about the etiquette of that too–there are moments when my body just goes “Get up NOW” and I am not really sure how best to handle this. In a class that was two hours or more, I would probably build in a 5-minute break as a general policy, but right now I’m teaching an 80-minute class, which is exactly the wrong amount of time if you have a small bladder, as far as I’m concerned.

I thought I’d email you not just because I want your opinion, but also because I thought this might be a good question for your blog–I’m sure other academics have this problem! It can’t just be me, right?

I’m sure it’s not just her. I know this for a fact.

And here’s what you do: small group discussions. “Okay, everyone, break into groups of three or four, and take five minutes to [come up with something creative about whatever it is we're discussing]. I’ll pick a couple of groups to report when I get back.”

Convenient, simple, and almost always pedagogically appropriate.

Escapism

April 6th, 2010

Mr. Improbable and I had a mildly bad day yesterday (no point going into details) and were definitely in the mood for some escapist entertainment last night. We found it on Hulu, in this gloriously overwrought Gothic melodrama based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel:

rachel

My favorite bit of dialogue was:

“You’ve been drinking!”
“Only at the springs of love!”

It makes me really sad that I’ve quit drinking now, because I probably won’t be accused of having been drinking, and I want to, so I can say that.

Which actually, now that I think about it, does get at something. We’ve often talked about the “witty comeback” and its shortcomings.* Well-meaning people don’t deserve to be the recipient of a nasty crack; ill-meaning people ought to be confronted more directly; the generally clueless (non-neurotypical folks, or people from cultures with different privacy/conversational norms) won’t be helped to understand boundaries by a sarcastic comment that may well confuse them more.

But the surreal, as opposed to snarky comeback, can work, if it lets the other person in on the joke. Look at all the beautifully surreal responses my friends’ wonderful relative came up with for the question of how she lost her arm. The surreal response can let the other person know, “Whatever question you just asked me isn’t the story of my life. But I’m comfortable that you asked, and I’m not mad at you. However, I’m not going to talk about it, so let’s change the subject.”

Isn’t the writing process magical? When I started this post I never thought I’d get from “My Cousin Rachel” to the witty-retort topic! How about that.

*If you go back to that post, you’ll notice I never responded to Chris’s criticism. That’s because every time I tried to, I started laughing too hard. I am fairly sure the shades of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde would be on my side on this one.

… and yet another letter

March 9th, 2010

So many interesting responses to the links, and about last names! Anyway, as I’d mentioned earlier, there were also some letters in the last issue in response to my column with the grandmother who was upset over her granddaughter’s amputation. Most were positive and all were very thoughtful. I also received a letter from a friend of mine who has a family member who lost an arm in an accident. This is the same friend who has such a wicked, prankish sense of humor that I didn’t believe her when she told me Tori Spelling would be the guest host on the “Today Show.”

She certainly wasn’t pranking me in this letter, but as you can see, her sense of humor is a family trait:

One year ago, my 18-year old niece lost the majority of her right arm following a car accident. My niece (and her whole family) couldn’t possibly have a better attitude about it, given that moping won’t make the thing grow back. Some folks in their little Iowa town were somewhat taken aback about their sense of humor, but screw them — it’s not their problem! If having a laugh about it and not dwelling on “the sadness” helps them through, then have at it!

For example:

(1) Four days after the amputation, my niece came home from the hospital in the shirt she insisted that my brother bring for her: an “It’s only a flesh wound” Black Knight shirt.

(2) She sent Valentine’s e-cards to everyone (one month after injury!) with a picture of her waving her pink-wrapped stump and the sentiment: “I nub you!”

(3) Here is a list of “Stump Stories” that she and her family came up with, to make the story more interesting than just a car accident:

* College costs an arm and a leg these days, but some grants pay for half.
* An airline lost it
* Iowa Corn Shark
* You know when that guy says “Keep your hands and arms inside the ride at all times.”…
* Magicians assistant for a really bad magician
* I was a carny
* I just can’t have nice things
* Coyote ugly incident
* Police should have shackled both my arms
* My new (car, tv, etc) cost an arm and a leg but I got half off.
* A type of mating ritual
* Train hopping when I was a hobo
* Zombies
* Bad paper cut
* My arm? Oh, ARGGGHHHH!!(acting surprised)
* That mosh pit at Fall Out Boy was scary!
* Maybe a horse bit it off.(from BtVS)
* A new weight loss program. “Ask me how I lost 10lbs. FAST!”
* Mexican Standoff
* Well I’m definitely never gonna say, “I would give anything for a hamburger right now!” again…
* Taking candy from a baby is harder than it sounds

So this is the kind of girl who can lose an arm in January of her senior year, graduate on time and start college in the fall as expected, have lots of friends and not crawl into herself. I think the important factor here is that before the accident, she already had an incredible sense of self — she truly didn’t care what others thought about her, but not in a surly teen way. Instead, she just liked herself and her friends, and if you didn’t like her, that was OK. I’ve yet to meet a teen girl who is as well adjusted as she was and is, and I’m getting teary-eyed thinking about how proud I am of her.

What an inspirational — and hilarious — letter. I was laughing and crying as I read it. I’m certainly not saying that there is only one way to respond to a life-changing event such as this, or that it’s the job of people with disabilities to make others comfortable around them. (Although that is a very intriguing topic, and one I’d like to go into sometime.) But I simply had to share this with all of you.

Most amazing political ad ever

February 2nd, 2010

In the epic discussion of rudeness on the boston.com blog, a number of people mentioned changes in the political/media culture as responsible for a degradation of public discourse. I don’t allow partisan politics on that site, but talking about general trends is fine, and I agreed with many of the commenters.

In that spirit, may I present the most remarkable political smear ad of all time. Yes, it is real; it’s for the coroner’s seat in New Orleans:

I’ll let you pause for a moment to take that in.

I majored in theater as an undergraduate. You know the actor who played Igor probably got his theater degree at Louisiana State or some such, dreamed of playing Mister Mistoffolees on tour, maybe getting to do the one-man version of “Santaland Diaries” someday, or even Shakespeare … I hope for his sake that his hopes and dreams were already crushed before this happened. It sounds harsh of me, I know, but I am cruel only to be kind.

A childhood memory drifts up …

February 1st, 2010

Sunday’s column dealt with the rude questions and comments addressed to parents of only children. I got a letter today from the mother of another only child, who suggested this answer to the “When are you having another” question: “We’re waiting to see how this one turns out first. Ask us when he’s 18.”

I suppose the ConductMom has more or less decided how I’ve turned out, and it’s not as though anyone is pushing her to give me a little brother or sister at this point, finally. But it did remind me of another thing she used to say — when I was a child, people often asked, “But aren’t you afraid she’ll be spoiled?” upon learning I had no siblings. To which my mother would reply, “We were afraid she was, but it turns out she always smells that way.”

You know I had to get it from somewhere.

Best “Miss Conduct” moment EVER

January 29th, 2010

So, last night, Mr. Improbable and I went to see “Indulgences” at New Rep. It’s a very good play, funny and sharp and well-acted, hip but not too knowing. Highly recommended.

At any rate, during intermission, I was in the lobby when the house manager came in through a staff-only door and almost bumped a couple of older women. “Oh, my goodness, sorry, guys,” she gasped. “We’re not guys, we’re girls,” one of them snippily responded. Neither of them acknowledged her apology.

So after my trip to the ladies’ room, I went to the ticket counter and asked to speak with the house manager. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Robin Abrahams, and I write the ‘Miss Conduct’ etiquette column in the Globe. And I want you to know that it’s colloquially acceptable to call more than one woman ‘guys,’ and that it’s not acceptable to criticize strangers for minor faux pas. Those women were very rude, and I think you’re perfectly fine.”

Well, she had been feeling bad about it, so she was was delighted, and so was I. I felt like some minor little superhero or something! I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being “Miss Conduct” quite so much. (Actually, I sometimes find being “Miss Conduct” in public to be kind of a pain, but I’ll write about that some other day.)

But of course you don’t have to be an official etiquette columnist to do this. On the other blog we’re talking about rudeness, and how to respond to it. If the rudeness isn’t directed at you, but at someone else, don’t scold the offender — comfort the offended. Say, “That was unfair. What you did wasn’t wrong” or “You handled that very gracefully,” or even simply, “I’m sorry that person did that to you.” It can make a world of difference; really, it’s like you are taking a shamed person and leading them back into the light by the hand.

I mean, it’s a heck of a lot funnier if you’re Miss Conduct, but it’s just as kind no matter who you are.

One of those days …

January 14th, 2010

I have a terrible sinus headache, my favorite pair of sunglasses broke, Milo behaved like a mad feral thing on his walk, and it turns out the new software on my boston.com blog doesn’t enable me to do the thing I thought it would.

It is, in short, one of those days, so I thought I would share a little faux pas story with you. As many of you know, Eddie Izzard is my favorite comedian. Our landlord and his girlfriend had extra tickets to the Izzard concert Tuesday night, and invited us to join them for that and a potluck dinner beforehand. To which I brought one of my brand-new vegetarian recipes … topped with pine nuts, to which our landlord’s girlfriend’s son has a near-fatal allergy.

Because that’s how Miss Conduct repays generosity and hospitality!

Oy.

Things to know in your 20s

January 5th, 2010

Blogger Sassy Curmudgeon has a nifty chronological advantage for a writer — born in a year ending in “0,” she can write a decade-in-review piece that is also a review of her own life. She’s done so, rather hilariously, in “Ten Years of Twenties,” which everyone who is or has been in their twenties should read:

Unless you have a particularly rough childhood, your twenties are your birth into the real world, by which I mean a world that doesn’t involve trading “points” for meals or having a third party pay for your cell phone. They are painful and joyful, exciting and despondent, infantile and terribly grown up-seeming, drunken and sobering.

Did I misinterpret …?

December 17th, 2009

Like all bloggers, I get a lot of spam, and I check my spam folder when it’s not too full, to make sure that no legitimate comments got shunted over there. One of the most recent varieties has been these really horrible, sub-Borscht-belt jokes, maybe the kinds of jokes a preschooler would like (if you are the parent of a preschooler, feel free to correct me on this). Things like, “What do young dogs sleep in when they go camping? Pup tents!” or “Why don’t fish play tennis? They are afraid of getting caught in the net!”

A couple of days ago, I got one that read: “What does it mean when the Post Office’s flag is flying at half-mast? They’re hiring!”

Am I missing something here, or is that a workplace-homicide joke? Because I can’t come up with any other way to make sense of it. The phrase was definitely half-mast, not half-staff, the latter of which would be 1) the proper way to refer to a halfway-up-the-pole flag on land, and 2) a poor-quality pun on “staff” meaning both “pole” and “workforce.”

What am I not getting? Or am I getting it?

Marine etiquette

October 14th, 2009

This blog post on the New York Times, by a returning Marine, is a fascinating read. The traditional narrative of the returning soldier’s readjustment tends to follow one of two lines: either that of a person so damaged by the horrors of war that they have been rendered unfit for life in polite society, or that of a person whose sense of discipline and honor is so refined that they are repelled by civilian sloppiness and laziness. This post is neither. Entitled “Let Me Get Right to the Point,” it focuses primarily on the difference in communication style between civilians and the military — and the different philosophical assumptions that underlie those differences:

One of the biggest changes I’ve undertaken has been relaxing my communication style. The Marine Corps values clear, direct, and accurate communication. Senior officers have little tolerance for meandering around your point, and they have zero tolerance for trivial or deceptive nonsense. Junior Marines are similar, except they can perceive this better than most field grade officers. I’ve learned that in civilian life many people want to banter about nothing for about 90 seconds before discussing anything of substance. I don’t necessarily like it, but now I can handle it.

At the root of the issue is that I strive to employ the Golden Rule: I treat people as I want to be treated. I do not want anyone to waste my time, so I try to be extremely respectful of others’ time.

There is much more in the article, but there’s so much to unpack just in those two brief bits!

For one thing, note that the communication style that the author, Jeffrey Barnett, considers respectful, many people and cultures (from national cultures to corporate ones) would consider distinctly rude. Even within the same city — Boston — and the same industry — academia — I have noticed this difference. I went to graduate school at Boston University and worked at Harvard during my last years of grad school, and in general, when dealing with the administrative staff, I tended toward Mr. Barnett’s mode. “Hello, Payroll Person. You clearly have several hundred other problems to solve, so I will present mine as concisely as possible and do my best to give you all the information you need, but no more, so that you may get on with your work.” Then I taught at wee little Emmanuel College for two years, and quickly realized that big-bureaucracy etiquette was not the same thing as small-community etiquette. At the big schools, you showed respect to Payroll Person by not wasting their time; at Emmanuel, you showed respect with a little small talk to acknowledge that they weren’t only Payroll Person, they were Sam or Betty, and had their own life outside of Payroll, thank you very much.

(This may have been slightly complicated by the fact that I was faculty at EC, instead of a lowly grad student or fellow administrator, and therefore very much needed to avoid copping Faculty Attitude. But I think the size had more to do with it, because you see the same difference in small towns versus big ones.)

The directness and clarity of the military, the strength of its culture, is part of why it has excelled, as an institution, at integrating people from many different ethnic groups and walks of life. The identity of “Marine” overrides that of race, creed, or color. And there must be a certain comfort to knowing so clearly how you are supposed to communicate, and why, and who is in charge of what at all times. I wrote recently about how, although I am neurotypical, moving around a lot as a kid gave me the same sense that people with Asperger’s have that the social world is mysterious and unknowable. Maybe this is part of why in high school I was considerably tempted to join Naval Junior ROTC, despite my manifest unsuitability for military life. The idea of a culture where the rules were explicit and clear, and where social status was indicated by clearly marked rank rather than shifting tides of popularity, seemed awfully soothing to me.

Please go read the post, and let me know your thoughts on it. I’ve been unable to get it out of my head for days, which is probably why it took me so long to get it on my blog — I couldn’t decide what of the essay’s many riches I wanted to focus on.

I’ll only mention one more, which is a particular pet peeve of mine — flag etiquette! Mr. Barnett, please know that at least one civilian gets it. I don’t know why it bothers me so, but people who own a flag and do not follow the flag code drive me nuts. It’s more respectful of the flag to burn it in protest (which acknowledges its power as a symbol) than to leave a battered flag out in the rain, or keep a flag out 24 hours a day without lights. I’m not saying one should necessarily respect the flag, but presumably, if you are displaying one, you do, so why not do it right? I’m particularly irritated by the soi-disant patriots with their sad, tattered antenna flags and ratty post-9/11 bumper stickers. Perhaps “These Colors Don’t Run,” but they do fade, so think about the message you’re sending, eh?