Sunday column: Medical TMI edition

September 14th, 2014

Today’s column deals with medical TMI, or at least the Letter Writer’s perception of same. Medical TMI is definitely a thing–if you haven’t experienced it yet, kids, just wait until you, and more importantly your friends, are 40!–but one of the LW’s examples was a perfectly professional note from his veterinarian letting her clients know that she was undergoing cancer treatment, and the other two were passing strangers, and there is not much to be done about the discourse of passing strangers. By this guy’s rubric, I’m subjected to “sports TMI” every time I get on the T.

My own medical TMI is that I have some digestive problems that can occasionally make it hard for me to eat, and very, very easy for me to lose my appetite. So you’d best not be telling me details of your surgery over dinner. One of my good friends is a biologist and I don’t even let her talk about her job when we’re eating. (Gossip of grants and grad students is fine, but no details on the actual experiments, please.) But you can ask friends to indulge you.

I’m also coming down with a bit of a cold today, which I attribute to the weather change and the September Ingathering of thousands and thousands of new students and their germs. I get one this time every year. Since many of you probably do, as well, here’s the section of my book that deals with cold etiquette* for the office:

Take visible precautions. When you’ve got a cold, take every precaution to avoid passing it on, and take these precautions somewhat ostentatiously, so that people know you’re looking out for them. Put on a little “security theater”: you want not only to spare people from getting your cold, you want to spare them the worry that they are going to get your cold. So wash your hands longer and more thoroughly in the bathroom than you normally do. Don’t leave used tissues on your desk, even if you used them only to wipe up a bit of spilled tea. Carry a small bottle of Purell with you and disinfect shared office equipment after handling it. Spray your phone with Lysol and keep the can out where others can see it. Don’t partake of shared food or ask to borrow anyone’s stapler. Toll a bell before you as you approach the cubicles of the untainted and scatter ashes on your head. (Well, perhaps not that.) And don’t ever feel embarrassed saying, “I have a cold, so I can’t shake hands” when introduced to someone. This is a courtesy that people truly appreciate. The warmest, most sincere hug in the world doesn’t convey quite as much care and consideration for others as refusing to touch them when you’re germy.
Apologize in advance. If your cold is noisy—or if you have hay fever—send around an e-mail to your colleagues letting them know that you appreciate their patience until the hacking and schnortling subsides. People are generally willing to be awfully patient and good-natured as long as they feel they’re being recognized for being patient and good-natured, and that whoever is inconveniencing them knows that they are being inconvenienced.
Provide a bit of information—as much as you feel is necessary and are comfortable with. Even when your illness or injury doesn’t affect others, it’s still a good idea to let people know what’s going on if you are visibly or audibly sick or injured. You don’t have to give everyone the full rundown of every highlight of the camping trip that left you with that nasty case of poison ivy, and exactly how much of your body it’s covering, and what exactly you were doing with that cute wilderness guide that led you to get it there. A simple, “Do I look disgusting or what? At least the next time I go on a wilderness excursion I’ll know how to identify poison ivy!” sufficiently acknowledges the scabby, oozing elephant in the room and makes others feel more comfortable.
It’s not as though coworkers or other PTA members aren’t noticing your rash or cast, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Take control of your own information and set yourself, and everyone else, at ease. (This benefits you, too. People are staring when you’re not looking and gossiping when you’re not listening, but they’ll do so less if you acknowledge whatever’s wrong.) This is especially important for women who are injured in such a way that it looks as though they might have been the victims of domestic violence. It can be very upsetting for coworkers or casual acquaintances to fear for your safety and well-being and not know if they should stage some sort of intervention.

*Etiquette for when you have a cold, not, like, Yankee as opposed to Southern etiquette.

Sunday column: Microbe Choir edition

September 7th, 2014

Today’s column is online here and oy! This month! September, December, and June are simply ridiculous months with far too much going on during them. You really notice this kind of thing as a social-advice columnist. (January and February, however, are dead, and therefore the most brilliant months in which to throw a party. No one has any social plans, and people aren’t traveling then, either.)

In addition to the usual back-to-school, high holidays, can-we-all-just-admit-September-is-the-real-New-Years madness, we’ve got the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony coming up week after next. I got drafted into the role of assistant to the opera director over the weekend, which was … unexpected, to say the least, but I could hardly say no. Even if it weren’t my husband who needed me, how could I turn down an opportunity to assistant-direct a science opera? After only a week of blogging about science theater? Most people would be delighted if their blogs paid off like that, I expect.

(This is all going to circle around to today’s column. Be patient.)

The opera this year is about two eccentric billionaires who decide to live on only vitamin supplements, no food–and their gut bacteria, the Microbe Chorus. I was in charge of the Microbe Chorus.

How would you go about directing a Microbe Chorus? How should they move? What kinds of emotions do they have? What do they do when they’re not singing? What motivates them?

This is what I am spending my weekend contemplating.

Today’s column dealt with two fairly straightforward, common problems in modern social life–whether or not to keep another person’s secret, and how to show gratitude to someone without being crassly quid-pro-quo about it. On the first question, I wrote “It’s a complicated business, the ethics of keeping other people’s secrets (or not). Some professions have ironclad rules: Teachers must report evidence of abuse, priests cannot reveal anything said in the confessional. Everyone knows the rules.”

There are so many ways that a given society or culture can solve the problems of secret-keeping, or thanks-giving, or the proper relations of host and guest, or which side of the road to drive on. Social life is so much easier when everyone agrees on these things. Even if the solution is unfair–hosts must give up everything to their guests, say, and cater to their every whim–at least everyone knows what to expect. 21st-century America is a challenging place to live–and a great place to start a career as an advice columnist–because we are so complicated and diverse a nation that we no longer have these shared agreements. Which means, first, that people have to figure things out on their own, and second, that it’s increasingly difficult to interpret other people’s behavior. Your friend ignored your birthday–is this a slight, or do they simply not care for birthdays? Does the new transfer in Accounts like you like you, or is that just Midwestern friendliness confusing your Boston heart?

Most of us, if asked, would prefer to live in a diverse, individualistic culture that allowed a lot of leeway in behavior. But there will always be something attractive about the idea of societies in which everyone has a role, in which proper behavior is codified, not improvised, in which you can communicate volumes of respect or love or disdain by the way you tip your hat or what kind of flower you bring.

Microbes, I decided, have that kind of culture.

The Microbe Choir will move as one. They will not notice each other, because they are all parts of a whole–I don’t carry on a private conversation with my own hand, now, do I. Their movements are repetitive and their motivation is simple and profound: to love and ultimately consume their human hosts.

The Microbe Choir is a deeply religious thing.

I don’t know if that’s how every director would have seen them. I don’t know if that’s how I myself would see them if I hadn’t been thrown into the project more than two weeks before showtime. Sometimes you can explore with your actors and do all kinds of imagination and improv work to discover what a character is really, truly about. And sometimes, like I’ll be doing in an hour, you say, “This is the emotion your character is feeling, so put it on your face.”

The Microbe Choir is the opposite of a Miss Conduct letter writer. The Microbe Choir never doubts itself. It is not modern. It does not question. It has no ulterior motive. It has no need to make a good impression. It loves in purity and consumes what it loves.

Time to top off the iced coffee and head to the Science Center for rehearsal.

Sunday column: Yankee hospitality edition

August 24th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions deal with hospitality in different ways–the first Letter Writer wants to know what courtesies and amenities a host owes (self-invited!) out-of-town guests, and the second LW is concerned about attending a party that someone she’s on the outs with will also be attending.

From my advice to LW 1:

Decide what you can easily do with and for your guests, and communicate it clearly: “We can all cook out in the backyard tonight, but tomorrow I’m working until 10, so you guys are on your own.” The amenities a host may provide depend on that particular host’s resources, but the one thing all hosts without exception must provide is information: what the house rules are, how appliances work, when the host is available for socializing and when not, what nearby stores and restaurants are worth checking out.

(A very Bostonian conception of hospitality.)

Having or being a houseguest is a rather fraught thing, isn’t it? Hosts want to make their guests comfortable and happy–and also to show their home and family off to best advantage, and also to not go broke or crazy in the process. Guests want to be as little trouble as possible, but not feel as though they are walking on eggshells. And it’s all supposed to look effortless.

Money helps. Can we just admit it?

So do shared rules and traditions. Do you give a guest the couch or your own bed? How do you let your host know if you are hungry? Should host and guest consider themselves included in all of each others’ social plans? Beliefs about hospitality go deep into a culture’s DNA. Check out these pieces on Middle Eastern and Japanese hospitality–would you, personally, enjoy that level of catering? I would not. I would infinitely prefer a host show me where the kettle and teabags are than for him to prepare my tea. And I really, really want to help with the dishes after dinner. I could train myself to be a good, passive recipient of traditional hospitality, but fundamentally, the more I can tell you’re trying to make me comfortable, the less comfortable I will actually be. (This is another situation in which the golden rule won’t help you out.)

But you don’t need a huge, cowboy-and-the-geisha culture clash to cause a guest-host disconnect–even within the US, ideas about hospitality vary across regions, social classes, ethnic groups, subcultures. And the image of hospitality that most Americans do, I think, hold in common–a guest room, clean linens, dinners together–is, let’s face it, much easier to manage if you’re middle class, middle-aged, and live in the middle of the country. If you’re 25, in debt, and working a flex schedule, you’re not going to live up to that ideal–but we’re not an “I will share my last bowl of rice with you my friend” culture either, so what do you do?

Sometimes clear situational constraints can simplify a complicated situation like houseguesting. At the beginning of the summer I went to New York to help a friend pack for a move, and what a delightful visit that was! She didn’t have to worry about what her apartment looked like, because of course it looked like a bomb hit it, she was moving. I didn’t feel guilty about letting her buy my meals because of course she was going to do that, I’d just spent several hours packing law books for her.

Our apartment has recently been renovated and I look forward to practicing much more hospitality in the future! There is kind of a very short hall between our kitchen and dining room now, with a cupboard and shelves on one side. I’m planning to use that as our “hospitality corner” and keep our bartending, and tea- and coffee-making ingredients and amenities there, along with anything else guests might want–napkins, board games (plus dictionary for Scrabble!), aspirin and bandaids, books that are available for the taking. What else should I keep our hospitality corner stocked with?

Sunday column: Golden Rule edition

August 17th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question allows me to wax briefly philosophical, almost theological:

Two friends of mine are getting married, and my husband and I are at odds about what to give them. Neither of them gave us a wedding gift, though they joked and promised, “The check is in the mail.” I would never hold a grudge about it, but it was always in the back of my mind as strange. They both have good jobs, take elaborate vacations, purchase clothes and accessories from high-end stores. I gave them a very nice shower gift. I feel as if we should give them a wedding gift, treating others as we wish to be treated. My husband doesn’t want to give them anything.

You invoke the golden rule to argue that you liked getting wedding presents, therefore your friends would also like to get wedding presents. This is generically true, of course, but the particulars of your case differ. Thought experiment: If you had somehow — totally out of character! — neglected to buy a friend a wedding present, would you really want that friend to give you one? Or would it make you feel even guiltier and more ill at ease about how you were supposed to make your original gaffe right? The kindest thing to do might be to treat them, not as you wish to be treated, but as you, in fact, were treated.

There’s more, including a compromise option and the acknowledgment that I could be wholly off base, not knowing any of the parties involved, but I do think I’m onto something. Let’s say LW couple does pop for, oh, a Vita Mix blender (just got one this week, they’re amazing) for Couple X. Then Couple X feels worse and finally gives Couple LW a much-belated wedding present, which of course has to be at least as nice as a Vita Mix, and we all know how much those cost, so Couple X now has to get online and find a present that is in the same price range plus a couple of years’ belated-present “interest” for LW. And then there’s the race to see who will write a thank-you note first. And Christmas is around the corner, which means if either couple feels they’ve slacked in the summer exchange, they can start it all up again.

End it now, I say. Couple X clearly is awful at buying presents, so don’t make present-giving part of your friendship.

I’ll probably get several outraged letters for this.

My favorite part, though, was how the LW inadvertently got at the problem of the Golden Rule. When I converted to Judaism, I learned that the version of my youth–”Do unto others”–was considered the Christian version. The Jews say, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Framing it as a negative command, I think, is more appropriate, because the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

Any ethical standard allowing–implicitly encouraging!–such behavior needs codicils and further explication, is all I’m saying.

The “That which is hateful to you” version wouldn’t stop a hardcore extrovert from pulling the Applebee’s stunt, technically, but its wording indicates that this is an ethic meant for the most fundamental questions of society-building. Nobody starts planning a party by musing, “Now, what would not be hateful unto me?”

The Golden Rule is about keeping you from committing existential sin. It still allows for many a faux pas.

Sunday column: Rocket, science edition

August 10th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The doozy-of-a-question is from a woman–no, seriously, a woman–who doesn’t understand why her adult daughter gets offended when the LW asks her if she’s being emotional because she’s having her period. Miss Conduct does her best to clear this one up.

However, the question I had the most fun with was the more mundane one about saleclerks who take business calls or answer an interrupting patron while they are helping you. I point out that responding to interruptions is an ingrained habit, practically an instinct, at least in the 21st-century United States (surely the place and time in which the LW conducts most of her shopping):

Clerks who take phone calls while waiting on customers haven’t been adequately trained, and one annoyed customer isn’t going to make a difference. They need to know that it matters to the bosses. Responding to an interruption is a strongly ingrained habit in most people, and getting someone to overcome such habits requires regular reinforcement. (Behaviorists call this “instinctive drift.” You can teach a raccoon to put a penny in a piggy bank, but without continual coaching, the raccoon will eventually revert to its natural behavior of “washing” the coin in its paws.)

Within psychology, behaviorism has always lacked a certain glamour. Cognitive science and neurobiology whirl across the dance floor, glittering and making promises, and the stately edifices of Jung and Freud warm themselves by the fire, casting shadows and refracting light in the most unexpected places. Meanwhile, at the edges of the room, behaviorism tirelessly, humbly empties ashtrays and refills wine glasses.

Behaviorism works.

In a recent column, I wrote “Advice columnists, psychologists, and the like are fond of pointing out that ‘you can’t change another person’s behavior.’ True, but sometimes you can change that person’s environment so that the objectionable behavior is less rewarding or harder to engage in.” I sometimes describe the column as “ethics, etiquette, and engineering”–this is the engineering bit. My thinking was strongly influenced by Amy Sutherland’s “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” ran in the NYT’s “Modern Love” segment a year or two before I started writing the MC column. While researching the techniques of exotic-animal trainers, Sutherland began applying their behaviorist principles to her marriage, with excellent results:

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn’t care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers’ motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” When my training attempts failed, I didn’t blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

Sutherland’s deliberately provocative “my husband is an exotic animal and I am training him” schtick is unfortunate, because the behaviorist model of handling marital conflict that she describes is practical and respectful of both parties. Instead of getting annoyed when her husband hovered over her in the kitchen, for example, Sutherland would put bowls of chips and salsa a good distance from her workspace. Problem solved! This is called creating “incompatible behaviors”–husband cannot simultaneously eat chips at one end of the kitchen and hover over wife in another–and I recommend this technique a lot in my column. Instead of trying to extinguish a behavior you don’t like, figure out what else you’d like the person to do, and nudge them in that direction instead.

Creating incompatible behaviors effectively–using operant conditioning in general–requires empathy. The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.

And thus we come back to instinctual drift, or the idea that if you want someone to break a deeply ingrained, perhaps innate, behavior–like washing small objects for a raccoon, or responding to interruptions for an American millennial–you can’t just explain it to them once and assume you’ve done your bit.

And finally, on the topic of raccoons:

Rocket is everything.

Rocket kills me. Here’s the thing: He’s Milo. Our beloved dog died of cancer this past spring, and I swear Rocket is like seeing him on the big screen. Same muzzle, same eyes. And the same charisma, sense of humor, and fear aggression. Look at that face! That’s exactly the soft eyes and half-smile you’d see on Milo’s face if he got his paws on a machine gun, too. Apparently Rocket’s friend Groot was heavily inspired by the director’s dog, so you’re not crazy if you were thinking, “Funny, my dog reminded me more of the tree …” Fascinating that two of this summer’s most vivid and emotionally complex movie characters aren’t human, isn’t it?

Sunday column: Bonus edition

August 3rd, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s another three-fer: tipping at gas stations, belated sympathy notes, and unwanted extra guests. Go check it out!

And here’s a special feature just for you. I got a question last week and wrote up an answer, but before it got published, Meredith Goldstein (Love Letters) answered it, because the Letter Writer had also written her. Meredith has a blog and I’ve got a print column, so she scooped me. Now I can’t use this in my column anymore, but here’s the question and my answer, for your entertainment. You can contrast my advice with Meredith’s!

On my birthday, I got a Facebook gift of a cup of coffee from an old high school classmate. I’ve been happily married for 30+ years and this classmate has been divorced for many years. I don’t want to make something out of nothing if it’s just a nice gesture with no expectations. However, our class reunion is next month and I don’t want to encourage more contact outside of a friendly conversation at the reunion and I haven’t told my spouse or anyone else about it — at least yet. What should I do?

I have a hard time imagining why you’d write to me if Mr. Coffee hadn’t somehow triggered your Spidey Sense in the past, because—really? A cup of coffee? And you haven’t told your husband? And you’re wondering about an appropriate containment policy? It all seems a bit much. Whether the coffee is an innocent gesture or not, it doesn’t obligate you to anything more than a “thank you,” so your worries are misplaced. Your classmate has done nothing wrong, and if he—or anyone else—should try anything untoward at the reunion, shut him down.

Dropping a five-spot on a Dunkin gift certificate doesn’t strike me as a move out of the Vicomte de Valmont’s playbook, but I don’t know this guy. What are Mr. Coffee’s Facebook posts like? Does he rant about the evils of his ex-wife and, by extension, all us daughters of Eve? Does he comment inappropriately on other people’s posts? Is he rageful or insinuating? Or is he an ordinary guy posting the ordinary repertoire of wisecracks, sports musings, and the occasional photo of his dog?

For now, post “Thanks for the birthday present! See you at the reunion!” on your friend’s wall. If the gift was innocent, you’ve thanked him appropriately. If he was grooming you for attempted seduction, you’ve now dragged him out into the sunlight and let him know that you’re not in the business of keeping other people’s secrets.

Sunday column: Poached columns, skunked phrases edition

July 27th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions are a little more dramatic than usual — a daughter who wants permission to cut herself out of her mother’s life, at least temporarily, and a young man whose girlfriend doesn’t want him to stay the night while her ex is in town because it would be “flaunting their relationship.”

Two things:

1. There’s only one advice columnist whose name is synonymous with dramatic letters, and that’s Slate’s Dear Prudie. But has the tabloid Globe (not my Globe, obviously!) been stealing her questions for their own advice column, written by Debbie Reynolds? According to Emily Yoffe, questions similar in theme to ones that she has answered, but with certain details changed (a person’s gender, a housepet’s species), have regularly been running in Dear Debbie’s column a few weeks after they’ve appeared in her own.

People often send letters to more than one columnist–I once answered a question that also got sent to Ask Amy. As I wrote at the time,

Lots of people send in letters to multiple advice columns at the same time. There’s a strict rule in academia about multiple submissions to scholarly journals, but there’s not much we advice columnists can do about it–it’s not as though we have some sort of central clearinghouse of questions, nor does every single advice columnist read every other advice columnist every day to ensure that there are no repeats. (Given different publication schedules and lead times, even if we did, that wouldn’t prevent the occasional duplication.) As a result, it’s not uncommon for two advice columnists to run the same question within days of each other–or on the very same day, such as this “Dear Cary” question that also appeared in “Dear Prudence” (second one down). A quick Google search on “advice column” and “same question” also revealed this gem from Gawker: it appears that the same question ran in both “Dear Prudence” and “Ask Amy,” within months of each other–but the male half of the disagreeing couple wrote to Prudie, and the woman to Amy!

(It’s possible on that one, of course, that the letter-writer was the same in both cases, and was playing a gag. There isn’t much we can do about that, either. Advice columnists don’t make up the questions, but the people who send the questions in might. My editor will confirm before a question is published that the writer is indeed M.S. from Mansfield and the author of the question, but she isn’t going to send a team of fact-checkers to M.S.’s house to verify that her mother-in-law is, in fact, as annoying as M.S. says she is.)

People send letters to multiple columnists, and people may exaggerate for effect or even send letters about problems they don’t have, out of curiosity. What I’m quite sure readers of advice columns do not do is send a letter to one columnist, wait a few weeks, change “daughter” to “son” and send it in to another columnist. Ms. Yoffe took action:

Since Reynolds did not appear to be involved in the sourcing of the letters, I hoped the Globe would be able to provide an answer. I spoke to the Globe’s editor on the phone and sent over documentation of some of the concurrences. On Wednesday I got an email back from a lawyer for American Media, Lo-Mae Lai. She stated that “similarities between readers’ letters is just one of the many challenges that all authors of advice columns must face”—even me, she made sure to point out. But Lai went on to say that having reviewed the letters I brought to their attention, they “agree that there are some editorial similarities in the subject matter contained in these letters.” And in fact, Lai wrote, the person who managed the Dear Debbie column left the company on June 20, 2014. The new overseer “has assured us that all content in the Dear Debbie letters is original.”

That’s what Miss Conduct would have advised her to do.

2. Flaunting their relationship? As I said in the column, “Whether you’re arguing about exes or gay rights, the first person to refer to the normal functioning of a romantic relationship as ‘flaunting’ loses.” It’s such a skunked phrase! It carries with it a whole miasma of shame and propriety and the kind of excessive concern for the (perceived) sensibilities of others that makes you unable to stick to principle.

Are there other phrases–keeping away from the blatantly political–that cue you that a person is somehow not arguing in good faith, or that they’re arguing from a completely different set of standards? One that always tips me off is referring to any group as “the Xes” rather than simply “Xes.” “The Jews” rather than “Jews” or “Jewish people.” “The feminists” rather than “feminists.” Calling a group “the Xes” implies that you think of them as monolithic, subsumed to some group identity. (And once one X figures out that’s how you see them, they’re all gonna know soon. So watch it.)

Sunday column: Bad apples edition

July 20th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s about the options you have when a book club gets taken over by a nonstop talker. As synchronicity would have it, my unread copy of The Jane Austen Book Club popped up Friday (it’s delightful to reacquaint myself with all the books that were in storage during our renovation!) and I’m a couple of chapters into it and enjoying it greatly.

The author, Karen Joy Fowler, also wrote We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. At the time, I was avoiding spoilers–but oh, what the hell, it’s about a girl who was raised with a chimp. Now you know. There were experiments around the 1970s in which scientists tried to raise chimpanzee babies as humans to see how much humanlike intelligence and language could be evoked in them, and Ms. Fowler’s novel is about a human woman who, as a girl, had a chimp “twin.” It’s absolutely wonderful.

And it all comes full circle with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which like today’s column is about the fact that when you’ve got a bad ‘un in your group, you’re going to have to do something unpleasant about it. It’s part of being a social species–deciding who’s in and who’s out. It’s what we have in common with apes and wolves. It’s what we like to write novels about.

Sunday column: Unfortunate acronyms

July 13th, 2014

Today’s column is a three-fer, which is something I occasionally enjoy doing. I don’t know if readers notice this or not, but I do try to change up the column a bit from week to week, in content and tone–I’ll try not to run two “heavy” columns in a row, or two in which I come down against the LW. I also like to balance out the columns where I give people quick-and-dirty “here’s what you do, hon” advice with longer exegeses. Next week’s column is one question, about how to handle That One Person who takes over a book group.

Here’s Q&A #3 from this week:

My second cousin is getting married to one of my sister-in-law’s best friends. I received the save-the-date but have not received an actual wedding invitation. I don’t know what’s worse?—?doing nothing and them thinking that I’m blowing them off or asking them about it and making them feel awkward.

Ask. You are in an unclear situation, and you are seeking clarification?—?this isn’t like hinting around to be given a “plus one.” Don’t worry about causing your friends grief. Your invitation was surely lost in the mail. However, if it turns out that they sent you a save-the-date and then decided not to invite you after all, then they deserve any discomfort the conversation might bring.

I mean, if someone’s given you an STD, they really have to invite you to the wedding.

The unfortunate acronymization of “Save The Date” isn’t the only time that particular TLA* has tripped me up. I used to work in human resources at Harvard, and was appalled one day to hear one of the benefits directors callously state that she considered pregnancy an STD. How offensive!

She meant Short-Term Disability.

Have you ever been tripped up by someone’s use of an acronym that means something very different in your world?

*Three-Letter Acronym

Sunday’s column: Fill in the blank

June 29th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and the first question–well, see for yourself:

My sibling requested that my spouse no longer attend family get-togethers. My sibling stated that my spouse creates tension and causes others to be on edge and uncomfortable. The fact is my sibling is correct. My spouse does not like to visit or host family but says we should be together on such occasions. Should I share this request with my spouse?

Readers, can you spot what’s missing? Yes! The reason that Spouse and Family don’t get along has been utterly omitted by the LW! This puts Miss Conduct, perhaps intentionally, behind a veil of ignorance, required to craft an answer that would work whether the Spouse is the innocent victim of bigots, a miserable and misanthropic lout, or a complicated person who simply can’t mesh gears with another group of complicated people and it’s no one’s fault, exactly.

I posted the question on my personal Facebook (Miss Conduct is here: befriend me!) to brainstorm on possible causes of the Spouse-Family disconnect, and one of my friends replied with an extraordinary insight:

I am the tense one when my husband’s family gathers. It’s not because I am a shitty person … it’s because I am FUCKING TERRIFIED because my family dynamic is so very different from theirs and I have an ingrained distrust of family. I like them very much and I feel like I should be able to get over this – but it isn’t exactly easy even when you don’t have a mixed race or same sex relationship. There are tons of issues faced by abuse survivors and dealing with functional families can be one of them.

I was so grateful she shared that.

Anyway, no matter how I turned it over in my mind, the reason for the disconnect does matter, and I wound up offering the LW a range of choices.

The Peculiar Incident of the Missing Problem reminded me of a similar column from a year ago, in which a Letter Writer asked, briefly and tantalizingly, “How soon does one tell a prospective love interest that you are a conspiracy theorist? I did a little too soon, with dire consequences“–without mentioning exactly which conspiracy theory she held to.* I finally decided that the real question wasn’t about the substance of her beliefs, but about the tricky dance of revealing any controversial opinion to a potentially significant other:

The fact that you’re open to dating outside the fold?–not to mention the whole “willing to write to the mainstream media for advice” thing–suggests that your conspiracy beliefs exist in a kind of psychological silo. They might matter in your relationship to the world at large, but not necessarily in your relationship to other individuals.

Learn to tune in to that vibe in others, especially those with whom you’d like to conspire in that special candlelit way. Some people see politics (or religion or economics or science) as impersonal and vain, irrelevant between friends, lovers, family. Other people find these abstract ideas to be fundamental to their self and values and could never choose a life partner with whom they disagreed on the basic nature of reality. Some folks couldn’t imagine dating a creationist?—?or not dating one. Others couldn’t imagine … well, how to end this example without making a terribly tasteless joke about the big bang.

The column was behind a paywall when this was originally published, so if you didn’t catch it before, you can read it now here.

*There are theories so noxious I would be hesitant to facilitate the romantic lives of their adherents, but said adherents probably wouldn’t be seeking advice from the likes of me.

Sunday column: The role of the audience

June 22nd, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question is about a neighbor who harps on the Letter Writer’s parking. From my reply:

What do you think is motivating Florence? Personal animus against you? Or against something you represent? Does Florence appear to have a full life, with frequent opportunities to express herself? How would you describe the tone of her criticism: Worried? Superior? Helpful? This is a clue to how Florence sees herself. To know your enemy’s state of mind: Whether your goal be a battle won or a peace made, this must be your first step, grasshopper.

You and Florence are locked into a cycle of mutually assured aggravation. The trick you need to pull off is to briefly interrupt the cycle the next time it starts and treat Florence as your ally against this stupid meshugas that has developed between you. Almost as though there were some malicious third party sowing discord between you–you and Florence, who are such buddies at heart!

A crucial and overlooked aspect of being a good social actor is knowing how to cast your audience in a flattering role. Have you ever met someone at a party who told wonderful stories but nonetheless, you couldn’t wait to get away from? Chances are that person was casting you in the role of Goggling Peasant, shooting their tales over your head as though you couldn’t possibly have anything of similar value to contribute. It’s not a good look. Much better, when telling stories, to cast your interlocutor as a Trusted Confidant, someone who can marvel with you at the wonders you’ve witnessed and who, perhaps, might have avoided some of the traps you yourself have fallen into.

Sunday column: “Neighbors”

June 15th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question is from a woman who got conversationally ambushed one night by her neighbor–”My next-door neighbor in my condo building came over and spilled her guts about her husband–cheating on her, being controlling and unkind. She talked for three hours straight”–and is wondering if one night’s conversation puts her on the hook to give yet more help if asked.

It doesn’t, and I pointed out that the neighbor might very well have been wanting to talk to a near-stranger anyway:

Occasionally you want to vent to someone who’s outside your normal social circle, so that gossip doesn’t start or people don’t ask “How are you?” with searching, compassionate eyes every time they see you for the rest of your life. You want a fresh perspective. You want someone who isn’t involved.

But her question does get at one of the difficulties of modern life. The Bible is full of injunctions about how to treat one’s “neighbor,” and whether you’re religious or not, those ideas make sense. We know we’re supposed to help each other, and offer aid and counsel. We know it takes a village.

We know we’re supposed to bring soup to someone when they’re sick. We just don’t know who.

When the Bible was written, and up until the past 100 years, you knew who your “neighbor” was. Your work colleagues, your friends, your extended family, your co-religionists–there was tremendous overlap between those groups, and that was your neighborhood. Nowadays, physical proximity and emotional attachment don’t necessarily go together. Your physical neighbors, whom you could help with chicken soup and lending power tools and babysitting now and then–you might not even know those people’s names. Meanwhile, your cousins and college roommates and other relationships of long emotional standing are scattered around the country. You can send them cards, or post a cartoon you know they’d like on their Facebook wall, or offer support and advice long-distance, but you can’t lend them your nicest party dress or take their dog for the weekend so they can get out of town.

(Oh, I also wrote a piece about long weekends that you might like.)

I don’t know what to do about that. It’s frustrating. I think it’s one of the factors that leads to a sense of social breakdown. Our physical environment doesn’t match up to our emotional reality.

Today’s column …

October 16th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

October 9th, 2011

is online here.

Today’s column

October 2nd, 2011

… can be read here.